It’s been 10 or more years since I heard anything about the results of a discovery involving the gene responsible for speech in humans. It seems that gene involved the fine control of the organs and muscles that made it possible for humans to develop, in a period involving about 100 generations, a workable spoken language. At the time this discovery was announced, scientists were anticipating some experiments that seemed rather far out to me. For one thing, they were hoping to implant the gene in laboratory mice.
The reason for using mice, I understand, was because mice have such a short reproductive cycle, it would be possible to produce a hundred generations within a few years, thus making it possible to see any results within the scientists’ lifetime. I wondered, at the time, if the mice would be allowed to develop their own spoken mouse language, or if the scientists expected to be able to teach them English so that they could communicate with them. This, I thought, would be quite convenient, as we could perhaps be able to explain a few of the things we’d like to see changed in the mouse-to-man relationship.
The biggest drawback I found in this plan was that mice have such a short life span that we would no sooner get a generation up and speaking intelligibly then they would grow old and senile, or simply die of old age. Either of those outcomes would shorten the opportunities for meaningful experimentation to the extent that little progress would be made. I also wondered if the parent mice would teach the new language to their offspring, or would that be the responsibility of the scientists forever and ever.
Either way, I think it would be a lot more profitable to implant the gene in a species much more closely related to us humans. Like a gorilla, for instance. It’s a known fact that gorillas can learn to understand at least some words in our language, although they haven’t the ability to speak it. Seems to me that it would make a lot more sense to give them the power of speech, rather than mice, since they seem to already have some grasp of our language. Personally, I’d much rather carry on a conversation with a creature more closely resembling myself than with a tiny rodent who spent a lot of his time shredding family photographs and gnawing holes in other people’s antique quilts.
Gorillas, for one thing, would have more nearly-human voices than would mice. Can you imagine trying to hear clearly a tiny little mouse voice? We’d probably have to equip them with some sort of amplifying devices, and that would necessitate a whole new area of electronic technology. It wouldn’t be long before the mice would want to learn to read and write. What humans, once they’ve learned the skills of spoken communication, haven’t longed to have their words preserved for future generations? Mice, I suspect, would be no different. We’d have to find a way to make it possible for them to write (maybe tiny little computers, or at least, typewriters) and to print up tiny little mouse size books (we wouldn’t want them scampering all over our human size books, leaving “calling cards” between the pages as they are prone to do).
That little gorilla baby who was delivered by C-section at a zoo recently looks and behaves enough like a human baby that the idea of teaching him to talk, and even read and write seems possible. Too bad that special gene hadn’t been implanted in his ancestors many generations ago. Considering what I’ve seen in some of those programs about people living with, and learning about, some of our primate relatives, I think that most of them try really hard to speak or to respond in some way to the words of their human friends. I’d be willing to bet that their desire and determination would make speech possible long before the hundred generations have come and gone.
I understand that scientists think humans didn’t always have the abilities necessary for speech, and that our earliest ancestors probably communicated with, grunts, body language, and telepathy. We still tend to convey a lot of our thoughts and feelings through body language, and some of our vocal communications are reduced to what might be described as grunts and other non-verbal sounds. A rare few of us seem to have retained the ability to express certain things telepathically, and to understand unspoken messages from other people, but those abilities are doubted by most of us. Pity. Makes me wonder if we’ve made communication progress– or if we’ve lost a really important ability.