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Science and SocietyEMBL-EBI Science and Society Symposium

Biology and Language

21 June 2007, Robinson College, Cambridge, UK

Introduction

Human language acquisition depends on biological processes as well as learned behaviour. But how did human language evolve, and how do human babies learn to speak?

Language as we know it seems to grow out of innate structures built into our brain. Humans are the only animals to produce a complex, grammatical language that permits intricate representations of the phenomenal world. At the same time, a debate still rages among academics on whether our representational ability stems from our overall biological basis for language or from our generally superior cognitive abilities.

Did human language evolve as a consequence of changes in the ecology of the species, expanded tool use, social organisation, or some other evolutionary event? In other words, is language an adaptation process, evolved in response to some selection process, or is it a by-product of the evolution of other brain functions?

As we learn more about the brain processes underlying language, it seems increasingly unlikely that a single evolutionary event will explain the emergence of language. The neural system underpinning human language capacity is enormously complex and encompasses auditory analysis, conceptualisation and memory, semantic selection processes, motor control, and many other functions. To a large extent, these processes are likely to have evolved independently from one another. It is therefore much more probable that the evolution of language went through several different adaptive events in early human history.

Exciting results have been published in recent years by researchers pursuing the study of language from different angles: evolutionary and population genetics, evolutionary psychology, comparative cognitive studies, anthropology and linguistics. The aim of this EMBL-EBI Science and Society symposium is to promote mutual interest, understanding, and dialogue beyond disciplinary boundaries, and to engage members of the general public who are interested in the complex relationships between biology and language.

 

Programme

13:00-13:05
Welcome
Janet Thornton, Director of the European Bioinformatics Institute
13:05-13:15 Introduction
William Marslen-Wilson, Cambridge University
13:15-14:10 Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language
Svante Pääbo, MPI, Leipzig
14:10-14:50 From speech to gene
Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, Institute of Child Health, London
14:50-15:30 Biolinguistics: From behaviour to circuits to genes
W. Tecumseh Fitch, University of St. Andrews, Edinburgh
15:30-16:00 Coffee break
16:00-17:00
Open discussion

 

Invited Keynote Speakers

W. Tecumseh Fitch

Tecumseh Fitch studies the evolution of cognition and communication in animals and man, focusing on the evolution of speech, music and language. He is interested in all aspects of vocal communication in terrestrial vertebrates, particularly vertebrate vocal production in relation to the evolution of speech and music in our own species.

Originally trained in animal behaviour and evolutionary biology, he studied speech science and cognitive neuroscience as a graduate student at Brown University (PhD 1994). A post-doc in speech science at MIT/Harvard followed, where he applied the principles of human vocal production to other animals (including alligators, deer, birds, seals and monkeys).

Fitch then taught at Harvard from 1999-2002, first in Biology and then Psychology. In 2002 he was a visiting fellow at the European Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin, and in 2003 he took a permanent position at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, where he continues his research on humans and various vertebrates in the School of Psychology (Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution).

Fitch recently served as the Leibniz Professor at Leipzig University, where he was also affiliated with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

Faraneh Vargha-Khadem

Professor Faraneh Vargha-Khadem completed her doctoral studies at McGill University, Montreal, Canada, and the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, USA, and a post-doctoral fellowship at the Montreal Children's Hospital, McGill University, Canada. She subsequently joined the Faculty of Neurology and Neurosurgery at McGill University where she held a research lectureship for two years before moving to London, England.
Having accepted a faculty research position at the Institute of Child Health, University College London in 1983, she went on to undertake in 1987 the leadership of the Clinical Neuropsychology Service at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children, London, where she has remained to the present time. During this period, she has helped create the first academic department of Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience in the UK, and its clinical counterpart, the Department of Paediatric Neuropsychology at Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.
Professor Vargha-Khadem's research and clinical work is directed toward understanding the cognitive and behavioural deficits of brain-injured children in relation to the underlying neuropathology, with the goal of developing new knowledge about the ontogeny of specific neural systems.

Together with her colleagues, Professor Vargha-Khadem has made a series of discoveries concerning the ontogenetic neural bases of episodic and semantic memory in developmental amnesia, speech and language dysfunction associated with the FOXP2 gene mutation, and differences in the capacity for functional reorganisation in the developing brain as compared with that of the mature brain.

