The story of evolution, human origins, and language origins just took a new turn onto a different road. Mendelian genetics has now been shown to be incomplete and awaiting an Einstein to clarify the situation. According to the old genetics we inherit genes that determine the traits that will be passed on. The synthesis of Mendel and Darwin described the selection of genes/traits. Nature has just published a set of six papers reporting that we inherit more than genes.
It has been apparent for some time now that some genes control other genes, but exploration of the DNA molecule also turned up what has been called "junk DNA;" those are strings of molecular information that do not produce proteins. Most shocking was the observation that most of the DNA molecule was junk; genes were the rare part. Now it turns out that the junk is not junk at all—it regulates, coordinates, and manipulates the genetic minority. We knew there was a little bit of such regulating, but this turns out to be a Pacific Ocean of control. Wow!
Today is one of those days like the one when Balboa stood silent on a peak in Darien. We can look at one another with wild surmise, but there is plenty of exploration to be done. The modern synthesis of Darwin and Mendel will have to be revised because Mendelian genetics leaves out too much. Human origins needs to be reconsidered because we need to understand better how changes to the jDNA (as, for the moment, I'm calling the newly important "junk" DNA) change the species. What is the role of jDNA in evolution? Does it speed things up or make the process even slower? I can imagine a lot of very specific questions for what it means to the origin of language, but until we have mapped more of this new ocean they cannot be well formulated. Meanwhile, I'm looking around for news about what's out there in this new ocean.
"What I am sure of is that this is the science for this century," [Ewan] Birney [of the European Bioinformatics Institute] said [to the Washington Post]. "In this century we will be working out how humans are made from this instruction manual."