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Evolution of language: FOXP2 and human uniqueness in religious perspective

Science and Religion Information Service

A paper to be published in Nature (W. Enard et al., "Molecular Evolution of FOXP2, a Gene Involved in Speech and Language") compares the human version of the FOXP2 gene with that of other mammals. Religious scholars comment on the implications for human uniqueness and similarity to other species. EMBARGOED UNTIL 14:00 EST 14 Aug 2002. All quotes are free to use by journalists in any news medium. Contact information is provided and follow-up interviews are encouraged.

1. John F. Haught, Professor of Theology, Georgetown University, Washington DC. Author of numerous books and articles on human evolution. (202) 687-6119.

Q: Does this finding offer any evidence that the Catholic view of evolved body vs. created soul is wrong? According to this report, if language is a feature of soul, language and soul appear to evolve together.

A: "The Catholic view of the "soul" (a notion that signifies the inviolable dignity of the person) first came to theological expression in a pre-evolutionary universe. Today, however, scientifically informed Catholic thinkers have little difficulty with the idea that the sacred origin of our specifically human kind of existence is consistent with an evolutionary emergence. This new theological reflection insists on the intrinsic value of other forms of life as well."

Q: What surprises you about this report?

A: "I'm not surprised that we would eventually discover and isolate such language-relevant genes as FOXP2. What may be harder to digest is that such a momentous outcome as language and culture seems to be so exquisitely dependent on a physically infinitesimal genetic difference that allowed for a certain kind of facial movement in our ancestors."

Q: Is there still room for theological explanations of language and culture?

A: "Darwinian and genetic explanations are part of the story, but not the whole story. If we are looking for still deeper explanations of mind, language, culture etc. we need to dig all the way down into the physical and cosmological conditions that rendered possible the eventual origin of life in the first place. Moreover, at a still deeper level, we may legitimately wonder why the universe is configured in such a way as to sponsor evolutionary processes that can lead to such remarkable outcomes as language."

Q: What are we to make of the apparent fact that we are so close to other species (including mice) in the presence of this gene, and yet separated by what amounts to a small difference at the sequence level?

A: "This research suggests that we should not exaggerate the significance of the now banal observation that we share almost 99% of our genetic makeup with chimps. Even one gene, as we see in the report, can make all the difference in the world.

Q: Is it a case of a small difference making a big difference?

A: "The world of genes resides not just in the world of matter, but also in the elusive world of "information." In the realm of information physical scale is less important than the specific sequence of letters in a code. In the world of information we should not be surprised that the slightest changes in the sequence of letters (as in DNA) can make massive differences in the message."

Q: Is this report giving further genetic evidence of the unity of the human species, and is language the trait around which we are unified?

A: "I would not want to make our sense of human unity depend too much on a specific gene. However, our sense of unity is certainly related to the fact that we share a significant genetic similarity to one another and a difference from other species. The new genetic research confirms that as a species we are unique. Even though we have a genetic continuity with other forms of life, slight quantitative differences in the informational sequencing in DNA segments can set one species qualitatively apart from another."

Q: Are there any deep philosophical implications in this research?

A: "The FOXP2 research might tempt us into a reductionistic thinking that tries to explain complex things only by breaking them down into simple atomic units. I believe we must be careful to avoid the temptation toward an atomistic explanation of something so enigmatic as language. Even if it is true that without FOXP2 our linguistic capacity would vanish, it does not follow logically that we have hereby discovered an adequate, or even a robust, explanation of our human linguistic ability."

--John F. Haught

2. Nancy R. Howell, Associate Professor of Theology and Philosophy of Religion at Saint Paul School of Theology. Available by phone after 17:00 EST on 13 Aug at 320-363-3366.

"The report by Wolfgang Enard and others expresses a tension found in many kinds of literature, including religion, philosophy, and science. We are simultaneously fascinated by similarities between humans and other animals and yet devoted to naming what makes humans unique. Enard and his colleagues write in one moment about the remarkable genetic consistency among humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, rhesus macaques, and mice. Our long evolutionary kinship with other animals is evidenced in the FOXP2 gene. In another moment, the report on FOXP2 claims spoken language as a uniquely human trait linked with morphology and control of the larynx and mouth.

"Language, communication, and culture are fairly complex matters, whether the culture in question is human or chimpanzee. Articles in both Nature and Science in June 1999 reported that African chimpanzees have culture. The research that sparked reporting on chimpanzee culture was the result of decades of chimpanzee observations, and the correlated data indicated that chimpanzees are highly social animals with different behaviors and even distinct dialects in the expression of "pant-hoots." Perhaps then language, expression, and culture are not one thing, but different species develop verbal and non-verbal communication and transmission of culture suitable to survival in different habitats.

"Another set of longitudinal studies should be considered in relation to the FOXP2 report. Chimpanzees have demonstrated language capacities using American Sign Language (ASL). The chimpanzee language studies in captivity show that spoken English language is problematic because of the morphology of the larynx in chimpanzees, which does not match human physiology. However, some researchers, who noted that chimpanzees are highly gestural communicators in the wild, attempted an experiment in teaching ASL to chimpanzees. The experiments were successful enough that some reports documented chimpanzee improvisation of signs, conversations among chimpanzees (apart from human participation), and teaching of ASL to other chimpanzees.

"The apparent genetic similarities in FOXP2 in humans and apes may be an alarming challenge to human uniqueness, so central, for example, in Christian theology. However, genetic and language studies in humans and apes open imaginative possibilities to see humans as part the vast creative work of God that extends far beyond human confines."


Nancy R. Howell

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