there is no gene for chinese

If you happened to read the wrong articles in the Times or the Herald today you might well have come away with the impression that the latest discovery by scientists is that the language you speak is determined by your genes.

There weren’t many right articles to read in the non-technical press, mind you: it seems like they mostly didn’t take too much care in reading the paper which the researchers in question actually published. The real thing is available here:

Dediu, D & Ladd, DR (2007), ‘Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency of the adaptive haplogroups of two brain size genes, ASPM and Microcephalin. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA

And with uncanny foresight, the authors have also written out a layman’s version, as if to somehow anticipate that the findings might get a bit garbled in the telling:

Further information on ‘Linguistic tone is related to the population frequency …’

The key point to bear in mind, should you choose to boggle your mind by reading any of the media coverage linked on that page, is what the authors say in their very first paragraph.

‘Human populations are diverse both genetically and linguistically, through interpopulation differences in allele frequencies and in the variety of languages and dialects they speak. In general, any relationship between these two types of diversity merely reflects geography and past demographic processes, not genetic influence on language behavior. It is indisputable that normal infants of any genetic makeup can learn the language(s) they are exposed to in the first years of life, so we can assume with considerable confidence that there are no “genes for Chinese.”‘ (Dediu & Ladd 2007: 1)

Further misconceptions can be addressed by referring to the blue box helpfully titled, “What the paper doesn’t show nor claim” at the bottom of Dediu and Ladd’s ‘further information’ page.


One thought on “there is no gene for chinese

  1. The first time one reads a news story about something one actually knows something about, is the first news story after the last that one will ever believe.

    What I don’t understand is why journalists find it so difficult to phone up someone who has a scoobie just to check they’ve got the general idea right. If no-one is more than four steps of acquaintance from Napoleaon, or whatever it is, then surely the mysterious inaccessibility of, oh, someone who can read a technical paper and work out whether it says A seems to depend on B, or A seems not to depend on B (even if they don’t know much about A or B or why one does or doesn’t depend on the other) should in itself be the subject of a detailed investigation.


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