The Genetic Home of Speech

Why can humans talk and chimpanzees can't? Scientists at UCLA and Emory University suspect that it comes down to a single gene designated FOXP2. There is only a slight variation in this gene between humans and chimps, as Elaine Schmidt writes in UCLA Newsroom:


"Earlier research suggests that the amino-acid composition of human FOXP2 changed rapidly around the same time that language emerged in modern humans," said Dr. Daniel Geschwind, Gordon and Virginia MacDonald Distinguished Chair in Human Genetics at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. "Ours is the first study to examine the effect of these amino-acid substitutions in FOXP2 in human cells[...]

"We found that a significant number of the newly identified targets are expressed differently in human and chimpanzee brains," Geschwind said. "This suggests that FOXP2 drives these genes to behave differently in the two species."

The research demonstrates that mutations believed to be important to FOXP2's evolution in humans change how the gene functions, resulting in different gene targets being switched on or off in human and chimp brains.


Link via io9 | Image: US Department of Energy

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I'd be willing to wager that chimps possessing the requisite brain structures would find a way to speak, even if that speech didn't manifest itself using the same vocal mechanisms that humans use.
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It's not just a difference in our brain structures that give us the power of speech. It is physically impossible for chimps to form words (other than very, very basic ones) considering the physical formation of their mouths, throat, and larynx.
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It's fascinating to imagine what could be IF we gave chimps the ability to speak. I doubt we would like what they have to say, I think we might be ashamed.
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