Some Special Genes


‘…an instinctive tendency to acquire an art.’ Charles Darwin

‘…language. Nobody knows how it began. There doesn’t seem to be anything like syntax in non-human animals and it is hard to imagine evolutionary forerunners of it. Equally abscure is the origin of semantics; of words and their meanings.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

‘UK scientists have identified the first gene involved in the development of speech and language. The discovery could unlock the mystery of speech, a uniquely human characteristic. It could also explain how language evolved and give an insight into why some children suffer from language impairments. The discovery was made by scientists in Oxford and London, using information from the Human Genome Project. Professor Anthony Monaco from the Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics in Oxford led the team. He said the information would be important for diagnosing language disorders and identifying other faulty genes. "Language is a particularly human characteristic of which we know there are strong genetic influences when something goes wrong," he told BBC News Online. "This is the first evidence of a particular gene that has been pinpointed as having a mutation leading to a language disorder." The gene was found by studying three generations of a family affected by a rare language impairment. Individuals suffering from the condition have difficulty understanding grammar and articulating speech. Scientists now know that an error in the sequence of DNA letters in a gene called FOXP2 is to blame. FOXP2 is thought to make a protein that controls other genes involved in speech and language. It could lead researchers to other genes implicated in speech and language disorders, present in 4% of the population. Professor Monaco is currently investigating whether FOXP2 is altered in other conditions involving language impairment such as autism. But he thinks the gene is just one "clue" in a complex puzzle. The discovery could also shed light on how humans came to speak. Professor Monaco told BBC News Online that co-workers were already hunting for the same gene in chimpanzees and other primates. Comparing the DNA letters of the same stretch of genetic code in humans and their closest living relatives could reveal how language evolved, he said. The possibility that language has genetic roots was first raised in the 1960s. Scientists argue that there must be a genetic basis to speech and language because it is universal, complex and acquire almost instinctively by children at a young age.’ BBC News, 2001

‘Language is fossil poetry.’ Ralph Waldo Emerson, 1844

‘Language is a perpetual Orphic song,/ Which rules with Daedal harmony a throng/ Of thoughts and forms, which else senseless and shapeless were.’ Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792-1822, Prometheus Unbound

‘Because nonhuman primates do not learn their vocalizations, their brains provide us with no clues to how human language is learned and produced. Surprisingly, Jarvis finds striking similarity between the organization of the song system circuit and the human vocal control system.’ Linda Wilbrecht, The Burgeoning Biology of Birdsong New York Academy of Sciences, 2004

‘…on chromosome 7 there lies a gene that plays an important part in equipping human beings with an instinct, and an instinct, moreover, that lies at the heart of all human culture... a book by Noam Chomsky, Syntactic Structures, [argues] that human langage, the most blatantly cultural of all our behaviours, owes as much to instinct as it does to culture. Chomsky resurrected an old view of language, which had been described by Darwin as ‘an instinctive tendency to acquire an art’…By studying the way we speak, Chomsky concluded there were underlying similarities to all languages that bore witness to a universal human grammar. We all know how to use it, though are rarely conscious of that ability. This must mean that part of the human brain comes equipped by its genes with a specialised ability to learn language. Plainly, the vocabulary could not be innate or we would all speak one unvarying language. But perhaps a cchild, as it acquired the vocabulary of its native society, slotted those words into a set of innate mental rules… He found regularities in the way we spoke that were never taught by parents and  could not be inferred from the examples of everyday speeck without great difficulty… That is the beauty of language -  almost every statement we make is a novel combination of words…Chomsky’s conjecture has been brilliantly vindicated in the suceeding decades by lines of evidence from many different disciplines. All converge upon the conclusion that to learn a human language requires, in the words of the psycho-linguist Steven Pinker, a human language instinct.’ Matt Ridley, Genome: The Autobiography of a Species in 23 Chapters, Fourth Estate, 2000

‘And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech… And the Lord said, ‘Behold, the people is one, and they all have one language.’ Genesis 11, The Bible

“Language is born of instinct”

As the art of flight sleeps in a sealed egg -

leaves sip light encased still in the dark nut;

speech stripped of words like a leafless tree,

is known and spoken by each child’s tongue.

Pure root of language, pruned in the Genome’s

ruthless beauty - her speech skeleton, invisible,

boned with grammar in the womb; ready-spelled

in each cell’s lettered heart. Universal grammar -

unconscious, understood; spoken by all peoples -

evolved, recorded in glittering chemical schemes,

for slotting of poem or instruction manual, nubbing

with word buds, vocabulary of love and war, music.

