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The “Language” Gene and Women’s Wagging Tongues

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Aka, How to Twist Science to Reinforce Gender Stereotypes

Stylized rendering of FOXP2 attached to DNA (Wikipedia, Creative Commons License)

Stylized rendering of FOXP2 attached to DNA (Wikipedia, Creative Commons License)

Genes are subject to multiple layers of regulation.  An early regulatory point is transcription.  During this process, regulatory proteins bind to DNA regions (promoters and enhancers) that direct gene expression.  These DNA/protein complexes attract the transcription apparatus, which docks next to the complex and proceeds linearly downstream, producing the heteronuclear (hn) RNA that is encoded by the gene linked to the promoter.  The hnRNA is then spliced and either becomes structural/regulatory RNA or is translated into protein.

Transcription factors are members of large clans that arose from ancestral genes that went through successive duplications and then diverged to fit specific niches.  One such family of about fifty members is called FOX. Their DNA binding portion is shaped like a butterfly, which has given this particular motif the monikers of forkhead box or winged helix.  The activities of the FOX proteins extend widely in time and region.  One of the FOX family members is FOXP2, as notorious as Fox News – except for different reasons: FOXP2 has become entrenched in popular consciousness as “the language gene”.  As is the case with all such folklore, there is some truth in this; but as is the case with everything in biology, reality is far more complex.

FOXP2, the first gene found to “affect language” (more on this anon), was discovered in 2001 by several converging observations and techniques.  The clincher was a large family (code name KE), some of whose members had severe articulation and grammatical deficits with no accompanying sensory or cognitive impairment.  The inheritance is autosomal dominant: one copy of the mutated gene is sufficient to confer the trait. When the researchers definitively identified the FOXP2 gene, they found that the version of FOXP2 carried by the KE affected members has a single point mutation that alters an invariant residue in its forkhead domain, thereby influencing the protein’s binding to its DNA targets.

Like all transcription factors, FOXP2 regulates many promoters. The primary domains of FOXP2 influence are brain and lung development.  Some of its downstream targets are themselves regulators of brain function (most prominently neurexin CNTNAP2).  Not surprisingly, deleting or mutating both FOXP2 copies in mice results in early death, whereas doing so to one copy leads to decreased vocalization and slightly impaired motor learning. FOXP2 is broadly conserved across vertebrates, but its critical functional regions have tiny but telling differences even between humans and their closest ape relatives.  Like other genes that influence human-specific attributes, human FOXP2 seems to have undergone positive selection during the broad intervals of crucial speciation events.  Along related lines, Neanderthals and Denisovans apparently had the same FOXP2 allele as contemporary humans, and by this criterion were fully capable of the articulation that makes language possible.

Which brings us to the nub of the issue.  What does FOXP2 do in brain?  Genes don’t encode higher-order functions, let alone behavior.  Also recall that the KE family members have a very circumscribed defect, despite its dramatic manifestation.  Finally, keep firmly in mind that language in humans includes a complex genetic component that involves many loci and just as many environmental interactions.  FOXP2 does not encode inherent language ability.  Instead, the time and place of its expression as well as studies in cell systems and other organisms (zebra finches, rodents) indicate that FOXP2 may be involved in neuronal plasticity, which in turn modulates capacity for learning by forming new synaptic connections.  FOXP2 may also be involved in regulation of motor neuron control in certain brain regions (cortical motor areas, cerebellum, striatum) that affect the ability to vocalize, sing and, in humans, form the complex sounds of language.

Given its connection, however over-interpreted, to “what makes a human” as well as its chromosomal location (in 7q31, which also harbors candidates for autism and dementia), it’s not surprising that FOXP2 has acquired quasi-mythic dimensions in the lay imagination.  However, careful studies have shown that the genes on 7q31 responsible for autism and dementia are distinct from FOXP2.  Also, as I said earlier, FOXP2 does not code for language ability – and even less for its culturally determined manifestations (many of which are a minefield of confirmation biases, unquestioned assumptions and simply sloppy work).

