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Article: Behold the Talking Chimp

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  • Robert Karl Stonjek
    Behold the Talking Chimp Zeroing in on the genetic basis of language By Gary Marcus From our common ancestor with chimpanzees, it took only six million years,
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 5, 2004
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      Behold the Talking Chimp
      Zeroing in on the genetic basis of language
      By Gary Marcus
       
      From our common ancestor with chimpanzees, it took only six million years, give or take, to develop the ability to speak. And, as we now know, the vast majority of our genetic material has been inherited unchanged. Language, and whatever else separates us from chimpanzees, has its origins in alterations to no more than about 1.5% of the nucleotides in the genome,1 a pretty neat trick, when you consider how handy talking can be.
       
      How did evolution pull it off? Some important clues have already come in, such as a recent study showing that there has been an important change in a gene relating to jaw structure that may have opened the way to the rapid expansion of the human brain,2 which is about four times the size of a chimp's.
       
      But size isn't everything. While a human-sized brain might be a necessary prerequisite for language, it is hardly likely to be sufficient. Whales and elephants have significantly larger brains than ours, but they don't have anything as complex as human language. Only with further evolutionary changes to our brains, perhaps in the last 100,000 years,3 did our ancestors begin to talk.
       
      Isolating those further changes won't be easy. Although anyone with an Internet connection can now pore through the two 3 billion-nucleotide-long sequences that constitute the genetic heritage of man and chimpanzee, identifying the path to language will require not just spotting the differences (the vast majority of which may have little to do with language), but putting those differences in the context of a significantly improved understanding of how the brain acquires and produces language. The obstacles are considerable, but I believe this understanding will come into focus as we increasingly view language through the lens of its hierarchical nature and its reliance on preexisting biological mechanisms.
       
      Read the rest at The Scientist.com
       
      Comment:
      Having just read 'Kanzi: The Ape at the Brink of the Human Mind" by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh & Roger Lewin, it occurs to me that the use of lexigrams to communicate is, in a way, externalising part of the human communication system (the use of abstract symbols or words) so that both the human (who already has this module) and the Ape (that does not have this module) can communicate in a pseudo language form.
       
      The idea that the process and formal mechanism employed by Sue Savage-Rumbaugh may well imitate a module that humans have but not apes is interesting.
       
      Posted by
      Robert Karl Stonjek.
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