April 09, 2004

More on FoxP2

The excellent page of pseudoscience links on Mikey Brass' "Antiquity of Man" site will be appreciated by all aficionados of bad science reporting. It links to an terrific article by Alec MacAndrew on "FoxP2 and the Evolution of Language", a topic which I discussed briefly here as background to the recent papers on the expression of FoxP1 and FoxP2 genes in songbirds.

An important quote from MacAndrew:

The key point, that all the popular reports missed, is that FOXP2 is a transcription factor - in other words it has the potential to affect the expression of an unknown, but potentially large number of other genes. No wonder the syndrome presents in such a diffuse way. We know now that a FOXP2 homologue is strongly expressed in the development of the mouse brain. So not only does it potentially affect many other genes, but it is known to be important in the development of the brain (by being strongly expressed in the brain of the mouse embryo). I expect that breaking FOXP2 in mice would result in some compromises to brain structure and function - an experiment that someone is sure to do. So the mutation to FOXP2 seems to result in brain defects during embryo development that result in disruption of neural pathways essential for human speech, but which also has other effects.

Another one:

We should beware of popular reports of scientific discoveries: almost all the popular reports of FOXP2 claimed that it was the gene for language or even more ludicrously the gene for grammar - the truth is more complicated and far more interesting than that. There are many popular reports of scientific discoveries which are equally sensationalised.

For those who are more familiar with unix system administration than with biology, calling FoxP2 "the gene for grammar" would be roughly analogous to calling (some random but crucial byte in) /usr/bin/perl "the byte for html forms".

And a final quote from MacAndrew:

It will not be easy to unravel the pathways by which language evolved in humans. If we are to have any hope of doing so, we will need close collaboration between linguists and biologists, who have, until recently, been rather suspicious of one another.

[Mikey Brass link via phluzein]

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 9, 2004 10:09 AM