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Natural-Born Storytellers

September 02, 2002

Good storytellers have always seemed like natural charmers, but now there is hard science to prove it.

New genetic research that traces the roots of spoken language back to a "Linguistic Eve" in Africa shows how genes may have conferred a romantic evolutionary advantage.

The finding, published last month in the British science journal Nature, shows how a single genetic mutation occurring between 50,000 and 100,000 years ago might have left some early humans better able than others to spin engaging stories and sing beautiful songs. That prowess, in turn, would have made them more likely to acquire sexual partners and spread their genes, says the study's lead author, Svante Paabo, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

The study supports a novel theory by Richard Klein, an archeologist at Stanford, that the emergence of behaviorally modern humans was set off by a major biological change, most probably the acquisition of genetic traits giving humans the ability to exert the sort of fine control over throat and mouth muscles that is needed for rapid speech.

The new study--the product of an interdisciplinary team of archeologists, linguists, geneticists and biologists put together by the Planck Institute--promises to foster warmer feelings between long-feuding social and natural scientists.

In the last few decades, the dramatic growth in human scientific knowledge has cowed many academics, leading them to retreat into ever-narrower and more isolated disciplines.

The Planck Institute has been impressively bucking this trend, encouraging researchers to ask ambitious questions and answer them using both intuition and science.

In so doing, the institute has kept alive the spirit of its namesake, Max Planck. The German physicist, who lived from 1854 to 1947, once said: "Over the entrance to the gates of science are written the words: Ye must have faith. It is a quality which the scientist cannot dispense with."

Planck was a polymath. For instance, drawing from his knowledge of music (he was a pianist with perfect pitch), he came to see that the motion of electrons through atoms bears less resemblance to the orbit of planets around the sun, as he had first thought, than to the trajectory of notes and harmonies in a musical score.

Paabo's study of language and culture exemplifies that sort of broad, interdisciplinary inquiry. It's a reminder that sometimes razing scientific walls can hasten the pace of scientific discovery.

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