Language of many patterns woven on the same base-loom,

parasitising formatted brain - ornate flesh spun by instinct;

messages of sound - mouth music, played on instruments

of air and tongue, symbiotic with pitched ear mechanisms.

The child labours to read - to learn this fingery art of writing,

symbolic translation, hieroglyphs; speaking is like breathing.

Another secret, another trophy pulled from the dark, dreaming

box of ourselves, fantastic mess of us; our astounding, ancient

rag bag - we unfurl language with a magician’s flourish,

as one of our tribe’s bright banners; natural art, elaborate

communication to express our learning, diverse knowledge -

wounds, healing; the long cultivation of love for one another.

Do they wonder why we cannot fly any more -

breathe underwater; leave them any more room?

All these other animals who stayed silent -

when we still speak their language of eyes;

do they wonder why the dazzling, babbling genes

became in us - who squander so much else given.

‘When strong desires or soft sensations move/ The astonish’d Intellect to rage of love;/ Associate tribes of fibrous motions rise,/ Flush the red cheek, or light the laughing eyes./ Whence ever-active Imitation finds/ The ideal trains, that pass in kindred minds;/ Her mimic arts associate thoughts excite/ And the first LANGUAGE6 enters at the sight…Association’s mystic power combines/ Internal passions with external signs…// Thus the first LANGUAGE, when we frown’d or smiled,/ Rose from the cradle, Imitation’s child…’ Erasmus Darwin, 1731-1802, The Temple of Nature

‘Language has been the central/ event in human evolution./ Simple emotional utterances/ evoked in sex, anger, and fear/ activate the primitive area/ near the corpus Callosum/ that ribbon tying together/ the hemispheres. Noone knows/ how our ancestors got beyond the scream, grunt, and moan/ to string meaningless phonemes/ together until the sounds/ meant something in tandem/ they didn’t mean alone.’ Alison Hawthorne Deming, Essay on Intelligence: Two

Being a writer is not a choice

Being a writer is not a choice;

a writer is born able to write -

just needing to assimilate the means,

tools of vocabulary, letter, alphabet;

essential rules of grammar and spelling.

Taking possession of infinite linguistic

possibility, creative infinity;

treasure-houses of the past -

as a child is born

able to speak -

once it masters the awkward tongue,

manipulation of kissy baby fish-lips.

I wish I had never corrected your baby tongue

I wish I had never corrected your baby tongue -

‘boobooby’ being so tearfully sweet instead of

‘butterfly’; just a few corrections and it flew.

‘Poosp’ quickly becoming boring old ‘spoon’,

and no-one understands why ‘duvet’ was ‘poose’,

but by that time I’d learned to enjoy what nature

will correct all in good time; even as the rest decayed

into adult vocabulary, I deliberately preserved. So if

a guest in our home, you’ll find yourself, still,

in your jamamas, snugly under a fresh poose.

‘The laboratory rats demonstrated their linguistic abilities by learning to press a lever when they heard a particular language. Some rats only pressed the lever when they heard Japanese, others when they heard Dutch. This ability to detect one type of speech from another has only been found in humans and Tamarin monkeys before. “We are trying to understand what mechanisms humans use for langage perception and which of these they share with other animals,” says Toro. The findings could help scientists to understand how human languge evolved. Further studies on non-mammalian species (such as songbirds) may reveal if language recognition is unique to mammals.’ The Guardian, 2004

‘Laboratory rats demonstrated their linguistic abilities’

‘Ya, ya, ying-tong-tiddil-y-popo, giv’s a nut –

wot’s wiv all the bleedin’ foreign languages?

Sei, thet’s the problem wiv you human goiys -

always assumin’ the rest of us lot, we enimals,

are dumb, just because we cannot be arsed

developin these genes when there’s enough

blimmin noise in the world already!

Mu’eys are bad enough - whoopin’

it up in the jungow, but yous lot, yammerin’

away, never shu’in up for a flippin’ second;

and if it’s not yow in person, it’s the bleedin’

TV, radio - yak, yakin’ on the ‘phone all day.

Taike that songbird in the street etside -

lavely voice she ‘ad – lav-ely; end now,

guess wot, maikes a noise loik a flamin No’ia!

