Profile: Erich Jarvis
Published May 2, 2018
Onscreen: The songbird whisperer.
Erich Jarvis: Many people have been assuming that we're much more different than animals when it comes to language. When we start to answer that question, and begin to realize the similarities, then we start to learn how we can get at this mystery of where language came from.
Narrator: This is the question that drives Erich Jarvis at Rockefeller University. A formally trained dancer from the Bronx, he’s long been fascinated by language.
Jarvis: So I felt like being trained as a dancer, trained me to become a scientist, because both require a lot of discipline, hard work, creativity, lots of failure before you get success.
Narrator: And in the past 29 years, Erich HAS had a lot of success, but the path to get there was not easy.
Jarvis: I guess my story begins with being born here in New York City. We had what one might consider a broken family. My father, he eventually became homeless, and he was later killed by gangs who were killing homeless people. So I grew up with a single mother, we were not a wealthy family. Culturally, we were wealthy. I followed my mother’s wisdom of trying to do something that has a positive impact on society, so I decided I'm going to become a scientist.I had to learn that it is more difficult for me, because I didn't have much to compare to. There wasn't anybody in my family, anybody in my friend circle, anybody in my neighborhood that I knew, was a scientist.
Narrator: Nonetheless, Erich forged ahead, delving for answers about the origin of language in the brains of songbirds.
Jarvis: This mystery of where language came from, 10 years ago, we had very little clue. But now, we're at the point where we’re starting to understand how language brain pathways evolve, and the underlying genes that control that.
Narrator: Humans with a mutation in the FOXp2 gene—who are otherwise normal—have trouble making complex sounds. Songbirds also have a FOXp2 gene. And when Erich inserted the same mutation into them, they too had trouble.
Jarvis: The birds can't imitate properly, just like in humans. Even though we're separated by 300 million years from a common ancestor, a gene became used for a similar purpose in humans and vocal-learning in birds.
Narrator: Turns out all animals have a FOXp2 gene. Erich decided to try the same experiment in a species that doesn’t learn its vocalizations: mice. They don’t just squeak—
Jarvis: …they sing, that when pitched down to the human hearing range, actually sound like songbird songs. It's amazing.
Narrator: And like many songbirds, the males sing to impress the ladies—
Jarvis: Usually when you put a female with a male he produces these complex, very modulated syllables. We call them sexy songs.
Narrator: But unlike songbirds, mice are born knowing their songs.
First, the normal mouse.
Jarvis: I’m going to go ahead and put him in a cage now to see how he responds to this female, and I’m going to expect since he doesn’t have the mutation, that he’s going to produce more complex songs. So here we go. </p>
There he goes. That’s a complex syllable type. There he goes. See? So like we have these pitch jumps here from here to here, here to here, and then these long syllables like these followed by short ones.. This is what a normal animal should be singing.
Narrator: Now for his brother, the mouse carrying the same mutant version of the gene that affects speech in humans and songbirds.
Jarvis: So our question is will his mutation affect his ability to produce song, and if so, how?
Here he goes, here he goes. These are more simple syllables. Simple…here you go…he’s singing. So this guy, he’s behaving normally, but he doesn’t seem to want to produce these more complex sequences that we’ve seen in his brother.
So what you see here are sonograms of the sounds that these mice are producing, and what kind of almost looks obvious here, this is the complex song, that the wild type mice sing, to the female.
You take the FOXp2 mice with the mutation, instead of doing this, they do this. The simple song, where they have these simple syllables, not the same as what you’re seeing in the wild type mice.
Narrator: What it means—according to Erich—is that the roots of human language run deeper than we previously thought. Even in a species that’s born knowing its vocal repertoire, FOXp2 appears to affect the ability to make complex sounds.
Jarvis: And it suggests that it’s not a black or white world of the haves and the have-nots; it’s a continuum. And it brings us closer to these other animals, in our abilities, in our cognition, in our speech. I’m not saying we’re the same, mice and humans aren’t the same, we’re more advanced, but we are closer than what people realize.
NOVA WONDERS WHAT ARE ANIMALS SAYING?
Michael Bicks & Anna Lee Strachan
© WGBH Educational Foundation 2018