14 Jun 2011

Let us try to be on our guard against all that sort of thing

Duane at Abnormal Interests lately quoted an English translation of Plato's Politikós 263d:
"But indeed, my most courageous young friend, perhaps, if there is any other animal capable of thought, such as the crane appears to be, or any other like creature, and it perchance gives names, just as you do, it might in its pride of self oppose cranes to all other animals, and group the rest, men included, under one head, calling them by one name, which might very well be that of beasts. Now let us try to be on our guard against all that sort of thing."
It's an interesting quote when placed alongside modern quests to understand language origins in proto-humans. Do some of us likewise group modern humans separately from all other antecedents of our species and assume in shame that they must surely have been lacking in the ability to communicate in complex ways? And do we assume that oral speech, using a developed modern larynx, is the only way to convey rich ideas?

In the dumbed-down hype over the discovered FOXP2 gene a few years back, I could only be irritated by a persistent media bias towards spoken communication when discussing it, in blanket ignorance of the possible role gestural communication (including ancient-but-now-dead sign languages) might have played in our development towards what we now label "language" but which we improperly imply to mean only "vocal language" or "speech". If this gene were honestly at the very root of our capacity to understand grammar, it would also affect an ability to express in sign language or learn writing while having no effect on our other abilities somehow. Then again, isn't every form of thought, even outside of language proper, formed from some kind of set of "grammatical rules"? Circuits are structured by the grammar of logic (a combination of fundamental AND, OR and NOT gates), for example. Is one grammar truly different from another? If so, how? How can we then separate a capacity to decipher communicated ideas via consistent rules from a capacity to reason itself? If we admit what's suggested here, we admit that language is in effect universal to all living things in a plethora of forms and complexities. Language, when defined less biasedly as mere information exchange, turns out to be surprisingly commonplace.

Thankfully Geoffrey Pullum debunked much of this brown sugar drivel six years ago on Language Log. FOXP2's not a grammar gene afterall. It's terribly unlikely in fact that DNA codes for something as abstract as "language" or "grammar" by way of a single gene. For that matter, it's unrealistic to expect that the double helix codes such an abstract thing even explicitly at all. Check out new theories on how "emergence" plays a role in everything from gene function and computer programming to human language and grammatical rules.

So let's be on guard against unscientific human chauvinism; that somehow we modern humans gained the corner on language. Plato's pagan writings of long ago are correct. We're not that different from all the talking beasts around us. Science is merely reminding us of what was already gestured before we were born.

1 comment:

  1. I checked the proteomics databases, just for the fun and to make sure to find all bits of truth. Well, the gene they call FOXP2 (and the transcription factor [protein] known by the same unexpressive name) is found in all vertebrates. Does this mean that a common goldfish can speak and has a language because it has a copy of the very same gene? Obviously not.

    Experiments in biology (and the theories behind their outcomes) always have to be taken with a grain of salt. This is especially true to the so-called "knockout" (KO) experiments. It is simple: want to know the function of a gene? Let's make an animal deficient in the target gene (it's always easier to destroy than to create something), and observe what it looks like!

    Well, that's when things get nasty: very often, you get totally unexpected results. For example, you may get no effect at all. That is because the mammalian genes often carry out overlapping functions. Also, when you see something of a phenotype, that is the result of a "weakest link breaking first". For example (of my own experience) there is a gene called ERK1. It encodes a protein essential to drive cell division. But when you make a KO animal, all the result you will see is a mild immune deficiency. Does that mean that ERK1 functions only in the immune system? Definitely not. What you see is because there is a paralogous protein called ERK2, and - together with ERK1 - they have highly redundant functions. It is only in the immune system where one of them cannot fully compensate for the loss of the other.

    This redundancy is also true to the family of FOXP transcription factors. Actually, the speech deficiency seen in mutations of FOXP2 is the result of it being essential for the development of certain neuron groups (involved in the control of pharyngeal muscles) in the brain. This function is the only thing that cannot be compensated by other FOXP proteins. Does this mean that FOXP2 is the one responsible for the creation of language and speech? Definitely not.

    Language is an ability, arising from a fine-tuned neuronal network (our brains), not directly from the presence of a single protein. It is rather the sublime interactions (that are easily changed during the evolution) between the tens of thousands of proteins and genes that drive the emergence of this magnificent system called human brain, with all its abilities.