My girlfriend told me last night that cats evolved meowing specifically in order to mimic the sound of a baby's crying to get us to feed them and so forth. Considering the meme of throwing shoes at loud, stray cats in American cartoons, in many cases all the meowing does is irritate us, needless to say I was quite skeptical.

However, I did a little research, and found this short Scientific American article:

To understand just how cats vocally manipulate owners, including herself, McComb and her team set up a series of experiments. First they recorded the purrs of 10 cats; some were recorded when a cat was actively soliciting food and others in a non-solicitation setting. Fifty people then listened to the sounds at the same volume. Individuals judged pleading purrs as more urgent and less pleasant than normal purrs. When the researchers played the purrs re-synthesized to exclude the hungry cries, leaving all else the same, the volunteers perceived the purrs as far less urgent.

McComb suggests that cats may be cashing in on human's naturally nurturing response to a baby’s cry. Previous studies have shown the cat’s embedded cry shares a similar frequency.

I also found this Cornell article:

After more than 5,000 years of human-feline cohabitation and enough elaborations on "meow!" to fill a dictionary, cats still haven't mastered language. But a Cornell University evolutionary psychology study -- analyzing people's reactions to feline vocalizations -- shows that cats know how to get what they want.

"No matter what we like to believe, cats are probably not using language," says Nicholas Nicastro, a self-described cat person who has documented hundreds of different feline vocalizations in the common house cat (Felis catus ) and its ancestor, the African wild cat (Felis silvestris lybica ). His study, which he will describe June 5, 2002, at the 143rd meeting of the Acoustical Society of America, in Pittsburgh, "shows that some very effective cat-to-human communication is going on," he says. "Though they lack language, cats have become very skilled at managing humans to get what they want -- basically food, shelter and a little human affection."

Thanks to Wikipedia / @OddThinking, there is also this article from the ASPCA:

Kittens meow to let their mother know they’re cold or hungry, but once they get a bit older, cats no longer meow to other cats. But they continue to meow to people throughout their lives, probably because meowing gets people to do what they want.

This is a further suggestion that cat meowing is mostly for humans benefit, which would suggest they would not do it without their relationship with humans. Yet, stray / abandoned cats do meow anyway.

Have cats actually evolved in the last 5000 years to get better at manipulating humans? Is it a skill that cats simply get better at through positive reinforcement?

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    Have you find anyone (except your girlfriend) who claims that cats evolved that ability? The SciAm you quoted might be saying that they already had that ability and that it happens to match the same frequencies. If you don't know of a source which claims evolution, does your girlfriend know what any source for that claim is? I ask because I'm wondering whether it's a "notable claim" or whether you're reading too much into the SciAm article you quoted (because the bit you quoted doesn't mention evolution).
    – ChrisW
    May 30 '15 at 13:03
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    @ChrisW This is my first skeptics post. I don't yet know exactly how much research is expected to ask a question here; if more is needed, please tell me and I'll do my best to edit the question.
    – durron597
    May 30 '15 at 13:51
  • Well then: Welcome to skeptics! I'm asking whether the claim (that "cats evolved") is 'notable', because questions of the form "I heard from my friend that" aren't necessarily seen as notable. I'm looking for any evidence that someone has made that claim and that several people believe that claim.
    – ChrisW
    May 30 '15 at 13:59
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    The usual way to show evidence that a claim is notable is to reference an instance of the claim is published somewhere, in a place where at least, I don't know, a few hundred will have read it (perhaps we assume that if a few hundred people read a claim then at least a few will believe it). Certainly if SciAm had made that claim then it would be notable, but I don't see that specific claim (that cats evolved) in the SciAm article. Is anyone other that your girlfriend claiming that cats evolved? If you don't know anyone else claiming that, does your girlfriend know anyone else claiming that?
    – ChrisW
    May 30 '15 at 14:02
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    None of the quotations mention evolution. I see no claim that cats evolved to do this, only claims that cats individually learn to do this. Your title and question text seem to overstate the claims quoted. You either need to find a notable claim that cats have evolved this behaviour (i.e. it is genetically programmed not learned) or you need to alter the title and text if you are sceptical that cats learn to manipulate (really to persuade) humans to give them what they want by modified use of meowing. May 30 '15 at 18:26

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