by Hannah Smith
Have you ever wondered why you can teach a parakeet to talk, but you can’t teach a dog or a cat? Dr. Erich Jarvis has spent his scientific career studying the brain pathways required for this behavior, called vocal learning, and trying to decipher how this trait evolved only in a handful of animals. But before he was well known around the globe for his work on avian brains and genomes, he was a kid growing up on the east coast who was almost a dancer.
Erich Jarvis grew up in New York City. Drawing on the performance art background of his parents – his mother was a gospel singer, and his father was a musician – Jarvis excelled at dance. He received dance scholarships and attended the High School of Performing Arts, but he later pivoted to study biology and mathematics at Hunter College of the City University of New York. Jarvis did his graduate and postdoctoral research at the Rockefeller University, became a professor at Duke University, and is now a professor at the Rockefeller University and has received the high distinction of being a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator. Jarvis has said that his work ethic and productivity in science was influenced by lessons he learned during his time as a dancer: you have to be creative, you have to work hard and be disciplined, and you have to be willing to fail over and over until you’re successful.
Dr. Erich Jarvis now uses songbirds to study the evolution of vocal learning – the ability of an animal to learn and produce sounds that they weren’t born making. This is how parrots learn to copy sentences their owners say and how human babies learn to talk – they hear new sounds and can learn to reproduce them. Very few animals have the capacity for vocal learning; only humans, songbirds, parrots, hummingbirds, elephants, bats, whales, dolphins, and seals can do it. Through his research efforts to explain how the ability to sing and speak has evolved multiple times independently in distantly related species, Jarvis identified the regions of brain that control vocal learning and has developed the “motor theory of vocal learning.” His hypothesis is that all species have a vocal innate pathway to produce sounds like crying and screaming, and all species also have a motor learning pathway to control their limbs and movement. Jarvis’s theory is that in some animals, throughout their evolution, the motor learning pathway in the brain duplicated itself and formed new connections to the vocal innate pathway. It was as a result of this new connection that the vocal learning pathway emerged, a specialization of pre-existing motor control pathways allowing for more precise motor control over the production of sounds.
One surprising example that supports Jarvis’s theory is found in the way that different animals dance. Many animals can recognize music and will sometimes dance a bit in response – there are plenty of videos on the internet of dogs that begin randomly wagging to a pop song – but only animals that have the capacity for vocal learning can dance along to the exact beat of the music. This is because the vocal learning pathway in animals like songbirds and humans allows them to hear a new sound, in this case music, and recognize patterns in it. But instead of reproducing the patterns vocally, they reproduce the patterns with the beat of their movement. It is somewhat poetic that the motor theory of vocal learning brings Jarvis full circle, connecting his research on vocal learning to his initial passion for dance. Now that Jarvis has an understanding of the brain areas and connections that permit vocal learning, he may be able to utilize this knowledge to engineer animals like chicken and mice to make sounds they never could before, or to restore the speaking ability to humans who have lost it or were born without it.
In addition to his scientific achievements, Jarvis has spent a considerable amount of time paving the way into science for other scientists of color. Jarvis’s scientific achievements are remarkable, but he has faced many obstacles along the way. Jarvis’s passion for science brought him into a field where few people shared his background or looked like him. Jarvis received racist and discriminatory comments in graduate school interviews and had to financially support himself through school. While in graduate school, his father died as a result of random gang violence, leaving Jarvis to juggle graduate school with financial instability, family trauma, and a feeling of being less-than and not belonging. Jarvis has dedicated a lot of his own time and energy to addressing the systemic racism that holds back other underrepresented scientists. Hopefully, one day in the future, a scientist of color may be able to focus entirely on their scientific work without also having to fight to feel like they belong.
Hannah Smith is a Biology PhD student at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Hannah is interested in the biological pathways that regulate aging, and whether we can target these pathways to make people healthier in old age (but she’s currently doing experiments on the microscopic nematode worm C. elegans, not humans).
Photograph of Erich Jarvis by Frank Veronsky.
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