The evolution of novel morphological features, such as feathers, involves the modification of developmental processes regulated by gene networks. The fact that genetic novelty operates within developmental constraints is the central tenet of the 'evo-devo' conceptual framework. It is supported by findings that certain molecular regulatory pathways act in a similar manner in the development of morphological adaptations, which are not directly related by common ancestry but evolved convergently. The Pax6 gene, important for vision in molluscs, insects and vertebrates, and Hox genes, important for tetrapod limbs and fish fins, exemplify this 'deep homology'. Recently, 'evo-devo' has expanded to the molecular analysis of behavioural traits, including social behaviour, learning and memory. Here, we apply this approach to the evolution of human language. Human speech is a form of auditory-guided, learned vocal motor behaviour that also evolved in certain species of birds, bats and ocean mammals. Genes relevant for language, including the transcription factor FOXP2, have been identified. We review evidence that FoxP2 and its regulatory gene network shapes neural plasticity in cortico-basal ganglia circuits underlying the sensory-guided motor learning in animal models. The emerging picture can help us understand how complex cognitive traits can 'descend with modification'.