Thursday, April 27, 2006

Bird language

A researcher has found that birds understand complex linguistic structures. If the findings hold up, it demolishes yet another ability that supposedly is unique to humans, joining "tool use" and "abstract thinking".

Researchers trained starlings to differentiate between a regular birdsong ''sentence" and one that was embedded with a warbled clause, according to research in today's issue of the journal Nature.

This ''recursive grammar" is what linguists have long believed separated man from beast.


While many animals can roar, sing, grunt, or otherwise make noise, linguists have contended for years that the key to distinguishing language skills goes back to our elementary school teachers and basic grammar. Recursive grammar -- inserting an explanatory clause like this one into a sentence -- is something that humans can recognize, but not animals, researchers figured.

This news will probably present some conservatives with a cognitive problem. On the one hand, it directly attacks the notion that humans and animals are somehow separate. On the other hand, it debunks a major linguistic assertion by many conservatives' favorite punching bag, Noam Chomsky. So do they accept the former in order to jump on the latter, or defend the latter in order to attack the former?

As an aside, while in Chicago we visited the Field Museum. They have an outstanding exhibit on the evolution of life, which I urge everyone to go see if you have the chance; it's a hugely informative and multilayered explanation of what scientists know, how we know it, and the conclusions drawn from that knowledge.

But what struck me most was the exhibit on Sue, the almost complete T Rex skeleton that is the centerpiece of the Field's collection. The skull was in such good shape that they were able to do a scan of her braincase and build a picture of her brain structure, showing the sinuses, olfactory bulbs and other regions. Judging from the scan, Sue had an excellent sense of smell.

One of the things you can examine is Sue's wishbone. It's a lot bigger and cruder than the one you pull apart after Thanksgiving dinner. But the exhibit notes that there are only two groups of animals that have wishbones: birds and meat-eating dinosaurs. And that is one of the reasons we think birds are the only living descendants of dinosaurs.

Likewise, humans are clearly descended from earlier animals. I don't see why people think this somehow lessens our humanity, disproves God or makes us less amazing. No other species has accomplished what we have in our short existence. And our having emerged from earlier species is far more wondrous than the idea that we were created as is.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Exactly. Why do some people believe that our descent from earlier species implies anything negative or disproves God? There really is nothing about evolution (of life or the universe) that contradicts religion.
- Caracarn

4/28/2006 12:17 PM  

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