Is Language Genetic?

A lot of smart people claim that language is genetic. Noam Chomsky, the linguist and political activist, famously theorized that humans have an innate, evolved grammar structure. A “language gene” was discovered in 2001 called FOXP2, and apparently, since then, others associated with it have been identified. But does this mean that language is genetic, and that there are neurological systems built specifically for it?

I’m not a neuroscientist, geneticist, or a linguist, but I think that there are rarely genes associated with only one behaviour. If I understand correctly, our brains are so complex that every section interacts. So even if there is a system of genes used for language, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it was evolved for that purpose.

Among countless other abilities that I probably don’t know about, FOXP2 seems connected to visualizing experiences, and forming new behaviours based on memories. These are very helpful for language, but they could have evolved for different functions. Evolution might have adapted these pre-existing traits to be used for language because it was so beneficial.

I barely know anything about this idea, and maybe evolutionary biologists or evolutionary psychologists are looking for or have discovered when these behaviours began. If they existed long before language, it’s probably more likely that they evolved for different purposes, but were adapted. If that’s the case, the problem would be identifying the original functions. This may be phenomenally difficult since there are so many possibilities, but perhaps scientists have already figured it out.

If vizualizing memories, and changing behaviour based on them, emerged close to when language did, they could have evolved for it specifically. If this is true, it says a lot about how incredibly important language is for evolution. Think about how much our ability to communicate influenced history! The results are not only good. Atrocities are almost guaranteed to be caused by more than poor communication. However, language appears to be one of many aspects of human nature that allowed our species to perpetuate and thrive. If we couldn’t talk to each other, who knows how world history might have turned out?

As far as I can tell, no one can definitively say that language is genetic. But it’s a fascinating question. The truth might be more complex than that, which it often is. Maybe the traits associated with language were evolved for different functions, then re-purposed. Perhaps the entire brain is involved with it in some way. Or it’s possible than an entire network of genes emerged for language in particular. The truth might be somewhere in between those extremes, and it will likely change when/if new evidence is found. It’s fascinating to think about all the ways that language could have emerged, and why it exists.

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