Gender Words. Mark Liberman’s Language Log, Sept. 2006

Gender Words. Mark Liberman’s Language Log, Sept. 2006

The latest round in the misrepresentation of FOXP2 is the gone-viral variation of “there’s more of this ‘language protein’ in the left hemisphere of 4-year girls and that’s why women are three times as talkative as men”.  This came from the PR pitch of a research team who did a study primarily on rats (which confirmed the link between FOXP2 levels and vocalization) and then, perhaps attempting to latch onto a catchy soundbite, extended the gender link to humans based on… a single PCR amplification of ten Broca’s area cortices (from postmortem brains of 4-year olds, five from each sex; Broca’s area is involved in language processing).

To begin with, all studies conducted so far definitively show that women and men utter the same number of words by any metric chosen – and that in fact men talk more than women in mixed-gender conversations (to say nothing of the gender-linked ratio of interruptions).  And whereas it’s true that girls develop vocal competence slightly earlier than boys and show higher linguistic skills during the early acquisition window, this difference is transient.  Furthermore, the FOXP1 control that the authors of the study argue does not show a gender-correlated change (unlike FOXP2) in fact is on the verge of doing so, and the relative statistical significances might well change if a larger number of samples were tested.  Finally, whereas decrease of FOXP2 reduces vocalization and increases pitch in male rat pups, it has the opposite effect in female rat pups.  In other words, the correlation between FOXP2 levels and vocalization/pitch is not straightforward even in rats.

In the larger context of expression and reception of vocalizations, the difference is not how much women talk, but how welcome and/or valued their input is.  Even trivial zomboid blathering is given higher value if it’s culturally coded as masculine (examples: sport newscasters; most congressmen).  In fairness to the researchers of the study that caused all this rehashing of kneejerk stereotypes and evopsycho Tarzanism, here is the concluding paragraph of their paper.  It states something both measured and, frankly, obvious:

“Gender is a purely human construct consisting of both self and others’ perception of one’s sex and is arguably the first and most salient of all phenotypic variables. Sex differences in how language is received and processed and how speech is produced has the potential to influence gender both within and external to an individual. Whether human sex differences in FOXP2, and possibly FOXP1 as well, contribute to gender variation in language is a question for future research.”

Relevant publications and links:

Lai CS, Fisher SE, Hurst JA, Vargha-Khadem F, Monaco AP (2001).  A forkhead-domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder. Nature 413(6855):519-23.

White SA, Fisher SE, Geschwind DH, Scharff C, Holy TE (2006).  Singing mice, songbirds, and more: models for FOXP2 function and dysfunction in human speech and language. J. Neurosci. 26(41):10376-9.

Bowers JM, Perez-Pouchoulen M, Edwards NS, McCarthy MM (2013).  FOXP2 mediates sex differences in ultrasonic vocalization by rat pups and directs order of maternal retrieval. J. Neurosci. 33(8):3276-83.

Mark Liberman.  Gabby Guys: The Effect size (Language Log, Sept. 23, 2006)

Mark Liberman.  An Invented Statistic Returns (Language Log, Feb. 22, 2013)

Athena Andreadis.  Eldorado Desperadoes: Of Mice and Men (Starship Reckless, July 18, 2009)

Athena Andreadis.  Miranda Wrongs: Reading Too Much into the Genome (Starship Reckless, June 10, 2011)

 

Athena Andreadis About the Author: Athena Andreadis was born in Greece and lured to the US at age 18 by a full scholarship to Harvard, then MIT. She does basic research in molecular neurobiology, focusing on mechanisms of mental retardation and dementia. She is an avid reader in four languages across genres, the author of To Seek Out New Life: The Biology of Star Trek and writes speculative fiction and non-fiction on a wide swath of topics. She conceived of and edited the feminist space opera anthology The Other Half of the Sky, coming out in April 2013 from Candlemark and Gleam. Her work can be found in Harvard Review, Belles Lettres, Strange Horizons, Crossed Genres, Stone Telling, Cabinet des Fées, Bull Spec, Science in My Fiction, SF Signal, The Apex Blog, World SF, SFF Portal, H+ Magazine, io9, The Huffington Post, and her own site, Starship Reckless. Follow on Twitter @AthenaHelivoy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.






