Language and the postgenomic era

By Razib Khan | April 11, 2006 5:40 am

Gary Marcus, author of The Birth of the Mind, has a pithy piece in The New York Times, From Squeak to Syntax: Language’s Incremental Evolution, which sketches out the refinements that the new science of genomics is adding to our understanding of the origins of language. In fact, one could argue that it isn’t adding, it is actually building the initial foundations. Many of you probably also know that the Linguistic Society of Paris banned the discussion of the origin of language in 1866 because it seemed to be simultaneous attractive and intractable. Though Noam Chomsky was one of the major drivers in conceiving of language as being facilitated by a biologically undergirded “organ,” he has also been resistent to a more thorough evolutionary and adaptive explanation in a standard Neodarwinian (read: adaptive) framework.

But as Marcus notes the discovery of necessary genetic loci like FOXP2 allows us to explore the contigencies of how language develops in the present. Additionally, evolutionary genomic models have been able to show that the human variant of FOXP2 is highly derived, that it is more distinct (in the number of mutational steps) from other orthologous genes than it “should” be based on phylogenetic distance alone. In other words, it seems evolution “sped it up,” which suggests positive selection as background mutations are driven toward fixation. Of course it seems very likely that FOXP2 is a necessary precondition for language acquisition capacity, but it is not sufficient, and, the locus itself seems to be pleiotropic in its impact. Not only is it implicated in language, but it has correlations with general intelligence, and it is likely an important upstream regulatory node for a host of traits.1 The lesson is that the “origin of language” isn’t going to be an easy puzzle to solve, but over the last 5 years a new and very formidable detective has come on the scene, so things should get hot. Cognitive psychologists like Marcus and Steven Pinker have been whipping out FOXP2 right from the get-go, their conception of how language is structured on the genetic level predisposed them to expect the existence of a gene such as FOXP2, the only worry is that the public might believe that this is the end of the story when in fact it is simply the prologue.
1 – I am hearing there might be non-trivial levels of polymorphism on FOXP2 coming out of the HapMap project.


Comments (7)

  1. This January, he wrote a nice synopsis which is available in the GNXP forum —
    Under Files, “eloquent ape.”

  2. Noam Chomsky believed that the language instinct took the form of a “Universal Grammar”. He and his followers have been spending the last half century trying to come up with transforms for Universal Grammar into the specific grammars of real languages – without much success. Needless to say, this is quite different from current notions of the language instinct.

  3. Well, Chomsky’s particular view of “deep structure” w/ “transformations” on that into the “surface structure” is just one of many models w/in the broad Generative Grammar paradigm. Pinker, Marcus, Bloom, Jackendoff, et al — all part of that paradigm; the latter three did their doctorates at Chomsky central (MIT), and Pinker did his post-doc & taught there for awhile. While there are alternative camps (e.g., whatever Chomsky’s doing, Head-Driven Phrase Structure Grammar, Lexical-Functional Grammar, Categorial Grammar…), all are descendents of the rough picture Chomsky sketched out in the ’50s. That’s the consensus on what the syntax part of the language instinct is.
    What I think you’re talking about is the Principles & Parameters model: how the default settings of Universal Grammar are set by the child during development to match their native language’s parameters. The core idea is a pretty good first draft — better than anything else — but admittedly, depending on the theorist, the settings could be several steps away from reality.
    But take one realistic setting: do complements like direct objects follow or precede the verb (English and Japanese, respectively)? The latter has huge effects: because it’s abstract, it takes care of many special cases — objects follow verbs, nouns follow prepositions, etc. That’s why Japanese & English are often called mirror-images of each other.
    Univeral Grammar is a really complex thing; it will take awhile to figure it out in detail. Meanwhile, someone has to roll the balls down the inclined planes. And again, the broad Chomskyan approach has been the most fruitful.

  4. I am hearing there might be non-trivial levels of polymorphism on FOXP2 coming out of the HapMap project
    Is that a teaser (I’d better keep reading the blog!), or is there a link you can give for that? I don’t recall FOXP2 being flagged by the Pritchard study…

  5. ah, damn. well now I’ll just have to stay tuned…

  6. Ron

    hmm. this is getting pretty interesting.
    But, ah, “general intelligence”? sounds like the name of a multinational IT corporation.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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