Bats are one of the few animals that show vocal learning, along with humans, some songbirds, whales and dolphins. That is, the sounds they make are not innate but require practice and imitation. Studies in songbirds support the link between FOXP2 and vocal learning, suggesting that as well as controlling how our brain forms, the gene might also influence how we use it. The gene changes its activity in the brains of adult birds when they learn and practice their songs, neuroscientist Stephanie White of the University of California, Los Angeles, has found. “Birds may have the same circuitry that formed the foundations for human language,” White explains. The evidence points to FOXP2 being a switch, she says, that different species put to varying uses in their neural machinery.
The gene’s story hints at how evolution puts old materials to new uses, points out psychologist Gary Marcus of New York University. “It’s a very good entrée into language and how it relates to whatever preadaptations for language we inherited from our ancestors.”
Doing the FOXP2 Trot
Johannes Krause was surprised when Neandertals turned out to have the same version of FOXP2 as humans. His previous studies of the genetic variation in modern populations had suggested that the human form of the gene arose within the past 200,000 years—150,000 years after Neandertals and modern human lineages diverged. It shows, he says, that our understanding of how current genetics reflects our evolutionary past may need revising.
But Krause still thinks that FOXP2 has been under recent selection pressure in the human lineage. It may have changed just before Neandertals and humans split, he speculates, or it might have helped make our common ancestor more intelligent. “In the fossil record 500,000 years ago, there’s a huge increase in brain size,” Krause notes. “It’s hard to say if it was anything to do with FOXP2, but something was going on.”
This article was originally published with the title Paging Dr. Doolittle.