New FOXP2 Developments

Just following on from the comments on the last FOXP2 post. A new paper (Li G, Wang J, Rossiter SJ, Jones G, Zhang S, 2007) has revealed that FOXP2, a gene sequence implicated in the development language, is also rapidly evolved in echo-locating bats. Most vertebrates possess FOXP2, but several recent papers it was thought that only humans had significant species difference in the gene, being a full two amino acids different from chimpanzees. Given that this gene was implicated in both speech motor coordination and comprehension, it was felt that this was the first major example of a language gene – a gene heavily responsible for our evolved capacity for language.

This new paper follows in the line of some other recent papers that have shown FOXP2 manipulations in other animals, and which have suggested that FOXP2 is not a language gene per se, but a gene implicated in sophisticated communication and vocal production. The researchers sequenced the gene in both echolocating and non-echolocating bat species and found evidence of divergent selection and accelerated FOXP2 evolution compared to other vertebrates. Interestingly they performed a similar survey of cetations and found no significant results.

FOXP2 and Language Now?

The relationship between language and FOXP2 just gets more complex in light of this paper. At first it was suggested that the human FOXP2 variation was a unique language adaptation. In light of evidence from other species this was expanded to FOXP2 as a gene implicated in vocal communication. What makes this paper interesting is that it has seemingly demonstrated that FOXP2 is part of echolocation systems in bats, not of any adaptive communications apparatus. Broadening its role still further into sensorimotor systems, rather than any specific communicative role.

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