Today’s English language listening practice is all about science fiction made real. If you’ve ever watched any of the planet of the apes films, what you hear in this podcast will definitely make you think twice. Today’s conversation in English will contain a lot of useful vocabulary and hopefully keep you interested in the topic.
The moral and ethical questions that the genetic science talked about in today’s English lesson should keep people up at night. It's almost the plot line for a horror movie, where someone innocently asks "What could possibly go wrong?"
Once again, science is pushing way ahead of societal norms. I only came across the research because of my interest in the human brain. Once I started researching the topic for this podcast, I could not stop looking for more. It seems there is a lot of active research taking place.
The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.
⭐ Isaac Asimov, Scientist and Author
Most people will hardly know what’s happening and most people are not being asked if they are OK with what the scientists are doing. Just because you can do something does not mean you should. The research I’ve found is definitely not mainstream news.
I’d be interested to hear what you think about today’s English lesson. As always, I love to hear from listeners. Good or bad, just email us your thoughts. You can find our email addresses at the bottom of every web page on our website here.
Understatement Societal Neurons Moral Ethical
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So your task when learning English beyond the basic level of learning, is to listen to a lot of English language being spoken. So while your brain is getting busy unconsciously, unknowingly with the English language, why don’t we talk about an interesting scientific discovery – so that you can be entertained while your brain is doing the work of ‘Listen & Learn’?
In 2015, scientists discovered a special gene which is really important in human development. Where I’m using the word ‘gene’, let me name the difference between ‘jeans’, JEANS – which you wear on your legs, made out of denim – and ‘genes’, GENES which are part of your genetics. We inherit our genes, GENES from our parents – and our genes determine all kinds of things – at a simple level, like our eye colour or our hair colour. But they determine a lot else as well.
So what is special about the gene discovered in 2015 – and why is this relevant to now? Well, in 2015, an article published in the magazine Science, described a gene, known as ARHGAP11B, which has been shown to speed up growth of the brain. The brain, BRAIN is that wonderful machine inside your head, that you use to think with and to speak with – and to understand with. More accurately, our brains consists of ‘neurons’, NEURONS –and neurons are ‘brain cells’.
The Gene That Changed Everything In This Listening Practice Conversation In English Ep 461 Article Image
A photograph of a human brain. We discuss the moral minefield of genetically modifying animals in today's conversation in English.
A cell, CELL is a word for a tiny piece of a human being. So we have skin cells, blood cells – white and red blood cells in fact - bone cells, fat cells and many other types of cell throughout our body. We’re made up of cells, including the nerve cells in the brain, the neurons or ‘brain cells’. And this gene ARHGAP11B that was discovered in 2015 helped explain why humans are able to grow many, many more brain cells than other animals.
This genetic difference enabled humans to grow a much bigger neocortex in our brains. The neocortex is what makes us uniquely human. That’s why we can learn to play the piano, go to school. Because we have a big neocortex, NEOCORTEX, it means we’re good at thinking logically, we have speech and language, maybe more than one language, we can do maths, build things, create things. We can even do philosophy. We can think about the past and the future.
So we have a neocortex which is much bigger than even our closest relatives, the chimpanzees. And it’s what makes us human and intelligent and capable of reasoning and working things out – and so much more. It makes us capable of being much more dangerous too, of course.
And why did this genetic difference occur? Well, it’s thought to have happened by accident – a genetic ‘mutation’ – that’s MUTATION – and that word just means ‘a change’. So a bit like a mistake in copying something, suddenly we have the gene now known as ARHGAP11B, instead of its forerunner ARHGAP11A – and bingo, our brains just got bigger and bigger!
Much bigger than any of the animals. And if you look at a picture of our brain, all those folds and wrinkles – they’re what enable our much bigger brains to still fit inside our heads, inside our skulls, that’s SKULLS. And those wrinkles in our brains – well that’s a human phenomenon.
We have a massive neocortex, three times bigger than the chimpanzees, even – and they’re pretty intelligent! And this neocortex makes us human, inventive, different from all other animals. It makes you think – what would the world have been like without this genetic mutation, which is estimated to have happened around 5 million years ago? Maybe we’d have still been living in treetops. I don’t know. But there’s a lot of things which wouldn’t have happened! That’s called ‘an understatement’!
Anyway, scientists being scientists of course wanted to learn more from this. So they have already experimented on mice, MICE and put this gene, ARHGAP11B gene into mice – and observed that their brains did indeed grow bigger! I’m not sure what happened to these super-clever mice. But in 2020, scientists at the Max Plank Institute in Dresden in Germany worked with colleagues at the Central Institute for Experimental Animals (CIEA) in Kawasaki and the Keio University in Tokyo, Japan, and they experimented with marmosets.
Now a marmoset, MARMOSET is a kind of tiny, little monkey. Another piece of vocabulary you need here – a fetus, FETUS - that’s the baby growing inside the mother and a fetus is at an early stage, not fully developed. So the German and Japanese scientists introduced the gene, the human gene ARHGAP11B into Marmoset fetuses and waited for the results.
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And the marmosets’ brains did respond to the foreign gene. The scientists saw a noticeable enlargement in the neocortex of the marmoset fetuses’ brains. The brains grew bigger and began to develop the folds and wrinkles that are familiar to us in human brains. It was felt to be wrong to allow the Marmoset fetuses to be born – there are what you call ‘ethical considerations’ here. But the experiment would seem to verify that this gene, ARHGAP11B really does account for human’s having bigger brains and greater capabilities.
Can you imagine a world where animals could become capable of speaking, of reading and writing – and of having ideas like we do? I’m not even sure how I feel about that! It reminds me of Gary Larson’s cartoons, where much of the humour is because animals are given human thoughts and speech. And here we all are, us human beings, with the ability to learn languages, to communicate across the world, to make plans, to have dreams and this is all down to an accidental genetic mutation that happened 5 million years ago!
Or that’s what the scientists are telling us, at least. I realise for many people, their religion will say something completely different. But it makes you think, which is always worthwhile!
Anyway, enough for now. Have a lovely day. Speak to you again soon. Goodbye.
- Gary Larson’s cartoons
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- Science daily article
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- The phrase to think twice
- The Marmoset
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