The FOXP2 Gene: The Hallmark Of The Human Language

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Perhaps the foundational complex trait behind our uniqueness, human language is a phenotype embedded in the human condition. The interplay between the genetic architecture that capacitates language and the environments that develop this capacity has endowed humanity with unprecedented cognitive ability. The FOXP2 gene, a hallmark of our language genotype, and its environmental mechanisms are illuminating this integral phenotype.

While a phenotype as multifaceted as human language is certainly polygenic, FOXP2 is distinct in being linked to grammar. Because genes enabling cognitive faculties are often implicated in pathology, when the famous “KE” family displayed mutated alleles of FOXP2 resulting in dyspraxia, a motor speech disorder, it suggested that language deficiencies resulted from mutated gene expression in the brain (Spiteri et. al 2007). Indeed, FOXP2 is a potent transcription regulator, transcribing proteins that form complex neuronal networks in the brain’s computational modules, developing remarkable propensity for language (Spiteri et. al 2007).

Comparative genomics in chimpanzees is unravelling how this genetic capacity for human language evolved. Human syntactic facilities, particularly our construction of infinite semantics from finite grammar, suggests a uniquely human mechanism deriving from our genotype (Di Sciullo et. al 2010). FOXP2 revealed just two amino acid differences between humans and chimpanzees along with neurological differences in gene expression of motor-speech circuitry (Spiteri et. al 2007). This posits evidence for positive selection on FOXP2 mutations as the reason for the gene’s accelerated evolution in recent evolutionary history, and for its role in computing uniquely human grammars (S...

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...pression in the songbird brain, the songbirds’ phenotypic behaviours not only reflect their own language capacity, but uncover a fundamental evolutionary connection with similar social patterns capacitating humanity’s language acquisition.

Researching FOXP2 and its environmental interface is unravelling the basis of language’s enormous power. But in beginning to demystify the language phenotype’s enigmas, research poses even more questions. Among them, where does FOXP2 fit within such a polygenic phenotype? What is the biological basis between gene expression and environmental contexts in human language? Yet in this research, we begin to sense the elaborate structure of vast genetic repertoire and marvelous cognitive capacity, the evolutionary preeminence of a phenotype that has produced, to quote Darwin, “from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful.”

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