• Question: Why do you think that humans can speak but other animals cannot

    Asked by weste038 to Suzanne, Kapila, Claire, Joanna, Renata on 17 Jun 2013. This question was also asked by knigl034, vanessa200134, flipper123, tomskc.
    • Photo: Suzanne Harvey

      Suzanne Harvey answered on 17 Jun 2013:

      Great question, and one that came up in a psychology exam during my degree! There are a few ideas about this, but the answer is that no one knows for sure.

      In the past, people have taught gorillas 2000 words in sign language, and a bonobo has been trained to use grammar, saying things like “I want the ball that’s over there”. But, he can ONLY do this by pointing to symbols, not by using sounds, or speaking. So some primates can understand communication but not speak! One idea is that there is a gene called FOXP2, which is different in humans than other animals. This gene controls the physical side of speech – how we move our mouths to make words. Other apes don’t have this ability like we do.

      If we put the human FOXP2 gene into a chimp, would he be able to speak? That’s a fascinating philosophical question, I would guess not because language is involved in so many brain processes that a lot of other genes will be involved, but who knows! It’s questions like this that got me into evolutionary science in the first place…