Feature

No miracles

Science  19 Sep 2014:
Vol. 345, Issue 6203, pp. 1443-1445
DOI: 10.1126/science.345.6203.1443

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Summary

Evolutionary biologist and comparative psychologist Russell Gray of the University of Auckland has helped crack open two areas—animal cognition and historical linguistics—long regarded by many as black boxes, impenetrable to the scientific method. Because languages change at unpredictable rates, analyzing their relationships was for many linguists more of an art than a science. But by applying evolutionary methods borrowed from genetics, Gray and his colleagues are transforming the discipline, shaping it into a science of prehistory. His group has unraveled the histories of the Austronesian and Proto-Indo-European languages and peoples, and traced their migrations over vast distances. Although controversial, his papers have so stirred the field that several researchers credit him with being in the vanguard of a revolution. Gray's fresh approach prompted Germany's Max Planck Society to tap him as co-director of its new Institute for History and the Sciences in Jena. Gray's other research focus, animal cognition, was also thought to be beyond the ken of science. But this black box, too, yields to evolutionary thinking, Gray insists. He leads the University of Auckland's highly regarded project on New Caledonian crows, which have astonished biologists and the public with their skill at fashioning simple tools.

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