Comments 27 Comments

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  1. 1. popseal 11:32 pm 02/24/2013

    I understand human behavior better than the secular science that attempts to explain it. Men need fellowship and women need relationship, the two not at all the same yet not unalike. “Gabbing tongues” are a negative sterotype born of a woman’s need to have emotional connections, especially to her husband. Men need the affirmation of other men. Who hasn’t heard of the ‘band of brothers’? He who sheds his blood is forever my brother. The neutered metrosexual hasn’t a clue?

    Link to this
  2. 2. Athena Andreadis 12:26 am 02/25/2013

    I assume that your comment is meant to be parody.

    Link to this
  3. 3. sjfone 6:52 am 02/25/2013

    Women are smarter than men- that’s a real thunderbolt.

    Link to this
  4. 4. jtdwyer 10:31 am 02/25/2013

    Athena Andreadis,
    Please correct me if I’m wrong, but you seem to be arguing the case that there is no gender specific distinctions in human brain physiology, except for perhaps some induced by environmental conditions and life experiences, and that social conditions produce all differences in the gender related statistical variations among specific intellectual capabilities in all the myriad societies around the world throughout all time?

    Link to this
  5. 5. Athena Andreadis 11:25 am 02/25/2013

    jtdwyer: This article specifically discusses FOXP2 and its influence (real and imaginary) on language capabilities.

    Also, “gender” is a fraught word that means different things to different people. Binaries are an easy way to categorize all things, including people — but both gender and sex are far more complex than that, from chromosomes all the way to cultures.

    Link to this
  6. 6. jtdwyer 4:03 pm 02/25/2013

    Athena Andreadis,
    “This article specifically discusses FOXP2 and its influence (real and imaginary) on language capabilities.”

    I think that’s a rather restrictive view of the range of subjects introduced. To illustrate what I’m referring to, see “wagging tongues” and “Aka, How to Twist Science to Reinforce Gender Stereotypes.”

    Not having seen any examples of “all this rehashing of kneejerk stereotypes and evopsycho Tarzanism,” other than those in this article, I think it’s instructive to post the abstract of the research report causing all your consternation (Bowers, 2013):

    “The FOXP2 gene is central to acquisition of speech and language in humans and vocal production in birds and mammals. Rodents communicate via ultrasonic vocalizations (USVs) and newborn pups emit distress USVs when separated from their dam, thereby facilitating their retrieval. We observed that isolated male rat pups emitted substantially more USV calls and these were characterized by a significantly lower frequency and amplitude compared with female rat pups. Moreover, the dam was more likely to first retrieve male pups back to the nest, then females. The amount of Foxp2 protein was significantly higher in multiple regions of the developing male brain compared with females and a reduction of brain Foxp2 by siRNA eliminated the sex differences in USVs and altered the order of pup retrieval. Our results implicate Foxp2 as a component of the neurobiological basis of sex differences in vocal communication in mammals. We extended these observations to humans, a species reported to have gender differences in language acquisition, and found the amount of FOXP2 protein in the left hemisphere cortex of 4-year-old boys was significantly lower than in age-matched girls.”

    The principal conclusion seems to be that “Our results implicate Foxp2 as a component of the neurobiological basis of sex differences in vocal communication in mammals.”

    You stated:
    “To begin with, all studies conducted so far definitively show that women and men utter the same number of words by any metric chosen – and that in fact men talk more than women in mixed-gender conversations (to say nothing of the gender-linked ratio of interruptions). And whereas it’s true that girls develop vocal competence slightly earlier than boys and show higher linguistic skills during the early acquisition window, this difference is transient.”

