Ability to Learn Grammar Laid to Gene by Researcher.” This 1992 headline appeared not in a supermarket tabloid but in an Associated Press news story, based on a report at the annual meeting of the principal scientific association in the United States.
The report had summarized evidence that Specific Language Impairment runs in families, focusing on the British family which the inheritance pattern is particularly clear. The syndicated columnists James J. Kilpatrick and Erma Bombeck were incredulous. Kilpatrick’s column began:
Researchers made a stunning announcement the other day at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Are you ready? Genetic biologists have identified the grammar gene.
Yes! It appears from a news account that Steven Pinker of MIT and Myrna Gopnik of McGill University have solved a puzzle that has baffled teachers of English for years. Some pupils master grammar with no more than a few moans of protest. Others, given the same instruction, persist in saying that Susie invited her and I to the party. It is all a matter of heredity. This we can handle. A single dominant gene, the biologists believe, controls the ability to learn grammar. A child who says “them marbles is mine” is not necessarily stupid. He has all his marbles. The child is simply a little short on chromosomes.
It boggles the mind. Before long the researchers will isolate the gene that controls spelling . . . [the column continues] . . . neatness. . . . The read-a-book gene . . . a gene to turn down the boom box . . . another to turn off the TV . . . politeness . . . chores . .. homework . . .