Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Hard-wired for the Alphabet?

Probably a third of the sites I visit on a given days are science-related, and one of those I return to most regularly is Dienekes Anthropology Blog. Dienekes will occasionally explore cultural issues and other aspects of anthropology, but his primary focus is on genomic analysis, and you're much more likely to find there a post on the DNA haplogroups of the eastern Mediterranean than one on, say, Paleolithic tool assemblages excavated in eastern Siberia.

Yesterday he reported on a paper by Peter Frost about a gene variant that seems to have been linked with the spread of alphabetical writing. The variations occurs in the ASPM gene, which otherwise seems to be linked to the regulation of brain growth. The mutation apparently occurred somewhere in the middle east about 6000 years ago. It's now found in 38-50% of people in Europe, 37-52% of folks in the Middle East, but only 0-25% of people from East Asia (where writing, of course, has been non-alphabetic).

Whatever the current fate of scribes (and poets), it seems that the variation was initially of some value:
This task [of alphabetic writing] was largely delegated to scribes of various sorts who enjoyed privileged status and probably superior reproductive success. Such individuals may have served as vectors for spreading the new ASPM variant.
Nature and culture at play with one another, once more.



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