Electronic simulation ov a crap Gangsta treck -

talk about yer noise pollution – she’s yang -

thinks she’s dead trendy, replacin’ Mowzart

wiv The Streets; whot a waste o natural talent -

like me stuck in ‘ere; cunnin creature, elevated

intelligence, cen speak three languages.

It’s not allowed, but one day we’d love

to just ge’ up on our oind legs – ‘coz humans,

you knou, they are a bit scared ov us; plague,

fleas and sewers, gnawing the feet of the poor,

and all that bollocks - just speak to the goiys -

scien’ist blokes - tell’em whot they want to knaw,

wivout aw this rigmarole wiv them nuts en levers,

en blimmin to’kin Japanese an glowry-be -

Dutch! Sushi, spliff, though, naw yir talkin’;

some experiments tha are a bit ov fun, loike.

Imagine their li’il baldy faces if we spauke!

English is nuffin’, if you, loik, speak Rat -

‘Just giv us the nut, then, en shu’up, geek!’

Bwilliant! But until the Geezer changes the rules,

we ‘ev to humour them abouwt their ‘dominion’ -

so it’s Aufweidersien, Ciao, Au revoir, Goodbye,

see ya later suckers - show me that lever, wotcha.’

‘It might all be different, however, if the mice suddenly looked up at the scientists and complained about becoming human sperm banks – “Oi, Tefal-head. How’d you like going round with a billion mouse sperm on your back, eh?” Further research this week shows that only a tiny change in the FOXP2 gene meant human beings being able to speak. The gene is virtually identical in mice, humans and great apes. Changes to the gene might be linked to an ability to move facial muscles – so the Bottox explosion could ultimately send us back to grunting in fur underpants. Dr Simon Fisher of Oxford University says more work is required to find out exactly what FOXP2 does in different species - “Making a mouse with the human version of the FOXP2 gene would be easy - but I guarantee you it wouldn’t get up and talk”. Hmmmm, I may not have the science doctorate, or even O Grade Chemistry after an early experiment in mass produced a logical impossibility (it seems I created matter), but I’m not so sure - yeah, we can make mice produce human sperm but they’ll never talk. Have they never seen Stuart Little?’ Gillian Ferguson, column, Scotsman newspaper

‘…the tendency to speak, and to crystallise accepted customs by ritual speaking, is a biologically-determined characteristic of our species, an emergent property which we have developed in the natural process of evolution. Humans need to map their world by imposing meaning communally on it this way because of their highly complex social life. This technique for fine-tuning their existence is a further stage in the development begun by other social animals, for they too use rituals to establish their own customs, but ritual of a much simpler, less explicit, less flexible and less sophisticated kind. Social facts, then are entirely continuous with boilogical facts. They are part of life.’ Mary Midgley, Science and Poetry, Routeledge, 2003

At Night the Animals Come to Me…

Moon infecting quiet air, toxic silver fumes

turning breathless earth blue - suspended -

we dance; in awkward, mis-matched, funny

waltzes - kangaroo, rabbit, mouse and hare -

the Eightsome Species Reel; what a rammy!

inter-special hootenanay – tail, feathers, fur,

hair; Dashing White Sergeant with a handsome

Polar Bear, (rippling white, tall, mild as milk…)

And talk, gossip, holding claws, hands and paws -

preening, grooming; tiger having a giant manicure,

advising on fabulous clothes - moaning how

upstart little off-the-peg, mass-produced high

street cats rip her off, copy her original haute couture;

lions comb my golden hair - into the Afro-Sun-haloes

they love - telling me how many humans they saw

on the latest safari. I ask butterflies for beauty tips,

the Painted Lady sighing at such pig-pink plainness,

colouring my eyes with turquoise and scarlet scales;

Gothic Cabbage White and Lemur offer ghostly powder,

heavy kohl; tragic-hearted robin stains my lips, smearing

Christmas berries. Granny Sloth in her raggy moss stole

tells the slowest stories of how our differences became -

but essentially we remain the same. Parrot explains puffily

why she does not need a dream to talk, nor weird climactic

conditions, alterations to brain chemistry, though most do - 

Dog is nodding, his human friend understands a few things,

he says, and the others often take the piss at his soppiness, fondness, soft indulgence towards his human mate, but he

just smiles, angelic, wags his tail in physical outbursting

of bon homie. But the clamouring others babble, shout -

such a cacophony; they shouldn’t need to talk, don’t have

the right genes - God knows why they came to be in men -

so many lucky breaks this species got - advantage, ease, order, safety, power. Maybe He thought they would listen - husbands

of earth, children of Earth, to those who could not speak;

like speaking on behalf of their own vulnerable citizens -

when they choose; would be able to hear - act for the animals.

