The Human Language Gene

This web page was produced as an assignment for an undergraduate course at Davidson College.


In comparing the primary source research article with the popular press article, I thought the New York Times article did a good job to concisely explain the context of this discovery about FOXP2. The popular article also ended with a sound conclusion, emphasizing that this in not the only language gene, but part of a larger and medically relevant biological system. Kua et al. discusses a proposed model for the ideal role of a scientific reporter. Two of those roles are the reporter should be (1) an intermediary that can explain specialized fields in language understandable to lay persons, and (2) a watchdog that can discuss the interesting social implications of the work (Kua et al. 2004). I think the New York Times article fulfills these model roles adequately. The larger social implication that was focused on here was exploring how humans can communicate.

The research article provided a much more detailed and exhaustive progression of procedure and results, as expected for presenting the information to other scientists. The popular press article only focuses on a single conclusion, which makes it more concise and manageable for readers. I found it interesting though that the popular press article consistently focuses on the verbal communication aspect of FOXP2. The greater emphasis in the research article and in Enard's interview for the press article, however, is on the discovery that the human version of FOXP2 alters the neuronal structure and development of the brain. I found it surprising that the New York Times article only mentions this very briefly. The article title and text focus more on the difference in vocalization. This may be a more tangible result for most readers, or perhaps this difference in focus is because a change in vocalization is a discovery more in line with expectations of what "the language gene" should do, and therefore seemingly more relevant to report to the popular press.

Furthermore, the popular press article states "the human version [of FOXP2] differs significantly in its DNA sequence from those of mice and chimpanzees, just as might be expected for a gene sculpted by natural selection to play an important role in language" (Wade 2009). I don't think there is much support for that based on Enard et al's article; there are only 2 important differences between FOXP2 in humans and in mice. It is an interesting point to emphasize that only a couple small changes can effectively alter development and communication, and influence human culture. For the popular press, however, people probably prefer to view humans as very unique from other species, and so saying the FOXP2 gene is significantly different in humans may be a better-received statement.

The third proposed role for a scientific reporter is a tool-giver that can provide the readers with tools to think and evaluate the issue for themselves (Kua et al. 2004). The New York Times article does fulfill this role at least in part as well. Although the results and conclusions of the Enard et al. article may be truncated, the article does provide a direct link to the primary source article for those readers that have had their interests sparked.


Enard W, Gehre S, Hammerschmidt K, Hölter SM, Blass T, Somel M, Brückner MK, Schreiweis C, Winter C, Sohr R, Becker L, Wiebe V, Nickel B, Giger T, Müller U, Groszer M, Adler T, Aguilar A, Bolle I, Calzada-Wack J, Dalke C, Ehrhardt N, Favor J, Fuchs H, Gailus-Durner V, Hans W, Hölzlwimmer G, Javaheri A, Kalaydjiev S, Kallnik M, Kling E, Kunder S, Mossbrugger I, Naton B, Racz I, Rathkolb B, Rozman J, Schrewe A, Busch DH, Graw J, Ivandic B, Klingenspor M, Klopstock T, Ollert M, Quintanilla-Martinez L, Schulz H, Wolf E, Wurst W, Zimmer A, Fisher SE, Morgenstern R, Arendt T, de Angelis MH, Fischer J, Schwarz J, Pääbo S. A humanized version of Foxp2 affects cortico-basal ganglia circuits in mice. Cell 2009; 137(5): 961-71.

Fisher SE, Scharff C. FOXP2 as a molecular window into speech and language. Trends Genet 2009; 25(4): 166-77.

Gibson CJ, Gruen JR. The human lexinome: genes of language and reading. J Commun Disord 2008; 41(5): 409-20.

Haesler S, Rochefort C, Georgi B, Licznerski P, Osten P, Scharff C. Incomplete and inaccurate vocal imitation after knockdown of FoxP2 in songbird basal ganglia nucleus Area X. PLoS Biol 2007; 5(12): 2885-97.

Kua E, Reder M, Grossel MJ. Science in the news: a study of reporting genomics. Public Understand Sci 2004; 13: 309–22.

Vernes SC, Newbury DF, Abrahams BS, Winchester L, Nicod J, Groszer M, Alarcón M, Oliver PL, Davies KE, Geschwind DH, Monaco AP, Fisher SE. A functional genetic link between distinct developmental language disorders. N Engl J Med 2008; 359(22): 2337-45.

Wade N. A human language gene changes the sound of mouse squeaks. New York Times (New York Ed.) 2009 May 29; Sect A:5.


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