Percy's take on FOXP2 language gene?

marcus at marcus at
Fri Sep 13 16:04:25 EDT 2002


I'm not quite sure what you mean when you say "Helen Keller produced speech
before the event Walker liked to
consider. She was an effective robot, in other words. She changed after she
acquired language, becoming fully a person."

Do you refer to the 3-4 years of development HK went through--presumably
normally--before she was afflicted by rheumatic fever?  Can we assume that
she acquired a lot of language before losing hearing and sight, that she
might have even become "fully a person" and that she re-acquired this at
the well house.  "Effective robot" is a metaphor that doesn't really fit. 
If you look at her account, she writes that the well house moment was a
sort of recovery of something she had had and lost.  (I haven't look at
this passage in decades, but remember it well and remember arguing with WP
about it.)

On FOXP2--and I, too, hestiate to try to speak for WP--he accepted
evolution but insisted that a true anthropology had to notice that humans
talk and other critters don't, that there is a qualitative "disconnect"
that must be acknowledged by the human sciences. Doesn't FOXP2 point us in
that direction?

Marcus Smith

>I don't pretend to speak as a representative of Walker. Not a spot that
>is proper or comfortable.
>However, if someone has a question about the research on FOXP2, I will
>be happy to shoot off my own mouth.
>My initial response to this article is that FOXP2 and its mechanisms
>while interesting, are no more interesting than genes that make possible
>other body parts or functions involved in speech.
>We can already produce mechanical speech with devices (robots, tape
>recorders, synthetic speech chips) but none of those entities have a
>language. Helen Keller produced speech before the event Walker liked to
>consider. She was an effective robot, in other words. She changed after
>she acquired language, becoming fully a person.
>But I could be wrong...
>marcus at wrote:
>> I am pretty certain that Percy would have been fascinated by the
>> at Stanford, Oxford and elsewhere that may point to a relatively recent
>> genetic base for human language/symbolic capacity.
>> Does anyone--Ken Ketner?--have any ideas how Percy might have responded
>> this article by Nicholas Wade?
>> ***************************************
>> The New York Times
>> August 15, 2002, Thursday, Late Edition - Final
>> SECTION: Section A; Page 18; Column 5; National Desk
>> LENGTH: 703 words
>> HEADLINE: Language Gene Is Traced To Emergence of Humans
>> BODY:
>> A study of the genomes of people and chimpanzees has yielded a deep
>> into the origin of language, one of the most distinctive human
>> and a critical step in human evolution.
>> The analysis indicates that language, on the evolutionary time scale, is
>> very recent development, having evolved only in the last 100,000 years
>> so. The finding supports a novel theory advanced by Dr. Richard Klein,
>> archaeologist at Stanford University, who argues that the emergence of
>> behaviorally modern humans about 50,000 years ago was set off by a major
>> genetic change, most probably the acquisition of language.
>> The new study, by Dr. Svante Paabo and colleagues at the Max Planck
>> Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, is based on
>> last year's discovery of the first human gene involved specifically in
>> language.
>> The gene came to light through studies of a large London family, well
>> to linguists, 14 of whose 29 members are incapable of articulate speech
>> are otherwise mostly normal. A team of molecular biologists led by Dr.
>> Anthony P. Monaco of the University of Oxford last year identified the
>> that was causing the family's problems. Known as FOXP2, the gene is
>> to switch on other genes during the development of the brain, but its
>> presumed role in setting up the neural circuitry of language is not
>> understood.
>> Dr. Paabo's team has studied the evolutionary history of the FOXP2 gene
>> decoding the sequence of DNA letters in the versions of the gene
>> by mice, chimpanzees and other primates, and people.
>> In a report being published online today by the journal Nature, Dr.
>> says the FOXP2 gene has remained largely unaltered during the evolution
>> mammals, but suddenly changed in humans after the hominid line had split
>> off from the chimpanzee line of descent.
>> The changes in the human gene affect the structure of the protein it
>> specifies at two sites, Dr. Paabo's team reports. One of them slightly
>> alters the protein's shape; the other gives it a new role in the
>> circuitry of human cells.
>> The changes indicate that the gene has been under strong evolutionary
>> pressure in humans. Also, the human form of the gene, with its two
>> seems to have become universal in the human population, suggesting that
>> conferred some overwhelming benefit.
>> Dr. Paabo contends that humans must already have possessed some
>> form of language before the FOXP2 gene gained its two mutations. By
>> conferring the ability for rapid articulation, the improved gene may
>> swept through the population, providing the finishing touch to the
>> acquisition of language.
>> "Maybe this gene provided the last perfection of language, making it
>> totally modern," Dr. Paabo said.
>> The affected members of the London family in which the defective version
>> FOXP2 was discovered do possess a form of language. Their principal
>> seems to lie in a lack of fine control over the muscles of the throat
>> mouth, needed for rapid speech. But in tests they find written answers
>> hard as verbal ones, suggesting that the defective gene causes
>> problems as well as ones of muscular control.
>> The human genome is constantly accumulating DNA changes through random
>> mutation, though they seldom affect the actual structure of genes. When
>> new gene sweeps through the population, the genome's background
>> at that point is much reduced for a time, since everyone possesses the
>> stretch of DNA that came with the new gene. By measuring this reduced
>> diversity and other features of a must-have gene, Dr. Paabo has
>> the age of the human version of FOXP2 as being less than 120,000 years.
>> Dr. Paabo says this date fits with the theory advanced by Dr. Klein to
>> account for the sudden appearance of novel behaviors 50,000 years ago,
>> including art, ornamentation and long distance trade. Human remains from
>> this period are physically indistinguishable from those of 100,000 years
>> ago, leading Dr. Klein to propose that some genetically based cognitive
>> change must have prompted the new behaviors. The only change of
>> magnitude, in his view, is acquisition of language.
>> --
>> An archive of all list discussion is available at
>> Visit the Walker Percy Project at <>.
>Kenneth L Ketner
>Paul Whitfield Horn Professor
>Institute for Studies in Pragmaticism
>Texas Tech University
>Lubbock, TX 79409-0002
>806 742 3128
>		Office email: b9oky at
>		Home email: ketner at
>				Office website:
>				Personal website:
>An archive of all list discussion is available at
>Visit the Walker Percy Project at <>.

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