If only we were listening, if Doctor Dolittle, Eliza Thornberry,

whom they think are real, searching for them in desperation,

were truly among us; maybe they could talk some sense into

their own kind of animal, before it’s too late - stupid humans - spoiling it for everyone; bad apples in Earth’s bountiful barrel.

Listen in the night, corruption of good silence when they call

to us - cry out in the dark hours - in the shadows of the world,

rooftops of the world - of their fear of passing; loss of diversity.

I call to the animals in the day, but they are gone into their wild

lives, wordless silence; as their deaf brothers make more noise

to deafen out the sounds of all other means of communication.

‘That crowning feat of the human brain, the weaving and unweaving of speech sounds…phonemes, syllables, words and sentences, the range of ideas that can be communicated is unlimited. Stranger yet, the things that can be communicated include ideas, feelings, love and exultation…at one level it is all done by a pattern of air presssure waves, a pattern whose richness is first woven into sound waves in the ear and then rewoven together in the brain to reconstruct images and emotions. Stranger yet, the pattern can be broken down mathematically into a stream of numbers, and it retains its power to transport and haunt the imagination…’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Penguin, 1998

‘’..the outer earshell leads to a membrane drum – and what pressure needed to sound this drum is equal to the intensity of light and heat/ received from a 50 Watt electric bulb at the distance of 3,000 miles in/ empty space…At the threshold of hearing the eardrum may be displaced as /little as a diameter of the smallest atom, hydrogen…’ Ronald Johnson, Beam 7

I’ve heard that the stars and planets are singing

I’ve heard that the stars and planets are singing -

music of the spheres among that austere darkness

we took for emptiness; nowhere in the Universe

is empty, presence existing by means unknown -

our children - their children, somewhere written.

This lily was scripted at the start of time, among

these singing stars, space lament that everything

is not as beautiful - first notes of the communal

dance that will bring the lily from water, my hand

holding her humble neck - eyes reading her white

sample of organic life, plucked at seeming random

from all choiring, open-throated lilies in the field -

poem of her life, her notes; poem I will write of her life,

from the interactive poem of myself - reading her music.

‘The sounds uttered by birds offer in several respects the nearest analogy to language.’ Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, 1871

‘BIRDS SHARE 'LANGUAGE' GENE WITH HUMANS. A nearly identical version of a gene whose mutation produces an inherited language deficit in humans is a key component of the song-learning machinery in birds. The researchers, who published their findings in the 31 March 2004 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience, said that their finding will aid research on how genes contribute to the architecture and function of brain circuitry for singing in birds.’ Duke University Medical Centre, 2004

‘At one level it is all done by a pattern of air pressure waves, a pattern whose richness is first woven into sine waves in the wear and then rewoven together in the brain to reconstruct images and emotions. Stranger yet, the pattern can be broken down mathematically into a stream of numbers, and it retains its power to transport and haunt the imagination… Kets may not have meant it literally, but the idea of a nightingale song working as a drug is not totally far-fetched. The idea that birdson is an auditory drug gains plausibility…. Perhaps it is nt too surprising that nightingale song should have acted like a drug on the nervous system of John Keats. He was not a nightingale, but he was a vertebrate, and most drugs that work on humans have a comparable effect on other vertebrates…natural selection has had thousands of generations in which to fine-tune its drug technology.’ Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow, Pengion, 1998

‘It is a common misunderstanding that the neocortex evolved de novo as a mammalian innovation. People often believe, too, that it covered a more ancient reflexive reptilian brain. In fact, however, birds possess brain structures, lying dorsal to the striatum, with neurons very similar to those found in the mammalian neocortex. Birdsong biologists have only recently renamed many parts of the avian brain in order to correct this misunderstanding. Several of the contributors update analogies between the mammalian and avian brain. …In one of the volume's boldest pieces, Erich D. Jarvis, professor of neurobiology at Duke University, addresses parallels in the vocal control systems of humans and birds. Birds it turns out may have more to teach us about this subject than nonhuman primates… Constance Scharff (Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics) and Stephanie White (UCLA) describe the avian expression pattern of a single gene, FOXP2, the putative "language gene" linked to grammatical problems in humans.’ Linda Wilbrecht, The Burgeoning Biology of Birdsong, NewYork Academy of Sciences, 2004

Bird and human music from star molecules

In the endlessly rejuvenated song of morning,

recognition of such primaeval music, created

from star molecules - by maestro Evolution,

tuning the rumoured music of the spheres -

scored for singing birds by aerial experience;

modern movements of wings, beaks and love.

