Wednesday, July 29, 2009

learning


There was a program on PBS last night, NOVA, about language and the learning of it.  These scientists determined that babies learn human speech in much the same way that baby birds learn bird song by looking at the active parts of the brains and connections between them while this activity was going on.  We are all bird brains it seems.  We learn language the same way birds learn their songs, through listening and modulating sound to mimmick the sounds our adults are making.  Two parts of the brain are involved in this and it is the connections between the two that allow for speech or bird song.  Primates apparently don’t have the connections between the two parts.  They can make sound and they understand our words and can communicate with sign language (and teach it to their young) across specie lines (and how amazing is that!) but they do not have the ability to modulate sound into words.



What surprises me most about this is that there had to be a scientific study to prove it.  Not that we learn by mimmicking but that birds learned the same way.  The conventional wisdom has always been that only humans were capable of learning, of self-awareness, of awareness of other individuals and their environment.  For all other life it was instinct.  The simple fact that we are animals ourselves seemed to escape the attention of the scientists.  Anyone who ever paid attention to the other life around them already knew this.  It would be nice if this new scientific knowledge leads the human population to treat all other life with a little more respect but I don’t know.  We’re a pretty arrogant and destructive species.



Which brings me to another thought.  Where did this arrogance come from?  I don’t think it is so much from our ability to manipulate our environment.  We build some pretty elaborate houses but birds build some pretty elaborate nests, selecting their materials, weaving them tightly.  I’ve seen a cardinal in a tree looking at twigs, selecting one and then breaking it off.  That seems pretty sophisticated to me.  No, somewhere along the line we made a major shift.  We no longer thought of ourselves as a part of nature but rather apart from nature, that we did not need to respect and nuture the world but to use it.  Well, we’ve used it all right, used it to the point that it is becoming less and less able to support life.  In terms of longevity, we may turn out to be the least successful species this planet ever produced.

12 comments:

  1. hi ellen, this is something i think about quite a bit. i think kids know that animals aren't just instinct driven but we unlearn that as we get older. much the same with caring for our little parts of this planet. in my work as a teacher i'm fortunate that i get to share these very same perspectives and concerns with the people who will inherit the responsibility for caring for this planet. it's amazing how much they care! have a peaceful day. steven

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  2. Ellen, this is fantastic. Birdie brains all. The notion that this planet was made for us (won't mention the book) is highfalutin birdie brain bath-wash. Planet first, guardians failing. Too busy looking for next, not seeing now.

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  3. Excellent post, Ellen and all very true. We are distancing ourselves from nature at an alarming rate. We need more time outdoors, listening, feeling and seeing what's really going on around us. I'm so grateful for my camera for bringing me closer to the real world than I've been in a very long time. And if there's any doubt about the innate intelligence of birds, doubt no more.

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  4. Fascinating. Not a subject about which I know very much, but we have indeed removed ourselves from 'nature' somewhat. Or maybe we've just created a different nature and adapted that to suit our purposes.

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  5. Lots of food for thought here, Ellen. I usually watch Nova, but the guys were all here and took over the TV for the evening. I would have enjoyed this one.

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  6. Much to ponder here. Great post.

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  7. Steven - children are so aware. I am fortunate to have helped guide my children and grandchildren, help instill that respect. They are our hope.

    to all - Thanks. Yes, food for thought. I ponder it a lot.

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  8. I do think it's the Bible that taught us to think of ourselves as superior, that God gave us the planet to do with as we pleased. Sigh. Probably the story of Genesis comes from much older stories, though. Give a primate a complicated frontal lobe and some connections that enable speech, and the next thing you'll hear is some crazy bulls**t, eh?

    I'm proud to be a birdbrain, btw. Modern day dinosaurs, every one of them. Chirp, chirp!

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  9. I don't think it's that we're arrogant, we're just slower learners, and that may be because our longer lifespan affords us that luxury. God put people above other creatures and some learn from nature and grow from it while some don't and have no qualms about destroying it. But I believe that's the purpose of it all..... here's the world, what do you choose? The real arrogance would be thinking that we can change God's plans.

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  10. Wondering Woman - I respect your views but it is exactly that idea that 'god put us above all other creatures' that makes us arrogant. I do not believe that humans are either above or below, all creation is equal in the eyes of the creator.

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  11. As a Christian my creator is God..... He gave man dominion over the earth and everything in it and made man in His own image, so my creator does put us above the rest of His creation. Doesn't mean it's the way I'd have things be, or that I understand it; in fact I know that I DON'T understand, because He says that too. I'm not responding to argue with your views, just to clarify why I don't see man as inherently arrogant. I always enjoy stopping by for your thoughts.

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  12. Ah, yes we are indeed arrogant. We all (mankind) think ourselves superior to other species. Makes me wonder what those little birds must be saying behind our backs!

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I opened my big mouth, now it's your turn.