Of [talking] mice and men

05Jun09

The New York Times has been reporting on research by the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Antropology in Leipzig, where scientists have genetically engineered a strain of mice whose FOXP2 gene [a gene sculpted by natural selection to play an important role in language] has been swapped for the human version. 

According to the paper, people (a prime example being Doctor Dolittle)

have a deep desire to communicate with animals, as is evident from the way they converse with their dogs, enjoy myths about talking animals or devote lifetimes to teaching chimpanzees how to speak. A delicate, if tiny, step has now been taken toward the real thing: the creation of a mouse with a human gene for language.

Possession of the human version of FOXP2 apparently changes the sounds that mice use to communicate with other mice, as well as other aspects of brain function.

Dr. Gary Marcus, who studies language acquisition at New York University, commented:

People shouldn’t think of this [FOXP2] as the one language gene but as part of a broader cascade of genes. It would have been truly spectacular if they had wound up with a talking mouse.”

Comment in the NY Times ranges from the philosophical, “the idea of exploring what humanness really is”, to this witty take on the research by Mark Leyner, who is:

absolutely baffled as to why the announcement of a scientific advance heralding the advent of talking mice has not generated a peep from the chattering classes, particularly since it’s a story about chattering … and chattering mice, to boot. Read on

I share his dismay at the idea of maliciously murmouring mosquitos. And can you imagine the last despairing pleas for a lifebelt from that spider you’ve just washed down the plug-hole (because of course it’s bad luck to kill them – outright, at any rate)…



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