The inimitable Bill Idsardi sent me two links to a recent paper on Foxp2 (here and here). The paper, a collaborative effort between Ann Graybiel's lab at MIT and researchers at the Max Planck in Leipzig studied how mice equipped with a "humanized" form of the Foxp2 gene learned to run mazes. It seems that it helps, well at least some times in some ways. The big advantage the humanized gene provides os to facilitate the transition between declarative (deliberative) and procedural (automatic) forms of storing new info. At any rate, the mice did better at some tasks than those without the humanized form of the gene. The reports go onto speculate (and I do mean speculate) about how all of this might have something to do with language. Here's the AAAS version for the non-expert: "The results suggest the human version of the FOXP2 gene may enable quick switch to repetitive learning- an ability that could have helped infants 200,000 years ago better communicate with their parents." The emphasis in the previous quote is mine. I don't know if it is possible to make a more hedged "suggestion" but I sincerely doubt it. Even so, the report from Science does quote a skeptic who is "not sure how relevant the findings are to speech" given that the test relies on visual cues while speech relies on auditory ones. I think that were they to ask me I would have been more skeptical still as I am not sure I see what the bridging assumptions are that take one from facilitated routinization of maze running to even word learning (the capacity that Grabile cites in the MIT piece as possibly enhanced by this version of FOXP2 (is there a difference between FOXP2 and foxp2? I suspect that the former is the human one and the latter the non-human analogue. At any rate, …). Maybe, but it would have been nice to hear a little of how these two capacities might be related.
This might be interesting and important work. I am told that Graybiel is a big deal. Still, it is odd how little attempt there is to link this language gene to any language like effect. I suspect that the reasons for this (aside form the fact that it's probably hard at MIT to find anyone (e.g. a linguist) who knows anything about language (and yes that was sarcastic)) is that biologists are really flummoxed by language. The Science article notes in passing as if it were obvious the following: "As a uniquely human trait, language has long baffled evolutionary biologists" (2)." Funny, when I say things like this (e.g. that language is a species specific special capacity and that evolution has little to say about it) furor immediately erupts. However, it seems to be conventional wisdom, at least for Science writers (and both they and I are right about this). At any rate, take a look. It won't take long.
Here's one more thing that you might find interesting. Aaron White sent me this link to Michael Jordan where he discusses deep learning. His discussion of supervised vs unsupervised learning is useful coming from him. It's also short and he is also a big shot in this area so it's worth a quick look.
Thanks again to Bill and Aaron for this. Let me make it official: if you find something that you think would be of general interest, please send it along to me. One hope is that the blog can exploit the wisdom of crowds to make us all more aware with what is happening elsewhere that might be of general interest to us.