She holds a personal chair in Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience at University College London, and is also the head of her department. She was elected Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences in 2000, and has received a number of awards including the 2006 Jean Louis Signoret Prize for her contributions to genetics of behaviour.

Svante Pääbo

Dr. Svante Pääbo's research is focused on two areas. The first area is the retrieval of DNA from archaeological and paleontological remains. He has developed technical approaches as well as criteria to authenticate results that have allowed DNA sequences from creatures such as mammoths, moas and Neandertals to be determined.
The second area is comparative genomics of humans and the great apes. He is particularly interested in the evolution of gene activity and genetic changes that may underlie aspects of phenotypic traits specific to humans such as speech and language.

He is a Director at the Max-Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, a Guest Professor of Comparative Genomics at the University of Uppsala, Sweden, and a member of numerous academies, including the National Academy, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences and the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy.

 

Abstracts

W. Tecumseh Fitch, School of Psychology, University of St Andrews

BioLinguistics: From behaviour to circuits to genes

A broad comparative experimental approach to animal behaviour, combined with new techniques in molecular biology and comparative neuroscience, offers the exciting promise of important new insights into the mechanistic basis of human language. Because language does not fossilize, understanding its evolution has often seemed like an exercise in futility and dreaming up "just so stories". But comparative gene sequencing offers the possibility to both locate key genes involved in speech and language, and to date the selective sweep that led to evolutionary fixation of human specific alleles. In principle, such techniques will allow us to date key genetic events in the evolution of language. I will discuss the case of the FOXP2 gene as a model, as the discovery and analysis of this gene illustrates this potential very nicely. However, there are many more such genes left to be discovered. I discuss how to use the comparative method to discover more key genes, by pinpointing mechanisms involved in language, and searching widely for analogues in animal behaviour. I conclude that a broadly comparative, biolinguistic approach, combined with molecular informatics, offers great promise to increase our understanding of the mechanisms underlying human language in the coming decades.

Faraneh Vargha-Khadem, UCL Institute of Child Health, University College London, and Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children

From speech to gene

In 2001, FOXP2, the first gene associated with the unique human ability of speech and language, was discovered. This was made possible through a series of genetic, neuropsychological, and brain imaging investigations of the large three-generational KE family, half of whose members are affected with a speech and language disorder. This lecture provides an overview of the studies that identified the 'core' deficit in the affected KE family members as an orofacial and verbal dyspraxia, the structural brain imaging investigations that revealed bilateral abnormalities in a number of motor, and speech and language-related brain regions, the functional neuroimaging examinations during verb generation and repetition tasks that disclosed a distinctly atypical pattern of brain activation, and the genetic investigations that linked the speech and language disorder to a mutation of the putative "SPEECH 1" gene on chromosome 7, and ultimately led to the identification of the FOXP2.

Svante Pääbo, MPI Leipzig

A mouse model for human-specific changes in FOXP2, a gene important for speech and language

Mutations that inactivate one copy of the gene FOXP2 causes severe language and speech problems in humans. Comparisons to other primate genomes show that the protein encoded by FOXP2 has experienced two amino acid changes on the human lineage and patterns of FOXP2 polymorphisms among humans indicate that FOXP2 was the targets of strong positive selection during human evolution. In order to understand the physiological effects of the amino acid changes encoded in FOXP2 we have created a mouse that carries these two amino acid changes in its FoxP2 gene and analyzed it for over 240 traits. We find that the humanized FOXP2 has a significant effect on gene expression patterns in the developing and adult striatum, leads to increased neurite outgrowth in neural precursors and increases the synaptic activity of striatal neurons. On a behavioral level, mice carrying the humanized FOXP2 explore a new environment more cautiously, vocalize at slightly lower frequencies and modulate calls differently. Our results indicate that the human-specific amino acid changes in FOXP2 affect the brain and not other organs in which FOXP2 is also expressed. Furthermore, the changes in vocalization support the hypothesis that these changes affected speech and/or language while the neuronal phenotype suggests that the cellular mechanism by which this happened could be increased neuronal connectivity.