Letters from the July 8, 2006, issue of Science News

The grammar gene?

While reading that starlings may be capable of discerning grammatical patterns (“Grammar’s for the Birds: Human-only language rule? Tell starlings,” SN: 4/29/06, p. 261), I recalled the FOXP2 gene. The gene seems to be involved in the development of areas of the brain involved in speech in humans. Variants of FOXP2 were found in a family whose members shared a rare speech disorder. In gene comparisons with other species, the highest degree of similarity to humans was found in song-learning birds.

Tom Firak
Des Plaines, Ill.

Spit and a miss

“Energy-Saving Space Engines: Black holes can be green” (SN: 4/29/06, p. 261) refers repeatedly to black holes “swallowing matter and spitting out [or sending out] energy.” What really “spits out” or “sends out” anything is not the black hole itself, but the disk of gas that’s in the process of being mostly sucked irreversibly into the black hole.

Bruce Moomaw
Cameron Park, Calif.

Redox redux

“The Whole Enceladus” (SN: 5/6/06,

p. 282) states, “Known as redox reactions, they break down compounds by taking away or adding electrons—reducing or oxidizing the compounds, respectively.” I believe that compounds are oxidized when electrons are removed and reduced when electrons are added.

Bill Lindsay
Pacific Grove, Calif.

Birds do it

I’ve always found difficult the argument that Homo erectus couldn’t speak because of the size of its spinal cord (“Evolutionary Back Story: Thoroughly modern spine supported human ancestor,” SN: 5/6/06, p. 275). Consider that parrots manage to reproduce a wide range of human sounds.

David Petchey
Mill Valley, Calif.

Kill that hypothesis

Unless Vincenzo Formicola can demonstrate a human-caused fatal injury to the youngsters (“Making sacrifices in Stone Age societies,” SN: 5/13/06, p. 302), his suggestion of human sacrifice is just sensationalistic speculation. The likeliest reason for a group burial is death in an outbreak of disease. There are many modern instances, such as the era of the bubonic plague. The rich grave goods show the rank of the grieving parents.

Nancy Parker
Caldwell, Idaho

More Stories from Science News on Humans