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See Inside June/July 2007

Programmed for Speech

Studies of genes in people and songbirds are providing clues about how and when the remarkable human talent for speech arose

Does speech--that uniquely human trait--come from our genes, or is it learned? Luminaries such as linguist Noam Chomsky of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have championed the role of evolutionary inheritance over that of culture. But for many years, proponents of this position could only look to languages themselves for evidence. They observed that many tongues share grammatical structures and other attributes, bolstering the argument that speech is innate. The suspicion that a "speech gene" might exist, however, remained unresolved. Then, in 1990, something extraordinary happened.

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