Erich Jarvis, 41
His studies of songbirds are upending much of what we thought we knew about human language
If you think being surrounded by a chorus of songbirds would be a delightful experience, think again. Stepping into the middle of Erich Jarvis´s zebra finch breeding colony at Duke Univer-sity is like entering an auditorium filled with 200 tiny, screeching car alarms. The only pleasant sound in the room comes from Jarvis himself, as the star neurobiologist sings a surprisingly faithful version of a song made by the courting male zebra finch.
Jarvis learned the song the same way finches do: by listening to other finches and imitating the tune. This makes humans and finches both "vocal learners," a rare trait in the animal kingdom (only humans, songbirds, hummingbirds, parrots, bats, dolphins, whales and elephants are known to do it). Jarvis´s groundbreaking work suggests that this shared ability is rooted in a fundamentally parallel brain structure. It also may provide proof that "language" is an innate ability encoded into all vertebrate brains.
Jarvis first investigated how songbirds learn new songs by freezing, slicing, and dyeing the birds´ brains immediately after their final serenade. That process confirmed that birds use two distinct neural pathways to learn a song, one in front of the brain and one in back. He then discovered that on the neurological level, humans (and parrots and hummingbirds)learn to speak (and sing) in the same way.
But if each group evolved the ability to "speak" independently, how could
our brains all employ the same neural arrangement? Jarvis believes the answer lies in evolution-when we shared a common ancestor 300 million years ago, brains were hardwired for language. If he´s correct, even sophisticated human language grew out of the brain´s ancient networks, the same networks out of which "language" arises in finches.
Once neuroscientists better understand this genetic blueprint, they can in theory alter it, perhaps to repair brain damage or simply to enhance our ability to learn new languages. Until then, Jarvis is expanding his studies. He´d like to do more work on mammals, especially humans (though he finds it difficult to find subjects). "I see myself working with humans, but not just with humans," he says. After all, there´s so much to learn from the birds.-Adam M. Bright