    To begin with, in her book, “The Female Mind”, Dr Luan Brizendine claims that, based on her analysis of more than 1000 scientific studies, women speak 20,000 words a day on average compared to men’s 7000. Secondly, why is it important to consider “that in fact men talk more than women in mixed-gender conversations (to say nothing of the gender-linked ratio of interruptions)” unless you’re trying to not only refute the assertion that women talk more than men but also establish male domination of mixed-gender conversations? Is there any evidence whatsoever that women do not verbalize far more than men in same-gender conversations? I think that that little number would make an enormous contribution to the total number of words spoken by women compared to men! Lastly, girls undisputed exhibition of higher linguistic skills during the ‘early acquisition window’ is transient, but in my experience this transient condition persists well into puberty, perhaps as much a ten years.

    If one focuses on outliers, gender distinctions can indeed appear to be extremely complex. However, there is no other more clearly defined distinctions within all species than those required for reproductive specialization. In fact, it can be argued that the differences between genders is far more distinct and pervasive than the differences between species.

    IMO, it is the current tendency to object to the existence of any clinical basis for statistically significant distinctions between genders that is most clearly the product of current societal perspectives, not any bias in the evaluation of obvious gender distinctions.

    Not to infer any “kneejerk stereotypes”, but –
    “The lady doth protest too much, methinks”
    Hamlet, Act III, scene II

    Link to this
  7. 7. Athena Andreadis 4:14 pm 02/25/2013

    Textbook example of Tarzanist stereotype: “In fact, it can be argued that the differences between genders is far more distinct and pervasive than the differences between species.” Anyone who makes such a statement simply cannot be taken seriously.

    Link to this
  8. 8. jtdwyer 6:05 pm 02/25/2013

    Athena Andreadis,
    “Anyone who makes such a statement simply cannot be taken seriously.”
    What utter nonsense!

    As a concrete example, I suggest that the physiological distinctions between human males and females is far greater than the sometimes disputed distinctions between many species of finches. Please see
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Finches#Systematics_and_taxonomy

    IMO, such a dismissive response from such an accomplished scientist should be subject to censure!

    Link to this
  9. 9. jtdwyer 6:15 pm 02/25/2013

    “Textbook example of Tarzanist stereotype” indeed! You should be ashamed for resorting to such measures!

    Link to this
  10. 10. Athena Andreadis 6:15 pm 02/25/2013

    Nice attempt at goalpost shifting, including the instant threat meant to elicit apology or impose silence. If we follow the “logic” of your premise, the difference between human women and men is greater than that between humans and chimpanzees. And you insist on being taken seriously?

    Link to this
  11. 11. jtdwyer 8:16 pm 02/25/2013

    You’re attempting to stuff profoundly stupid words into my mouth – such tactics are unconscionable!

    Extending your reasoning, you’d portray my comparison as one between humans and sea slugs!

    There are clearly instances where the unambiguous physiological distinctions between male and female finches, even, far exceed the differences between some species of finches. That was and is my very straightforward point – twist it and turn it however you will…

    Frankly, I have lost all respect for you as a professional in any field of endeavor and will not be considering anything further you have to say.

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  12. 12. Athena Andreadis 12:23 am 02/26/2013

    I refer you to Gustav Vigeland’s eloquent sculpture, Tantrum. It’s a perfect depiction of both the style and content of your comments: http://is.gd/FYLFbT

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  13. 13. TonyTrenton 12:22 pm 02/26/2013

    It is a very obvious observation in life that women are compulsive talkers.

    In the vernacular it is accurate to say they have verbal diarrhea .

    Anthea. In all honesty. You cannot denie this!. Your diatribe shows that you talk a lot but say very little.

    Very typically female !

    Case closed

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  14. 14. TonyTrenton 12:29 pm 02/26/2013

    popseal; Your comment doesn’t relate to the living experience. That women talk constantly, mostly with other women.

