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MIT: No easy answers in evolution of human language
Date:2/17/2008

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. The evolution of human speech was far more complex than is implied by some recent attempts to link it to a specific gene, says Robert Berwick, professor of computational linguistics at MIT.

Berwick will describe his ideas about language in a session at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science on Sunday, Feb. 17. The session is called Mind of a Toolmaker, and explores the use of evolutionary research in understanding human abilities.

Some researchers in recent years have speculated that mutations in a gene called Foxp2 might have played a fundamental role in the evolution of human language. That was based on research showing that the gene seems to be connected to language ability because some mutations to that gene produce specific impairments to language use, and because our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, lack both these gene mutations and the capacity for language. But the claim that the gene mutation is directly connected to the development of language is very unlikely to be right, says Berwick, who holds appointments in MITs Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

This kind of straightforward connection is just not the way organisms are put together, he says. When it comes to something as complex as language, one would be hard-pressed to come up with an example less amenable to evolutionary study. And the specific Foxp2 connection is based on a whole chain of events, each of which is speculative, so theres little chance of the whole story being right.

Its so chaotic, its like weather forecasting, he says. The noise overwhelms the signal.

Rather, language is almost certainly the result of a far more complex and subtle interplay among a variety of factors, Berwick says, and it may never be possible to connect it to specific genetic changes. There are some things in science that are ver
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Contact: Elizabeth Thomson
thomson@mit.edu
617-258-5402
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Source:Eurekalert

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