Tecumseh Fitch – Academic Website

Professor W. Tecumseh Fitch, Cognitive Biologist at the University of Vienna, Austria.

This is the new academic website of Prof. W Tecumseh Fitch, Professor of Cognitive Biology at the University of Vienna. Here I give a brief overview of my scientific perspective

I study cognitive biology: the biology and evolution of behavior and cognition in animals (including humans). My main research topics include bioacoustics, biolinguistics and biomusicology, and I have more recently developed a strong interest in empirical aesthetics. Given my joint background in biology and cognitive science, my basic approach in all of these fields is similar. I adopt a strongly comparative perspective: In order to understand cognitive evolution, you need to understand congition in multiple species (often, but not always, including humans).

Thus, for example, earlier approaches to the evolution of human speech focused almost entirely on our own species (occasionally with another primate or two thrown in), and either explicitly or implicitly treated the human speech apparatus as a uniquely human adaptation for language. My research has shown that in fact that most aspects of human speech, including the anatomical, acoustic and neural bases of speech, are shared with other nonhuman species. This does not mean that there is nothing differentiating human speech from vocal communication in other species: there is! But the only way to understand these specializations is to take a broad comparative perspective, and to understand the many ways in which our larynx and vocal tract are just like those of other mammals.

As a concrete example, it was long believed that humans are unique in having a descended larynx: our larynx (or voice box) is located lower in the throat compared to most other animals. This in turn was believed to allow us to produce vowel sounds that are both crucial to linguistic communication, and constitute uniquely human adaptations. My work with colleague David Reby on deer showed that males of these species also have a permanently descended larynx, but they do not use this anatomical specialization to create many vowels. Instead it serves to make their vocalizations more impressive to listeners by lowering formant frequencies.

Later work with my colleagues Asif Ghazanfar and Bart de Boer analyzed the vocal possibilities of macaque monkeys, and showed that their vocal tract would allow a rich vowel space with five discriminable vowels (the same number found in the majority of human languages. This means that their vocal tract is entirely consistent with speech communication – monkeys have a “speech ready” vocal tract. The reason that monkeys don’t talk thus has to do with their brains rather than their vocal tracts. This research provides an example of how a broad comparative approach can be used to understand the evolution of crucial human capabilities like speech, language or music. I will offer more examples in future posts.