FOXP2 Fail.

From ScienceDaily:

FOXP2, a gene implicated in affecting speech and language, is held up as a textbook example of positive selection on a human-specific trait. But in a paper published August 2 in the journal Cell, researchers challenge this finding. Their analysis of genetic data from a diverse sample of modern people and Neanderthals saw no evidence for recent, human-specific selection of FOXP2 and revises the history of how we think humans acquired language.

The paper is Elizabeth Grace Atkinson, Amanda Jane Audesse, Julia Adela Palacios, Dean Michael Bobo, Ashley Elizabeth Webb, Sohini Ramachandran, Brenna Mariah Henn, “No Evidence for Recent Selection at FOXP2 among Diverse Human Populations.” Thanks, Trond! (Trond’s comment in his e-mail: “First law of science: ‘It’s more complicated than that’.”)

Comments

  1. John Roth says:

    The elephant in the room is the word “recent.” There’s a lot of contention between “recent,” meaning in the last few hundred thousand years, and ancient, meaning a million or more years ago. Since I’m firmly in the “language is a million or more years old” camp, this is not a surprising result.

  2. Athel Cornish-Bowden says:

    Nothing to do with FOXP2 but the list of authors agrees with something I’ve often noticed: women group leaders tend to have a high proportion of women in their groups, and its corollary, young women tend to be in groups directed by women.

    One other point: I note that Brenna Mariah Henn has worked with Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza, whose standing in linguistics is, I gather, much lower than it is in genetics.

  3. David Marjanović says:

    Here’s an important paragraph from the Results section (surprisingly, the whole paper is free):

    Inconclusive Evidence for Ancient Selection at FOXP2

    Ancient selection could also explain the presence of the two derived substitutions in exon 7 identified by Enard et al. (2002). To test for the possibility of ancient selection (>200 kya) on FOXP2, we conducted a McDonald-Kreitman (MK) test on FOXP2’s coding sequence by comparing the variation within the HGDP genomes to a population of 10 chimpanzees from the PanMap collection (Auton et al., 2012). We obtained a nonsignificant McDonald-Kreitman value of −1.0625 (p = 0.68). A negative test result is generally interpreted to suggest positive selection, though the test did not reach significance in this case.

    So FOXP2 may not be that important for language after all.

  4. I knew it.

    I don’t trust genetics, because as a science, it’s still very much in infancy state, so anything they say now will be disproved in a decade or two.

  5. I expect language to be a highly polygenic trait and I doubt we’re going to find any Chomskian great leap forward events.

  6. David Eddyshaw says:

    FOXP2 is in no reasonable sense of the words “a gene for language.” Nasty mutations therein interfere with speech (as do quite a lot of other things) and that is about all there is to it. Mark Liberman over at LL has addressed this favourite piece of journalistic mangling of fact on several occasions.

  7. David Eddyshaw says:
  8. The convention of saying “gene for X” when you mean “gene which if broken prevents X” is very misleading. There is no doubt a gene which if broken causes congenital blindness, but calling it “a gene for reading” or “a gene for watching TV”, as if those were genetically determined activities, is absurd.

  9. Trond Engen says:

    David E.: FOXP2 is in no reasonable sense of the words “a gene for language.”

    I know, but it keeps being touted as such, not at least because of the apparent recent selection event. It’s nice to have that firmly out of the way.

  10. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Trond:

    I knew you knew … (as, I suppose, does practically everyone else around here. Still, we here in Wales are never shy of telling people things they know perfectly well already. It’s a cultural thing.)

    I presume that apart from the general “gene for X” baloney, the FOXP2 as gene-for-language thing got a boost from its convenient intersection with that somewhat similar piece of pseudoscience, Chomsky’s “language organ.”

    Anyhow, you’re right – it’s good to see dubious evidence for bizarre misanalyses refuted. Though with the “language organ” it’ll take more than a simple stake through the heart to do the trick.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    There is no doubt a gene which if broken causes congenital blindness

    Indeed yes: literally hundreds of them. Like The Right Stuff, vision “can blow at any seam.” Every reason to suppose that speech can too.

