Why do we language?

Aeon has an article on how the genetics that contribute to language are actually part of a much larger system:

But over the years, it became clear that the truth about language origins was not quite as simple as a “language gene” or well-defined language module. Further study revealed that the FOXP2gene is relevant to multiple mental abilities and is not strictly a language gene at all. In a 2009 paper, for example, Max Planck Institute geneticist Wolfgang Enard exploited the fact that just three amino acids distinguish the human version of the FOXP2 protein from that of mice. When he engineered the FOXP2 genes of mice to produce proteins with the two human FOXP2 amino acids, it resulted in functional differences in brain areas critical for carrying out fine motor tasks and controlling muscle movements, as well as altered function in regions involved in sending and receiving reward signals.

The same gene that regulated language so strongly also regulated other mental faculties, so its very existence appeared to contradict rather than strengthen the idea that language commands its own territory separate from other areas of the brain. As Enard points out, the language-as-island idea is also inconsistent with the way evolution typically works. “What I don’t like about the ‘module’ is the idea that it evolved from scratch somehow. In my view, it’s more that existing neural circuits have been adapted for language and speech.”

In a great commentary on mice humanized with FOXP2, Bjoern Brembs has a similar point:

It adds weight to the so-called ‘motor-learning hypothesis’ that came up some time around 2006/7 or thereabout. This hypothesis posits that FoxP2 is mainly involved in the motor, or speech component of language, i.e., learning to control the muscles in the lips, tongue, voice chords, etc. in order to articulate syllables and words. The movements of these organs have to become stereotypic in order to reliably produce understandable language and the main experimental paradigms for this stereotypization of behavior (independent of language) have been procedural learning and habit formation. This work provides further evidence that indeed FoxP2 is an important component of the learning process that leads to automatic, stereotypic behavior.

In particular, it suggests that FoxP2 is involved in the control of the process of stereotypization, i.e., at what point the behavior shifts from being flexible, to becoming more rigid. Until this work, the evidence from vertebrates and invertebrates has pointed to FoxP genes to be involved in the automatization of behavior. Now, this evidence is extended to also – at least in mammals – include the negotiation process, which I don’t think anybody had on the radar thus far.

Besides the genetics, anthropology can help us understand the reasoning behind language. From a perspective article on an exciting article about talking around campfires:

how many hours we need to talk per day

The longstanding assumption, dating back at least a century, has been to assume that language evolved to facilitate the transmission of technical knowledge (“this is how you make an arrowhead”), a view that has been generalized more recently to encompass the social transmission of cultural knowledge (again, mainly with a directly ecological purpose). An alternative view has been that language evolved, at least in the first instance, to facilitate community bonding (to allow more effective communal solutions to ecological problems).

In fact, Wiessner’s data suggest that fire and language may be more closely related than conventional views assume. Whatever may have been the original reason why humans acquired control over fire, it seems that it came to play a central role in two crucial respects. First, it effectively extended the active day…

Stories are important in all societies because they provide the framework that holds the community together: we share this a set of cultural knowledge because we are who we are, and that is why we are different from the folks that live over the hill.

And look at what we talk about during the day vs at night:

what we talk about


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