My laboratory esearch combines human evolutionary biology and neuroscience with the aim of investigating the evolution of human cognition. My work extends from laboratory-based cellular-molecular neurobiology to the study of semiotic processes underlying animal and human communication, especially language. Many of these interests are explored in my 1997 book, The Symbolic Species: The Coevolution of Language and the Brain.
My neurobiological research is focused on determining the nature of the human divergence from typical primate brain anatomy, the cellular-molecular mechanisms producing this difference, and the correlations between these anatomical differences and special human cognitive abilities, particularly language. In pursuit of these questions I have used a variety of laboratory approaches including the tracing of axonal connections, quantitative analysis of regions of different species brains, and cross-species fetal neural transplantation. Current lab research focuses on the developmental mechanisms that distinguish human brains from other mammal brains.
My theoretical interests include the study of evolution-like processes at many levels, including their role in embryonic development, neural signal processing, language change, and social processes, with attention to how these different processes interact and depend on each other. In addition, I have a long-standing interest in developing a scientific semiotics that could contribute to biosemiotics, cognitive neuroscience, and linguistics. This is fueled by a career-long interest in the ideas of the late 19th-century American philosopher, Charles Sanders Peirce. My 2012 book, incomplete Nature: The Emergence of Mind from Matter, explores the problem of explaining the emergence of end-directed processes in nature, from biological functions to mental processes, and integrates many of my interests in complex biological systems