August 15, 2002
Language is a Gene

In today's New York Times, there's a piece summarising a report available from Nature (registration required - full text based on subscription), reporting on the genetic identification and evolutionary timing of a gene associated with language ability.

This is keen for a fist's worth of reasons, I think. First of all, I wasn't aware (and I don't have the same ties to all the genticists etc. that I once did, so this may not be a surprise) of the work done to date on this gene. But to timestamp it in the evolutionary tree is even neater (the timing is suggested to be just after the split of hominids from the chimpanzee lines).

Further, a side remark that ties this gene (or lack therof) back to issues in a particular genetic cluster in language use and acquisition ties back to Andy Clark's work in Being There, about the inter-relationship of knowledge in the mind and knowledge in the world (to paraphrase broadly). From the Times piece "...principal defect seems to lie in a lack of fine control over the muscles of the throat and mouth, needed for rapid speech. But in tests they find written answers as hard as verbal ones, suggesting that the defective gene causes conceptual problems as well as ones of muscular control." This may be the reading, but it may also be that the mind and body are co-linked in the use of language and thought.

Interesting stuff for a Thursday morning....

And interesting stuff from a Wednesday afternoon was this piece on Artificial Vision from the current Wired. It's so out there, it sounds like a bit of culture jamming, but it has enough "stuff" to support a belief in its veracity...

Posted by esinclai at August 15, 2002 06:42 AM |

The research is cool, but the interpretations may be problematic. A gene for fine motor control is not itself a language gene in the sense that Steven Pinker would argue for (see "The Language Instinct"); all the weight of the interpretation is born upon the written tests that are alluded to. And psychological studies of neurologically impaired groups are almost never slam-dunks for or against a given hypothesis.

-- Mike F.
Veteran of the Language Wars

Posted by: Mike Frag. on August 19, 2002 12:58 AM
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