We have developed thousands of different languages over the centuries; the ability to speak distinguishes us from other primates and its origins have always intrigued scientists and anthropologists.
The article We the Mutants published in US News & World Report in 2002 explored one of the roads this interest has led researchers down; namely, the theory that a gene called FoxP2 mutated in h. sapiens giving us the gift of language. Anthropologist Svante Paabo found human FoxP2 to be different when compared to the same gene in chimpanzees and other mammals. Through mathematical analysis Paabo determined this gene mutation occurred about 200,000 years ago, leading him to hypothesize it may be responsible for human speech. The possibility that another mutation may be responsible for large brains in human beings also discussed. At the time of publication, Paabo and others were beginning to map the genome of chimps hoping to substantiate the idea that gene mutations are what made us human.
That article can no longer be retrieved on the US News website, but you can read similar research from the University State University on work done by Enard, Lai and Fisher on this same topic.
Additional FoxP2 findings have occurred and can be used to supplement this lesson.
Lesson focus: Exposing students to the fact that scientific knowledge is not a constant but an area that changes and grows with new discoveries. It is a middle school lesson plan that can be used as a Social Studies and a Reading Comprehension lesson.
Educational Standards Met:
NCSS (National Council for the Social Studies) Thematic Standard: VIII Science, Technology, and Society.
NSS (National Social Sciences) -WH.5-12.1 ERA 1: THE BEGINNINGS OF HUMAN SOCIETY
NS (National Science) -5-8.3: Life Science
Hominids sapiens - bipedal primates dependent on language and able to produce complex tools. Human beings belong to this category.
Genome – a life form’s genetic material.
Anthropologist – one who studies human development, culture and behavior.
- Read article as a class.
- Students answer handout questions.
- Review questions.
1. Who was the author of the article We the Mutants?
2. What three skills are central to h. sapiens and when did the species develop them?
Language, art, and sophisticated tools were developed in the past 200,000 years.
3. What gene is being linked to language?
The FoxP2 gene is linked to language.
4. Why do scientists think that the variation in the human version of the gene may have led to speech?
The fact that it cropped up around 200,000 years ago.
5. What does the mutation that occurred about 2.7 million years ago do in the human body?
It knocks out the gene for a form of sialic acid, a sugar that coats cells.
Information and Facts About Neanderthals, by Thea Franklin for Bright Hub Education.