  12. One thing to keep in mind about ‘gene for X’ claims is that selection takes place in the ancient population and at the time that a genetic trait first emerges. So, e.g., while there may be a genetic component in mathematical ability, I doubt that access to reproductive success was determined by mathematical competition among australopithecines.

  13. MattF,

    “So, e.g., while there may be a genetic component in mathematical ability, I doubt that access to reproductive success was determined by mathematical competition among australopithecines.”

    This is correct all over the genome. Mutations can produce a whole range of traits, some of them completely peripheral to survival. In domestic animals, both carnivores, perissodactyls (horses) and artiodactyls (cattle, etc,) the trait that makes an animal less timid around humans and allows for domestication also has the effect of changing the pattern of color to patches like a beagle displays. Piebald horses are an example.

    In humans the mutation for red hair is basically a huge reduction melanin and that gives an adaptational advantage in dark climates. it also causes freckling as a random side effect, which is neither an advantage no disadvantage.

    John,

    ” but calling it “a gene for reading” or “a gene for watching TV”, as if those were genetically determined activities, is absurd.”

    This is exactly the case for the much sought after “gay gene”. It turns out that the causes are probably epigenetic.

  14. David Marjanović says:

    Chomsky’s “language organ.”

    Apparently Chomsky never said he expected that to be a single part of the brain; it might be as discontinuous as the parts involved in any other activity. In general, from this paper (pdf) I’m getting the impression that Chomsky has only ever said surprisingly little…

    the mutation for red hair is basically a huge reduction [in?] melanin

    Yeah. I don’t make eumelanin (black), only phaeomelanin (brown, slightly orangey).

  15. David Eddyshaw says:

    it might be as discontinuous as the parts involved in any other activity.

    That’s pretty much exactly the sort of thing about Chomskyanism I object to most. Invent a term with pretty specific implications in normal usage, but assign it a technical sense vague enough to protect against any conceivable experimental refutation (better yet, never really define it precisely at all.) Meantime, trade on the fact that your technical term sounds nicely concrete and biological and all, instead of being merely a linguistic reification of your unproved thesis, viz that all human linguistic ability is in some significant way a single language-specific capacity.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    African albinos are redheads.

    White people in fact have plenty of melanocytes. They just don’t actually do much.

    If there weren’t so many white people in the world, Lazy Melanocyte Syndrome would undoubtedly figure in the textbooks as a congenital disease. Personally I’ve never felt that getting less rickets is enough compensation for the increased risk of skin cancer and blindness, but then I’m not a prehistoric hunter-gatherer or farmer trying to survive where the sun doesn’t shine. If I were, I dare say I would feel I was doing pretty well to live long enough for the downsides to become an issue.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    That’s pretty much exactly the sort of thing about Chomskyanism I object to most. […]

    Well said. See also (in the same paper): Universal Grammar not being a grammar…

  18. Still, we here in Wales are never shy of telling people things they know perfectly well already. It’s a cultural thing.

    “The genealogical trees at the end of the Red Book of Westmarch [the source document underlying The Lord of the Rings, as the Mabinogion underlies Evangeline Walton’s tetralogy] are a small book in themselves, and all but Hobbits would find them exceedingly dull. Hobbits delighted in such things, if they were accurate; they liked to have books filled with things that they already knew, set out fair and square with no contradictions.”

  19. Trond Engen says:

    David E.: I knew you knew … (as, I suppose, does practically everyone else around here. Still, we here in Wales are never shy of telling people things they know perfectly well already. It’s a cultural thing.)

    .. and your comment just served as a handy place to attach my “I know”, which was more to the thread in general.

  20. David Eddyshaw says:

    @Trond:

    So you knew that I knew that you knew.

  21. Trond Engen says:

    Yes, sorry. I thought you knew.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    I only suspected. I can’t really claim that I knew you knew I knew you knew.

  23. Trond Engen says:

    My “First Law of Science” is of course The Second Law of Science.

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