An interesting paper in Seed magazine that suggests that the sudden emergence of language about 120,000 years ago is due to a mutation in a gene, FOXP2, that we share with most other organisms.
Essentially, the paper says, most of the ability to use language is innate and was used for other purposes in early humans and in our closest primate relatives but the final component that made language possible was the ability to parse and reconstruct complex sequences – an ability that we share with songbirds such as the finch. It turns out that finches have the same mutation.
the connection between humans and songbirds goes even deeper than all this. The finch’s FoxP2 differs from the human’s in only eight out of 200,000 positions, and the brain circuit that operates during birdsong is functionally equivalent to one of the subcortical brain circuits involved in human language. The reason the birds do not exhibit language, then, is probably because their brains just lack much of the outer cortex that we have.
The Neanderthal genome sequencing is almost complete and it is expected that Neanderthals – which had only rudimentary language abilities – will have a different version of the FOXP2 gene.
What, the paper wonders, would happen if you were to introduce the mutated version of the gene into chimpanzee? Would that unlock some latent ability?