Saturday, June 05, 2010

Bird Brain

I'm fascinated with this interview with a neurobiologist who studies the neurobiology of music. First of all, this is the first instance I've run across of a key scientific finding that started with a viral YouTube video (which I referenced on this site at the time, of Snowball the dancing cockatoo.)

Then there's this suggestive statement: "What do humans have in common with parrots? Both species are vocal learners, with the ability to imitate sounds. We share that rare skill with parrots. In that one respect, our brains are more like those of parrots than chimpanzees." I suspect there is more than this one respect, but it does emphasize the importance of the auditory in humans, especially when visual primacy is so heavily promoted.

I note once again that like too many other human endeavors, science is a prisoner of fashion. Studying the neurobiology involved in making and responding to music is a relatively new field, even though humans have been making and responding to music since probably before they were human. But fashion dictated that music wasn't scientific enough. "One of the founders of this field, Dr. Robert Zatorre, before 2000, he never used the word music in a grant application. He knew it would get turned down automatically because people thought this was not scientific. Instead, he used terms like “complex nonlinguistic auditory processing.”

Finally, the reason that this finding is so earth-shattering is not that it is a new phenomenon, nor one that would especially surprise people who have been around birds a lot. It's the latest in a growing line of corrections to human (scientific) arrogance. Man, the only tool maker and tool user? Not really. Man, the only maker and user of language? Hardly. Now add to that, man, the only musical creature. Not so much. Seriously. That a bird--moreover, a bird that can imitate virtually any sound, including melodies--can dance to a beat has astounded modern science.

It is only because of scientific arrogance--serving the worst of human arrogance--as our species has separated itself from all others. And is now the agent for ridding the planet of other species--thousands of them every year, from plants to our closest genetic relatives.

Indigenous peoples who lived in the same context as other animals learned music from bird song. Their stories and traditions--surviving into the 20th century, as chronicled by Richard Nelson among others--profess the notion, so apparently odd to our official knowledge, that we are not the only beings on the planet. But we are so far away from those other beings that it takes the pomposity of neuroscience to square the circle. We will lose so many of those beings before we figure out once again how to relate to them, or even how to talk about them except as objects and abstractions.

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