Animal Intelligence: Looking Beyond Chosenness and Speciesism for the Sake of the Planet

One of the wonders of warm months is the opportunity to listen to the multivocal sounds of birds. The attentive listener perceives an environment filled with a myriad of calls, exchanges and songs between birds amid the ambient sonic tapestry.

There is a specialized use of the word “song” by scholars to refer to the music of certain songbirds whose musical capacities and repertoires are of such complexity and generativity to suggest parallels with human musicianship. In some cases, they freely adapt, organize and expand upon musical material they learn, to express their own unique songs. This may be different from the simpler bird calls you more typically hear in your backyard, not to diminish the beauty and value of those sounds.

As a musician, I often think about issues that matter to me through my lens of musical experience. While we tend to think of “music” as a distinct human activity, different in kind from the animal sounds we may (or may not) love, some birdsong is of such variety and complexity that it seems to represent expressiveness that transcends a functional value. Some birdsong seems to enter the realm of expressiveness for its own sake.

Embracing the world beyond ourselves — of everything, living and even inert — is a logical extension of the Reconstructionist affirmation of human equality implicit in our rejection of chosenness.

Like human song, the music of songbirds can consist of a series of phrases (sequences of notes) — some repeated with slight variation, albeit lacking the emotional logic we expect of human songs. Phrases may seem randomly sliced and diced and cut and pasted as they unfold over what can sometimes be long durations. The ability to inventively develop musical ideas is a trait we reserve for human beings.

Some birdsong seems to enter the realm of expressiveness for its own sake.

Part of the problem is that we think of human musical abilities as a sign of the uniqueness and specialness of our own species. In a previous Evolve essay, I suggested that we often live as if we consider ourselves to be “a chosen species,” one that acts with unawareness or disregard for the welfare of other species, while “this tiny blue globe … is burning.” What I suggested as a response is that we “embrace” the world beyond ourselves, “of everything, living and even inert.”

Such an embrace seems to me to be a logical extension of the Reconstructionist affirmation of human equality implicit in our rejection of chosenness. This broadened view is an affirmation of the inherent value of all living beings. Just as we need hedges against xenophobia, so, too, do we need a hedge against the inclination to view our planet’s ecosystem as an endlessly giving and resilient playground. The contingency of our lives and our destructive powers are not realities we like to face. For me, one useful reminder is the sonic world all around us and the agency of the creatures that are its creators.

Humans have remarkable and unusual musical capabilities. Yet in many other ways, we are but one species of animals — one among many — and the parallels we can discover between ourselves and others can be a source of humility. Searching within traditional Jewish sources, I did not anticipate finding the medieval philosopher Moses Maimonides identifying parallels between the mental capacities of humans and other animals:

If you are among those who know the soul and its powers … you already know that imagination exists in most living beings.[1]

The Hebrew Bible, while not equating non-human and human species, treats us all as intertwined. For example, at creation, fish and birds are given the blessing to be “fruitful and multiply” (Genesis 1:22) just a few verses before the same blessing is offered to human beings (1:28). God’s rainbow covenant after the flood, to never again destroy creation (9:12), is made as a promise to humans and all other life forms.

Songbirds provide a useful subject to help us discover intelligence and expressivity in non-humans because we can detect, just by using our ears, how much their creative, expressive behaviors can remind us of ourselves. David Rothenberg observes:

Imagine a bird enthralled with sound itself. His songs are beautiful, complex, clearly more than what is necessary to get the message across. … Their brains may be small but think how great a part of them is devoted to music, to pleasure, to art.[2]

This realization was at first jarring for me to ponder because as a conservatory-trained pianist, I was taught that music involved highly specialized skills limited to only some human beings, never mind non-humans. This elitist attitude left no space to consider that birds were creating music millions of years before the human species ever emerged. Once my curiosity became piqued, my thinking shifting from the uniqueness of any particular forms of musical expression to what differences and specialties we may each exhibit. In the case of songbirds, this opened the door to the recognition that these creatures do something that appears unlikely — that they create not only instinctively, but intentionally.

