Sep 27, 2006

evolution and language

It's a science-loving English major's dream.
The biological basis of how people speak, listen and comprehend – and how all of this mental equipment evolved – is largely mysterious. Researchers can study animals to gain insights into many psychological abilities, but this is not possible with language as no animal communication systems are anywhere near as complex as ours.

"In short, we know it's unique to humans and it evolved quickly," says Marcus. We developed the skill after we split from our last common ancestor – shared with chimpanzees – seven million years ago. Nevertheless, he says, language probably evolved as recently as the last few hundred thousand years.

It has been difficult to gather data, but developmental studies could provide new clues, he believes. So-called knockout studies, where mice are genetically modified to lack certain genes, have helped tease out the origin of certain mental abilities and many genetic disorders.

Though such experiments are not ethically feasible in humans, detailed observational studies on people with naturally-occurring genetic mutations related to language, could provide equivalent data, says Marcus.

A systematic collection of such studies would help us understand which parts of language share an origin with other mental abilities and which parts have evolved independently.
I propose they call it the Babel Project, for obvious reasons.


Josh said...

Well, I always knew that rounding up autistics and putting them in a tower somewhere was inevitible, but I didn't think it would be this soon.

Jim Anderson said...

Rounding up statistics and studies, you goof. It's a database.