Their initial studies, the first to study song in wild mice, confirmed that males emit songs when they encounter a females’ scent and that females are attracted to the songs. The scientists also found that females can tell apart their brothers from unrelated males by their songs – even though they had previously never heard their brothers sing.
We already know that birds use song to impress mates, and now mice. What about people?
There are two main hypotheses about how language began in humans. The one that gets the most play is the gestural (or mirror) hypothesis, as articulated by Michael Arbib, which goes something like this:
- We have neurones in our brains that fire when we perform an action.
- We also have ‘mirror neurons’ that fire when we see someone else performing the same action.
- This allows us to recognise when someone is doing something.
- From here, we can imitate others, and start to communicate using gestures, including pantomime.
- This allows us to represent things that aren’t in the immediate vicinity, which is a precursor to language.
But it’s not clear from this how we make the move from gesture to speech.
The other main hypothesis is that human language started from music. This was Darwin’s favoured hypothesis, and it’s found a new advocate in W. Tecumseh Fitch (who I interviewed for an episode of ‘Talk the Talk‘).
For this one,
- People were able to vocalise (or sing), and if their singing was sumptuous enough, they got the mates.
- At the same time, we can recognise people’s voices, and distinguish them from the voices of other people.
- We can even do imitations of other people, which allows us to represent them when they’re not around.
This could have been the beginning of representing things that aren’t around, which, again, is necessary for language. And it explains the use of the vocal channel.
So, mice. They sing. They use their songs to attract mates. They can tell each other apart by voice. All very languagy. It’s not just birds.
Even though both gesture and music were probably big factors in human language at the same time, I think this tips things toward the music hypothesis.