Communication is a feature shared by many
species in the animal kingdom. The utilization of communication has driven the
evolution of a multitude of vibrant adaptations; think colors, smells, vocalizations. A common misconception is confusing communication with language. Language differs from communication in that it involves
the novel combination of symbols
arranged to generate a specific meaning. Very few animals can communicate through
language and most reside in the vertebrate subphyla. All vertebrates share a common
ancestor and therefore express genes derived from a similar genetic code, as
seen in FOXP2. Both humans and primates express
this gene, however, the version expressed by humans is altered by 2 amino acids from the primate gene.
In primates, the pre-motor area of the brain
contains specialized ‘mirror neurons’ which fire upon observing an action
performed by an individual in a similar way they would fire when the observer
performs the action individually. Originally
proposed as a mechanism for learning coordination skill, it has been
hypothesized that these neurons could have been used to interpret the facial
expressions portrayed in our ancestors eventually leading to our current state
It is thought that the evolution of
language in primates originated with interpretation of facial gestures, to
simple sounds, and finally what we refer to as language today. Songbirds, on the other hand, express a version of the gene that functions
similarly to that of humans. Could song
sparrows, which use a form of language possess similar mechanisms of
developing language as primates through the expression of mirror neurons in the
cortex? If so, research into this field could inspire further
research into language development.
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