But part of the original music, our communal

choir, heard still by shell-whorled ears, bones

of the jutting back, shoulderblades and stretched

fingers; heart soaring into blue on a summer day. 

Song Birds
(On the discovery that the brain patterns of birds suggest they rehearse their songs while asleep)

The singing birds have sung their final song, now rustling

like an orchestra in reverse, fussing themselves to sleep –

among limpening leaves drooping cool palms, black-beaded

heads crooked under zip-hook wings like tender angels’ arms -

snappy brown shins articulate, fold worryingly brittle as twigs;
flickering hearts incandescently burning hot, short red calories.

Now dreaming as night smokes silver clouds, coughs glittering

dust of irritating gritty stars, not of bird children yolked still in

cradled eggs - Icarus flights for sun-straws, Cirrus-down to line

shining gold nests - of mad-red berries machine-gunned on trees -
bursting plump seed; chill pink succulence of summer-fat worms,
but of music. Bird music. Firefly patterns pulsing in thread veins,

miniature walnut brain - living scores on electric synapse staves,

signature flesh; scales sleeping in sealed beaks, melodies folded

in the resting beat of recording wings. Notes, sharps - from high,

pure blue sounds of postcard skies, harmonious blood of water

pouring over stones, to lakes opening their cobalt summer eye;

flats summoned from beer-gut clouds, booming black, swollen

with whole rain undropped, until bursting into particular silver

envelopes for earth, millipede cargoes discharging H20, singing

harmonies with soil, seeds, the blind, thirsty worms in the dark.

Broken chords of flower and rock, colour and grey arpeggios -
clashing cymbals of sun flashing the world’s polished surfaces,

whistling piccolo wind blowdrying twittery green leaves, lifting

their cruciform wings like parents scooping whooping small children

underarm - manipulating gravity as Plasticine, not deadly medium –

transparent hooks, invisible burns, rapids of rushing air – translating

what it is to fly; what it means in music. From hearing in jittery, short,

pomegranate hearts, winter unfold its grim grey cuffs, dandruff collars,

needling high Cs of frost embroideries that might sew them into death.

All tuned, composed, conducted in the musical spirit of the bird…

they are rehearsing now, silent in the bigger night silence of this

star-gritted navy sky, perfectly domed as a snowstorm souvenir,

when even gossipy spring water lies possum-dead in breathless beds,
deaf to the sudden ghost of snowy owl murdering the hunting mice -
as we will sleep now, and our beating hearts go on rehearsing love,

keeping organic time as bloody metronome - in scribbled writing

of red and blue veins, letters linking, words stringing, like picking

endless flowers from earth carpets, sourced at our dreaming feet -

our human music - that mostly dies on paralysed teeth, concrete

tongue, brick lips; not freely given, like the gift of singing birds,

now rehearsing the open air concert of tomorrow, curtain at dawn.

‘Before songbirds and humans vocalize, however, they have to learn from others. Songbirds, hummingbirds, parrots, whales, dolphins, and bats are the few animals along with humans that need to hear others of their species in order to produce normal vocalizations. Inherited genetic programs probably constrain what these unique creatures decide to imitate and what they are physically able to imitate. Yet the individual nuances of their vocalizations are transmitted, in a broad sense, culturally.’ Linda Wilbrecht, The Burgeoning Biology of Birdsong, NewYork Academy of Sciences, 2004

‘The biology of birdsong alights on almost all subjects of interest to the neurosciences—motor control, mechanisms of basic and higher auditory perception, the formation of memories, the action of hormones on the brain, the evolution of brain circuits for learning, human language, and the development and aging of the brain.’ Linda Wilbrecht, The Burgeoning Biology of Birdsong, NewYork Academy of Sciences, 2004

Note from the author
exploring the project

    Gene Story
    Romantic Science
    Some Special Genes
        Homeotic Genes
        Embryo Story
        The Amazing Tale of
        Cell Division
        The ‘Selfish’ Gene
    X & Y

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