In the early 2000s FOXP2 was dubbed the “language gene”. It was a sexy story. Humans exhibited accelerated adaptive evolution on this locus in relation to our relatives. Additionally, vocally oriented lineages such as birds and whales were also subject to the same process.
But over the past five years or so I’ve heard a lot of skepticism of the early claims as more genomic datasets have come online. Cell has a new paper which pretty much smashes the door down and breaks the skepticism out into the open, No Evidence for Recent Selection at FOXP2 among Diverse Human Populations:
FOXP2, initially identified for its role in human speech, contains two nonsynonymous substitutions derived in the human lineage. Evidence for a recent selective sweep in Homo sapiens, however, is at odds with the presence of these substitutions in archaic hominins. Here, we comprehensively reanalyze FOXP2 in hundreds of globally distributed genomes to test for recent selection. We do not find evidence of recent positive or balancing selection at FOXP2. Instead, the original signal appears to have been due to sample composition. Our tests do identify an intronic region that is enriched for highly conserved sites that are polymorphic among humans, compatible with a loss of function in humans. This region is lowly expressed in relevant tissue types that were tested via RNA-seq in human prefrontal cortex and RT-PCR in immortalized human brain cells. Our results represent a substantial revision to the adaptive history of FOXP2, a gene regarded as vital to human evolution.
Basically, our confidence in the inferences ran ahead of the data on hand. The reason that the story of the “language gene” spread like wildfire is that people wanted to believe. It was obvious that we were special. And we wanted to find how we were special.
In the 2000s, and even today, there was an idea that some single mutation might have allowed for the “Great Leap Forward” into behavioral modernity. I think that that model is probably wrong, and modern humanity was a more gradual and stepwise development. During the Eemian interglacial from 130 to 115 thousand years ago, agriculture did not emerge. No “lost civilizations” to our knowledge. Something happened to our species over the last 100,000 years. Probably biological, though in a way that facilitates cultural plasticity and evolution.
But genetically I bet it wasn’t that “one thing.” It was a lot of different things.