Apes outsmarting villains is a staple of comedy. We are also intrigued when we see chimps apparently “talking” by means of sign language or a computer keyboard. They appear surprisingly intelligent—it seems as though they really understand and can respond to their human handlers. But can chimps actually communicate in the same way humans can?
To start, what do we mean by “communicate”? For the purposes of this article, we’ll define communication as the sum total of all our language skills—both written and spoken. Human communication skills go well beyond our ability to speak and include such things as the development of complex grammar rules. So when we ask whether chimps can communicate the way humans do, the answer is simply, no. Chimps lack the genetic makeup responsible for producing the hardware that enables humans to communicate on deep levels. A recent lay-level science news article on the internet, entitled “One Gene Tweak Could Make Chimps Talk” implies just one minor change in one gene would enable chimps to acquire language. This claim is a case of dramatic oversimplification. True, the gene, known as FOXP2, is only slightly different in humans from FOXP2 in all other species, but those minor differences carry major impacts.
The human FOXP2 produces a protein that binds to other genes and causes them to behave in certain ways. For example, FOXP2 causes 61 genes to increase their production and 55 to decrease production. Many of the genes affected by FOX P2 are themselves regulators of other genes. Additionally, FOXP2 is active during our development, and developmental genes, as a group, are highly resistant to change (evolution). If something goes wrong and they are changed, the organism will not survive.
The result of one seemingly small difference is layer upon layer of difference between us and the creatures whose mimicry of us makes us smile.
Dr. Patricia Fanning
Patricia Fanning is an RNA biochemist with a PhD from North Carolina State University and formerly a consultant for software companies. As a visiting scholar to Reasons To Believe in 2011, she specialized in human embryology and evolutionary development and regularly contributed to RTB’s podcasts and publications.