Archive for Monday, September 2, 2002

Unraveling the secret of speech

September 2, 2002


Scientists around the world are racing to uncover the mysteries contained in the 60,000 genes that make up the human genome. One of their latest discoveries appears to have exposed the precise genetic difference between humans and apes that allows us to speak while our hairy cousins can only grunt and squeal.

Last year scientists identified a gene known as FOXP2 that was the first to be directly linked to language ability. Researchers then studied the differences between the gene in humans, gorillas, chimps, orangutans and mice, and found a slight amino acid change in the human protein that was not found in any of the other animals. This minor genetic variation may be responsible for the development of human face and jaw structures that provide us with the ability to communicate orally.

Some scientists speculate that this slight genetic variation first appeared about 200,000 years ago, the time when it is generally accepted that anatomically "modern" humans first roamed the earth. It is believed that our ability to communicate played an important part in the survival of our species, and regardless of our level of intelligence we would not have been able to speak without the face and jaw structures that allow us to make complex sounds.

The evidence that FOXP2 plays a crucial role in our ability to speak is bolstered by a decade-long study of a British family of which about half its members suffer from severe language and speech difficulties. Researchers found that the members of this family who suffer from these difficulties have a flawed version of the FOXP2 gene, and this flaw apparently caused them to have poor mobility in the lips, tongue and mouth, making their attempts at speech difficult to understand.

However, as smart as these genetic scientists are, they sometimes seem to miss the obvious. None of them seem to have considered the following possibility if this small flaw in the FOXP2 gene occasionally shows up in humans, rendering them unable to speak, does is not seem possible that there is some chimp somewhere in the world with a genetic abnormality that provides it with a human-like copy of the same gene? Such a chimp might, if properly instructed, eventually learn to develop the ability to speak.

The prospect of a talking chimp is indeed mind-boggling, and potentially very entertaining. No doubt a talking chimp would cause an immediate sensation on the talk show circuit, which of course could only raise the respectability of that particular medium.

Eventually, our talking chimp would probably star in his own reality based television series. Heck, I think the little guy could even have his own network all talking chimps, all the time (which now that I think about it pretty much describes "The Osbournes" with slightly less hair.)

Or perhaps politics would suit our speaking simian. I'm not sure what the Constitution says about other species running for office, but there are already plenty of snakes and jackasses in Washington, so I don't see how we could exclude monkeys.

I wonder if Al Gore is looking for a running mate for 2004? I think I may know just the guy to compliment his personality.

Bill Ferguson is a columnist for the Warner Robins (Ga.) Daily Sun.

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