    They don’t say very much , but do talk a great deal.

    Link to this
  15. 15. Athena Andreadis 12:37 pm 02/26/2013

    TT — it’s one thing to pee on your pants; it’s quite another to proudly keep pointing to the stain, as you are doing. Get some mittens, so that your knuckles don’t get scraped raw as they drag on the ground.

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  16. 16. Bora Zivkovic 7:11 pm 02/26/2013

    Citing Brizendine, without knowing that her “work” is thoroughly discredited, suggests utter unfamiliarity with the topic, for which the best advice is to be quiet, listen and learn, as any utterance just reveals the ignorance.

    Link to this
  17. 17. tweetingtechno 7:18 pm 02/26/2013

    Tony Trenton, I assume you’re basing your – quite remarkably – sweeping assertions on the women you know. I’m sorry that you’ve been unlucky in your relationships with women, but given the evidence of the attitudes you’re displaying, it’s hardly surprising.

    As it happens, the two most garrulous people I know are both male. Unlike a reversed version of you, however, I don’t think this constitutes evidence of a gender-wide truism. Simply that some men are talkative and some not. Just as some men are intelligent and others are damn fools.

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  18. 18. jtdwyer 5:03 am 02/27/2013

    Bora Zivkovic – Conversely, when Athena Andreadis stated that “all studies conducted so far definitively show that women and men utter the same number of words by any metric chosen” she cited no references whatsoever! Are unsupported assertions considered to be more credible?

    Your attempt to dismiss out of hand the entirety of my argument by dissing one statement is a pathetic display of inadequacy. Since it seems to be acceptable practice in Scientific American blog comments, I’ll just point out to you that your pants are wet! Your face should be red, also.

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  19. 19. Pazuzu 9:01 am 02/27/2013

    Why do jackasses flame out so heartily? I’m a professional linguist and I’ve become disheartened of late by the naive and sometimes flagrantly incorrect nonsense I’ve in SciAm here about language and linguistics. But this piece by Andreadis is actually the only reasonable article about language I’ve read in in these blogs.

    Interested readers should check out the links to the Language Log the author gives. It turns out that there is no evidence that women speak substantially more words per day than men, and it would be absurd to say the least to extrapolate from rat squeaks to human speech!

    I was reminded on the Language Log of a statement made by somebody somewhere that says “popular science is to science what military music is to music.”

    Link to this
  20. 20. scicurious 9:36 am 02/27/2013

    14:” popseal; Your comment doesn’t relate to the living experience. That women talk constantly, mostly with other women.

    They don’t say very much , but do talk a great deal.”

    Interestingly, I could say the same of almost every male commenter in this thread.

    Link to this
  21. 21. kclancy 11:11 am 02/27/2013

    Scicurious said: “Interestingly, I could say the same of almost every male commenter in this thread.”

    Bah ha ha ha!

    What I also found interesting about this thread were the calls for citations… in a post that contains citations. And commenter Pazuzu rightly points out that the information that is supposedly citationless… is found in a Language Log blog post… cited in this post.

    Sigh.

    Bora, we don’t have to let this continue. As you have said yourself, comment moderation is the way to keep the trolls at bay!

    Link to this
  22. 22. Athena Andreadis 3:14 pm 02/27/2013

    Pazuzu, Scicurious, KClancy: as I said in an earlier iteration, definitions can differ. For Dwyer, Trenton et al, “evidence” obviously means “random stuff that confirms my prejudices” and “citations” means “discredited work whose unwarranted conclusions agree with my biases.”

    Link to this
  23. 23. jtdwyer 5:58 pm 02/27/2013

    Pazuzu, kclancy,
    I’m not a linguist, merely a retired information systems analyst for one of the world’s leading corporations, but I’ve never seen such a contrived analysis as that contained within the referenced “Language Log”. There was no formal scientific study conducted at all! The data source had nothing to do with the numbers of words spoken per day by anyone – it was a “published speech corpus”! Transcripts of recorded phone conversations were analyzed, where “Participants were assigned conversational partners at random, and asked to talk for up to ten minutes on one of forty topics.”

