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?