Songbirds vary greatly in the extent of their repertoire, their modes of learning from other birds, degrees of recall, sorting and selection, degrees of invention and approaches to treatment of available musical materials. The prolific common nightingale sings upwards of 200 different songs, and these songs display distinct formal structures and variety. Memory storage, recall, sorting and selection involve complex mental structures and procedures. The starling repertoire is even larger. The winter wren uses a set of organizing principles to construct songs from a large set of syllables. While their repertoire changes over time, the common nightingale, northern mockingbird, pied flycatcher and song sparrow learn and maintain a fixed repertoire.[3]

Hollis Taylor describes pied butcherbird song in this way: “Soloists tend not to repeat a phrase; instead, these versatile birds sing with immediate variety. The song might be as short as fifteen minutes or as long as seven hours.” Their songs have a contour, gradually changing from louder to softer, and use “repetition and variation, ostinato, canon, phrase endings, combinatoriality, and shape and balance” while, unlike human music, may lack a clear beginning or end or predictable length or order of phrases.[4]

The depth and range of songbird musicality, far more ancient than we can possibly trace, led me to ponder the origins of human music. There are many contrasting theories. Steven Mithin suggests that music and language were parallel developments of the earliest human forms of verbal articulations; sounds become language and tones emerge as music.[5] By contrast, Paul Shepard offers an ecological perspective — that human music and dance began in relationship to the sounds and patterns humans could perceive in other creatures. For Shepard, human music developed along with our “mental structures for recognizing patterned sound,” while surrounded by the rich world of nature’s sound, “a world of neighs, howls, bleats, cackles, barks, chirrups, buzzes and bellows, of coyotes and wolves howling … the synchronized trill of crickets and alternating rattle of grasshoppers … ”[6]

From this perspective, I asked myself whether the familiar blasts of a ram’s horn are in some way an imitation of sounds and patterns made by animals or found in the environment? Could there be patterns of call and response between songbird duet singing and human psalm singing? In fact, verses of biblical poetry often consist of parallel pairs of phrases. It is no surprise then that musical performance practices consist of sung phrases alternating between groups of singers (antiphony) or between a leader and the whole group (responsorial).

This is a pattern we find across many human cultures. Its presence is most familiar to North Americans within many African and African-American musical forms. Responsorial sequences appear throughout Jewish liturgy. Consider the morning chant, barukh she’amar, which alternates between statement and refrains barukh hu and barukh shemo. Or consider the opening verses of Psalm 119 in light of parallelism and call and response patterns:

Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
    who walk according to the law of God.
Blessed are those who keep God’s statutes,
    and seek God with all their heart.
they do no wrong
    but follow God ways.

Across many bird species, we find highly structured, rapidly unfolding responsorial duets; many seem organized in patterns we can recognize as analogous to human call and response. The plain-tailed wren song interlaces four very brief interlocking elements: Males sing the first and third phrases, and females the second and fourth, tightly integrating these modules into a single, multiply repeated song.[7]

While these birds process, organize and articulate information in ways different from human beings, we humans also approach composing and performing music in a wide array of forms. A few examples are sonatas, popular song forms, “zipper” singalongs, folk songs transmitted as accurately as possible, improvisatory structures. Jewish cantorial singing is rooted in semi-improvisational traditions in which a soloist selects phrases and patterns from within a vocabulary of musical modes (nusakh) and then cuts, pastes and elaborates upon them.

I have highlighted some obvious comparisons between human and songbird musical practices, but how might we conceptualize these as a shared endeavor? A term popular within scholarly writing is umwelt, the “specie specific world.” Jakob von Uexküll’s idea is that each species can only be adequately understood within the context of its specific environment.[8] James J. Gibson articulates this as a specie’s affordances — its capacities and its invariants — the features of the environment in which it lives. We have what we need to be what we are. The reverse is true as well–a bird doesn’t need to read books or compose symphonies, given its design and the environment that shapes it, and a human being does not need to fly between tree branches. Each species is expressive according to its capacities and its environment.[9]

We know little about how each non-human species perceives and processes what they sense within their umwelt or what motivates them beyond what we can learn through observing and studying their behavior, sound and brain structures. Scholars debate how the terms “culture,” “social order” and “play” may apply beyond humans. At the same time, such knowledge has not led us to understand sufficiently our own human motivations and the rationality of our own behavior. Music is one area where intellect only leads so far. One thing that scholars believe we share with other species may be call “mind.” Making music employs a musical mind. Here’s what I mean:

Felice Cimatti defines a musical mind in functional terms: the ability to inwardly direct expressive musical behavior. We can discern, within some songbirds, direction in contrast to instinct, and inward direction as suggested by their ability to learn musical materials, construct musical ideas by selecting, altering or transforming these materials, and the forms they utilize and create. We can hear songbirds interacting with other musical minds (although we often need to slow down recordings of their duets since these can occur far too fast for the human ear to interpret), and we can surmise that the results are at times not merely functional, but expressive. Human minds share these, and, of course, we have others all our own. These include the ability to reflect — to make musical choices that reflect new learning, largely unpredictable invention and even to create within the repertoire and rules governing musical cultures other than our own (even including those of songbirds). We have consciousness that we are creating that is limited while we are actively creating.