    The referenced analysis may be fine for analyzing the use of word types by population groups, for example, which seems to be the type of linguistic analysis eventually performed. However, no information regarding casual speech habits or specifically word counts used in normal daily conversations by individual men or women can possibly be extracted from this specifically contrived conversation data!

    For all the analysis performed in the referenced blog, any conclusions apply only to people assigned to converse for up to 10 minutes about a specifically selected topic. Again, absolutely no valid conclusion can be drawn from this data regarding the numbers of words used daily by men and women in normal conversations.

    As best I can determine, there have been no scientific studies performed to evaluate the numbers of words used daily by men and women in normal conversations. This seems to agree with blogger Mark Liberman’s search for valid scientific studies. He reported in an earlier blog analysis using similarly inappropriate data that “… female participants took an average of 33% more turns (per speaker) than the male participants, and used 8.4% more words per turn, as well as using 45% more words.” Please see
    http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/003420.html
    That analysis was based on a published study (M.R. Mehlet al., “Are Women Really More Talkative Than Men?”, Science, 317(5834) p. 82 July 5, 2007, http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/317/5834/82) that used a Walkman to record all the conversations of university student volunteers. However, only the gender of the assigned student was determined – not the gender of others participating in the recorded conversations.

    I’m still looking for a valid reference source supporting the outrageous, unsupportable claim that “all studies conducted so far definitively show that women and men utter the same number of words by any metric chosen.” BTW, the very nature of this claim requires that all studies determining daily word counts be evaluated to ensure that none find any difference in the number of words spoken daily by men and women. Good luck with that!

    Bora Zivkovic – As for Dr. Louann Brizendine, you’re correct that I was not familiar with the fact that the primary critic of her work, specifically in the area of linguistics and language, was none other than the blogger Mark Liberman referenced by this article. I agree that the ‘men – 7,000 words daily, women 20,000 words daily’ quote I’d causally found was discredited by Mark Liberman, just as I have discredited the analysis he has performed using unrepresentative data. As best as either of us has determined, their is no credible scientific basis for any comparison between men and womens’ daily conversational word counts. As a result, all of Athena Andreadis’ assertions regarding how much men and women talk, and the included chart (from the referenced Mark Liberman’s blog), are also invalid.

    Link to this
  24. 24. Athena Andreadis 10:38 am 02/28/2013

    Short JTDwyer for those whose eyes have glazed over by now: “I know nothing about either biology or linguistics, but I have lots of time and resentment; so again (still) here’s my uninformed opinion, with escalating demands each time my previous goalpost gets ripped out. So I will continue having tantrums.”

    Even shorter: “You gotta let me win ’cause I’m a boy.”

    Link to this
  25. 25. Athena Andreadis 3:24 pm 02/28/2013

    Pertinent analysis of the exchanges in this thread:

    Commenter # of words
    Andreadis 315
    Dwyer 1516
    Women, total 448
    Men, total 1632
    Unknown 306

    Ratio, Andreadis/Dwyer words: 0.21
    Ratio, F/M words: 0.27
    Ratio, (F+U)/M words: 0.46

    So even if we assume that all the non-assigned commenters are women (certainly not the case), we still get more words from men than from women.

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  26. 26. American Muse 12:33 am 03/12/2013

    Men and women are different creatures: physically, cognitively, emotionally, strategically, reproductively, and in every way imaginable. There’s nothing wrong with that. No need to be defensive.

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  27. 27. Athena Andreadis 7:33 am 03/12/2013

    Even if you subscribe to binary divisions, which are at best convenient simplifications, the difference spectrum within genders is as wide as that between them. Women and men are far more similar that people (like to) think. Too, the issue discussed here is very specific; the general platitudes of “separate but (kinda) equal” don’t apply.

    Link to this

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