FOXP2, sometimes referred to as the “language gene,” is hypothesized to be a key gene in the development of grammar and language capacity, as well as in linguistic disabilities such as dyslexia and autism. Similar FOXP2 genes can actually be found across mammal, bird, reptile and fish species. FOXP2 codes for a transcription factor: a protein that enables other genes to express proteins. That is, although it's a single gene, FOXP2 actually influences an unknown (but significant) part of the genome, including the control of lung function. Because of its importance, FOXP2 is “highly conserved,” meaning that it has changed very little over tens of millions of years.
But those rare changes have proven crucial. In humans, beyond its role in lung development, the presence of FOXP2 has been shown to be directly linked to language skills. At some point after the final split between the evolutionary line leading to chimpanzees and the line leading to humans, FOXP2 saw two small mutations. These seem to have been critical to the development of complex language.
In many ways, the real significance of studies of FOXP2 is more symbolic, signaling a shift in the way we, as humans, understand culture and our human communities. From the anthropological, sociological, and psychological studies of the past century, we are shifting our attention to the intersection of genetic science, neuroscience, and culture. Ultimately, FOXP2 stands for a new approach to thinking about human cognition and cooperation. Perhaps the future will find us developing genetic therapies to fine-tune our cooperative or independent behaviors.