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Top Story

Study challenges evolution of how humans acquired language

A gene implicated in affecting speech and language, FOXP2, is held up as a "textbook" example of positive selection on a human-specific trait. But the results of a recent paper challenge this finding. The researchers' 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. FOXP2 is highly expressed during brain development and regulates some muscle movements aiding in language production. When the gene isn't expressed, it causes a condition called specific language impairment in which people may perform normally on cognitive tests but cannot produce spoken language. FOXP2 has also been shown to regulate language-like behaviors in mice and songbirds. The researchers assembled mostly publicly available data from diverse human genomes -- both modern and archaic -- and analyzed the entire FOXP2 gene while comparing it to the surrounding genetic information to better understand the context for its evolution. Despite attempting a series of different statistical tests, they were unable to replicate the idea that there was any positive selection occurring for FOXP2.

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