Our current understanding is that mice have either no — or extremely limited — neural circuitry and genes similar to those that regulate human speech. According to a recent study published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, this understanding may be incorrect.
Dr. Jarvis and colleagues report the results of their investigation into the effect of a genetic mutation in the Forkhead box protein #2 (FOXP2) on the vocalization patterns of adult male mice. FOXP2 regulates speech production in humans. Individuals with deficiencies in FOXP2 protein have difficulty forming complex syllables and complex sentence construction.
Although mice are unable to communicate using speech in the same way as humans, they do vocalize as a means of communicating with each other. Therefore this study sought to determine whether FOXP2 deficiencies have similar consequences for communication by mice as they do for humans.
Dr. Jarvis suggests that this study supports the “continuum hypothesis,” which is that FOXP2 affects the vocal production of all mammals and not just humans.
Prior research has shown a more limited role for FOXP2 than what is now becoming apparent. As Dr. Jarvis observes, “We believe that FOXP2 already had a pre-existing role in regulating vocal communication before human language evolved.” Paper. (public access) – Jonathan Chabout, Abhra Sarkar, Sheel R. Patel, Taylor Radden, David B. Dunson, Simon E. Fisher, Erich D. Jarvis. A Foxp2 Mutation Implicated in Human Speech Deficits Alters Sequencing of Ultrasonic Vocalizations in Adult Male Mice. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 2016; 10 DOI: 10.3389/fnbeh.2016.00197More.
Useful find. Of course, humans communicate in a complex, abstract way, whether we have vocal speech or not.
If the genes for speech are not limited to humans, then some explanation may be required as to why we are the only life forms that use it to full advantage. We expect some pretty remarkable ones in the years to come.
See also: Researchers: Speech and sign language deeply similar. The real story here is that minds use symbols, whether words or signs, to create information. But we are not permitted to talk about it quite that way. We need to pretend that it is a big surprise that sign language is a language.
Language and cranial features linked, developed at same time? Skepticism is probably still well-advised. Languages are not life forms and need not follow the same rules of descent. We really have no idea of languages spoken during the “early development of humankind”; we do know that in the absence of the written word or a large number of speakers, languages can change pretty quickly.
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