5.04.2009

Bird Brains and The Science of Culture

This 2004 Wired piece explains the significance of birds as model organisms for neuroscientists studying "vocal learning."
"Countless animals make sounds, but the noises are almost all preprogrammed in the brain, not learned. A cat, for example, will meow and purr from birth. But it won't imitate anyone or pick up new sounds. 'The cat will create these vocalizations even in the absence of any other cat in its life,' said Robin Ashmore, a neuroscience graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania.

Humans and a few other kinds of animals -- including songbirds, bats, dolphins and whales -- are more complicated. They make some sounds automatically -- think of a human baby crying. But they pick up other sounds through 'vocal learning,' a kind of imitation that draws on their own internal databases of sounds."

A new study in Nature explores the notion that this similarity between birds and humans might also shine light on the way that culture might be "encoded" in our genes. This piece, also from Wired, breaks down the possible implications of the study's finding that "Zebra finches, which normally learn their complex courtship songs from their fathers, spontaneously developed the same songs all on their own after only a few generations."

"Birds transmit their songs through social interactions, as humans do for languages, dances, cuisine and other cultural elements. Though birds and humans have clearly followed different evolutionary paths, birdsong culture can still inform theories of human culture."

UPDATE: Razib vividly articulates the take home message:

"A tabula rasa view of human nature which was common until recently in much of anthropology seemed to posit that our species could explore a nearly infinite sample space of possibilities when it comes to the range of characteristics of societies. Evolutionary psychology in the classical sense arose in the 1980s as a counterpoint to this sort of thinking, emphasizing universal and invariant behavioral and social traits which presumably have a biological basis and are genetically encoded.

Both of these extreme positions clearly do not accurately describe the dynamic reality of human cultural evolution and development. Rather than a "flat" and nearly infinite space of possibilities, or a topology of a only a few narrow stable peaks, it seems possible that human culture flows through a space with peaks, valleys, constraints and canals."

This ain't your father's nature/nurture debate.

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