Yes, human beings are unique. We can even assert that we are better, more sophisticated, more flexible, more musical, or, in the biblical lexicon, “chosen.” We can delight in our unique capacities, hopefully when they feed our creative rather than destructive choices. But our unique reflective abilities also render us able to choose to reject the idea that other species as inferior and less worthy. The kinds of evidence I have addressed here shouldn’t be necessary for us to discern the unique and substantive capacities of other species. But if we need convincing, find the nearest songbirds in your geographic area or find recordings on the Internet of songbirds I discussed in this essay. Listen well and repeatedly. Find in them some resonance with your own human musical capacities as you experience the plenitude of their expressive musicality.

[1] Moses Maimonides, Guide to the Perplexed 1:75, trans. Shlomo Pines (University of Chicago,1963), p. 209.

[2] David Rothenberg, Why Birds Sing: A Journey Through the Mystery of Bird Song (New York: Basic Books, 2005), p. 10

[3] Silke Kipper, Roger Mundry, Henrike Hultsch and Dietmar Todt, “Long-Term Persistence of Song Performance Rules in Nightingales (Luscinia megarhynchos): A Longitudinal Field Study on Repertoire Size and Composition.” Behaviour 141: 3, (March, 2004), pp. 371-390; Rachel Levin, “Song behaviour and reproductive strategies in a duetting wren, Thryothorus nigricapillus: Removal experiments.” Animal Behavior 52 (1996), pp. 1093-1106; Hollis Taylor, Towards a Species Songbook: Illuminating the Vocalizations of the Australian Pied Butcherbird (Cracticus Nigrogularis). Ph.D. Thesis, University of Western Sidney, School of Communication Arts (Sydney, Australia), September 2008; D.Todt and H.Hultsch, “Ecology and evolution of acoustic communication in birds: Acquisition and Performance of Song Repertoires, Ways of Coping with Diversity and Versatility” in D.E. Kroodsma & E.H. Miller, eds, Ecology and evolution of acoustic communication in birds (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1996), pp. 79-96; Beatrice Van Horne, “Assessing Vocal Variety in the Winter Wren, A Bird With a Complex Repertoire,” The Condor 97 (The Cooper Ornithological Society 1995), pp. 39-49.

[4] Hollis Taylor, Is Birdsong Music? Outback Encounters with an Australian Songbird (Indiana University Press, 2017), p. 118.

[5] Steven Mithen, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body. Harvard University Press, 2007.

[6] Paul Shepard, The Others: How Animals Made Us Human (D.C.: Island Press, 1996), 154.

[7] Lauryn Benedict, “Occurrence and Life History Correlates of Vocal Duetting in North American Passerines,” Journal of Avian Biology 39:1 (January 2008), pp. 57-65; David M. Logue, “The Duet Code of the Female Black-Bellied Wren,” The Condor 108:2 (May 2006), pp. 326-335; Nigel I. Mann, Kimberly A. Dingess, F. Keith Barker, Jeff A. Graves and Peter J. B. Slater, “A Comparative Study of Song Form and Duetting in Neotropical Thryothorus Wrens,” Behaviour 146:1 (January 2009), pp. 1-43; A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.), The Birds of North America (Philadelphia. Birds of North America, Inc.), No. 632.

[8] Uexküll, Jakob von. “A Stroll Through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book of Invisible Worlds,” Instinctive Behavior: The Development of a Modern Concept, ed. and trans. Claire H. Schiller, New York: International Universities Press, Inc., 1957. Also published in Semiotica 89(4), 1992, pp. 319-391. Uexküll, “The New Concept of Umwelt: A Link between Science and the Humanities.” Semiotica. 134:1, 2001. Uexküll’s concept of umwelt is explained and developed further in Dario Martinelli, How Musical Is a Whale?: Towards a Theory of Zoomusicology. Helsinki: International Semiotics Institute, 2002.

[9] Gibson, J.J. The senses considered as perceptual systems, Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1966; Gibson, The ecological approach to visual perception. Hillsdale, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1986.

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