Of [talking] mice and men

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)…

By Marian Dougan

Published by Marian Dougan

Marian is a translator and editor (specialising in web content) currently based in Glasgow, Scotland. Marian previously lived in Italy for over 20 years, working as a language teacher, translator and policy analyst with the British Embassy in Rome. A qualified member of the Institute of Translation and Interpreting (ITI) and its Italian-language and ITI Scotnet networks, she is currently Scotnet's Convenor and Deputy Webmaster. From 2003 to 2006 Marian taught translation skills at the Italian Department of Glasgow University and now gives Master Classes as part of the new Masters in Translation Studies course. She also conducts web-writing and usability workshops to help people improve their websites and communicate more effectively with their readers, users and customers. In September 2014 Marian obtained User Experience Certification, with specialisation in Web Design, from the Nielsen Norman Group. She loves language, especially English, and is convinced that learning languages opens up people’s minds and horizons (and increases their brainpower!). To share her enthusiasm, she advises schools and educational authorities on language skills and enterprise. She gives talks to pupils on how to combine language studies with other subjects and so enhance their potential and increase their career options. Marian is an active member of organisations such as: Scottish Council Development and Industry (SCDI); Association of Scottish Businesswomen; Dunbartonshire Chamber of Commerce and the Italian Chamber of Commerce in Scotland. She also loves architecture, design, fashion (British Vogue!), cities and chocolate. She’s a great fan of Twitter and you can also find her on Linkedin.

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