‘And God Said’

One of the mysteries of being human is our ability to use language. We have all observed a child starting to talk and communicate, acquiring the language of her parents, first with single words but very soon whole sentences, often becoming a non-stop chatterer. Depending on where the child learns the language, the words, grammar, form of sentences and eventually the written form will be different. If a child does not acquire her parent’s language, we recognise that there is a problem that needs to be addressed. But exactly how the brain learns and processes words is still not clear, and what it is about humans that makes words and language so apparently easy to acquire is still a mystery. 

Humans are unique because we are made in the image of God the Son who, in John’s Gospel, is described as the Word. But what exactly makes this happen, and what separates us from all the other animals? At some level the ability to learn and use words and language must have a biological basis, and this is where some interesting scientific discoveries have been made.

In 2001 a problem with a gene called FOXP2, which generates the protein FOXP2 (the protein name is non-italicized), was discovered to be responsible for an inherited language disorder. The FOXP2 protein acts on our DNA to turn off and on a cascade of other genes. Humans and chimps have different versions of this protein, and so the protein works in a unique manner in humans. Given its connection to language, the FOXP2 gene has been labeled the “language gene” and scientists have been exploring how it works.

In a family with the abnormal FOXP2 gene, affected individuals have problems with the fine motor movements of the mouth that are necessary for speech. They also have grammatical skill and language processing problems, so the difficulties are in both speech comprehension and production. In general, their non-verbal intelligence is close to normal, so their problems appear specific to language skills.

Words and genes
Scientists can now insert human genes into mice and look at how it changes their behaviours. When the FOXP2 human gene is inserted in mice (the process is obviously quite complicated), the mice’s learning skills were improved, particularly in place and response learning. The combined individual responses necessary to complete a task were acquired quickly and more smoothly. This suggests that the FOXP2 gene sets in place basic changes in simple learning systems that ultimately make the acquisition of speech and language skills possible. Recent work has suggested FOXP2 gene opposes the effects of another gene, Mef2c, which has been suggested as a risk factor in autism spectrum disorder. People with autism have difficulties with language generally. It may be that the FOXP2 gene will be implicated in a variety of neuropsychiatric problems that have a language impairment. 

In many ways it seems very strange to me that we can talk about something as connected to the nature of God at the level of human genes. In Genesis, one of the first things we learn is that God spoke, making language one of the things we know is part of who God is. One of the first tasks given to Adam was naming the animals. God respected and accepted what we name them – something that scientists are still doing today. One wonders if God’s statement that “it is not good for man to be alone” (Gen. 2:18) had to do with the fact that language has a large social action – it requires another person. Perhaps the fact that language ability is etched into our genes may not be so surprising after all. It is probably one of the main things that characterises our being made in God’s image. 

Author

  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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