Cool article in the NY Times about starlings and the evolution of language (from Nature, subscription required for that). The short overview: scientists taught starlings to recognize basic and slightly more complex language patterns, possibly offering clues as to how we evolved to the point where I can tap buttons on this keyboard and you can know exactly what I’m trying to say even though we’ve never met. Or have we? I’m terrible with faces.Ã‚Â
In any event:
The starlings trained by listening to songs. They had to peck at a hole if a song had the right pattern, and do nothing if it did not. If they chose correctly, the birds got food; if they chose wrong, the lights went out briefly.
It took as many as 40,000 trials, but 9 of 11 starlings learned to recognize the complex AABB pattern over 90 percent of the time. They could even recognize it when three pairs of warbles and rattles were inserted between an original pair of warbles and rattles.
“They can do this, and they do it with a high degree of proficiency,” Dr. Gentner said.
It reminds me of the problems we’ve had in the past when we thought we had stumbled upon advanced intelligence in animals, but we managed to fool ourselves rather well. Take for instance Clever Hans. Even Hans’ owner probably thought he was really something — a horse that can do math problems! A person would write “2+5″ on a chalkboard, and Hans would tap his foot seven times, amazing his audience. Eventually, scientists figured out that Hans was clever, but in a different way than they had imagined. He was taking the visual cues that his trainers unconsciously gave out, reading the way they tensed for example.
There have been similar issues surrounding the use of sign language with primates. Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker are well-known skeptics of the language research — they think that there is a very good possibility that those sneaky little monkeys are getting one over on us. Here’s a more in-depth write-up on that side of the debate.
So it is that this starling study has been heavily criticized. Noam Chomsky is one of those critics, arguing that the fact that the birds have been able to answer correctly does not mean that they are necessarily equipped to learn language and meaning. I imagine that there are going to be a lot more tests before something like this is resolved, but it’s fascinating nonetheless thanks to the intersection of animals, language, and the con artistry we occasionally perform on ourselves.
In other science-related news, I hung out at the Miracle of Science Bar + GrillÃ‚Â last night with one of my all-time favorite scientists, The Bad Astronomer (AKA Phil Plait). Hanging out with Phil is one of my top 10 favorite pastimes, so I was pretty happy, even if it did mean walking in the pouring rain for a good half hour trying to get back to the hotel (for him) and the T (for me). Earlier in the evening, we dined with his fabulous coworker Sara(h?) and Pamela of Slacker Astronomy. There was much talk of science, stars, things I didn’t understand, and double entendres aplenty. Good times!