Saturday, April 29, 2006

Another One Bites the Dust

How many times have you heard a phrase in the form of: "humans are the only animals that X," where X is some kind of cognition or behavior? We hear that a lot less than we did a few decades ago, because scientists keep finding animals that do things that we used to think that only humans did. Now comes a report about yet another presumptive myth:
The Birds and the B’s Challenging Chomsky, Starlings Learn ‘Human-Only’ Syntax Patterns By Inga Kiderra April 26, 2006 The European starling – long known as a virtuoso songbird and as an expert mimic too – may also soon gain a reputation as something of a “grammar-marm.” This three-ounce bird, new research shows, can learn syntactic patterns formerly thought to be the exclusive province of humans. Led by Timothy Q. Gentner, assistant professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego, a study published in the April 27 issue of Nature demonstrates that starlings have the capacity to classify acoustic sequences defined by recursive, center-embedded grammars. Recursive center-embedding refers to the common characteristic of human grammars that allows for the creation of new (and grammatically correct) utterances by inserting words and clauses within sentences – theoretically, without limit. So, for example, “Oedipus ruled Thebes” can become “Oedipus, who killed his father, ruled Thebes” or “Oedipus, who killed his father, whom he met on the road from Delphi, ruled Thebes,” and so on. Chomskian linguists have held that this recursive center-embedding is a universal feature of human language and, moreover, that the ability to process it forms the computational core of a uniquely human language facility. “Our research is a refutation of the canonical position that what makes human language unique is a singular ability to comprehend these kinds of patterns,” Gentner said. “If birds can learn these patterning rules, then their use does not explain the uniqueness of human language.”
One thing remains unique about humans: We are the only creatures that can raise the price of oil by merely starting a rumor about attacking another country. The original article is in Nature, here.