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ix FOR E WOR D Philip Kitcher More than a century has elapsed since Darwin taught the world about the continuity of life. Part of his message, more prominent in the Descent of Man than in the Origin of Species, affirms a connection between our own species and the rest of the animal kingdom. Yet, as the late Stephen Jay Gould once remarked, when we learn of our evolution from apes, we should also recall that we evolved from apes. Besides the continuity, there are also differences. But what exactly are those differences? Are there important kinds of things we can do from which other animals are debarred? Or is it all a matter of degree? Perhaps for any characteristic or capacity that prompts us to swell our chests with pride, there’s a nonhuman species anticipating us. For anything we can do, maybe another animal does it to a lesser degree—or simply in a different way. And sometimes better? Darwin’s picture of life has revived, even intensified, the perennial human quest to explain just what it is that makes us different. Scholars complete the sentence “No other animal species can . . .” in many different ways. We have all heard some popular answers. “Humans use tools; other animals don’t.” “We can talk; they can’t.” Moreover, the subsequent debatesare familiar.JaneGoodallobservedchimpanzees stripping leaves from tree branches to fish for termites. Does that count? Is it sufficiently “creative”?Manykindsofanimalsemploysoundsorgesturesforpurposes ofcommunication.Some—parrots,chimps—canbetaughttousehuman x foreword languages. Do these findings warrant attributing linguistic abilities to species other than our own? Then there’s music. It’s a wonderful human achievement, one that enriches our lives. Some people think it played a pivotal role in the evolution of human language. A much-admired play opens by characterizing it as “the food of love.” Yet, of course, the natural world is full of organized sound. Humpback whales emit patterned clicks, gibbon calls produce focused notes, frogs give rhythmic calls. And even though bees don’t do it, birds do. Infact,birdsdoitmagnificently.Forcenturies,poetshavecelebratedthe beauties of birdsong. Musicians have been inspired to imitate the phrases created in a dawn chorus or a nocturnal serenade. Olivier Messiaen was only the most famous—and possibly the most dedicated—composer to incorporate birdsong into his works. Yet, despite all the fans and the fanfare , skepticism persists. Charming, mellifluous, inspiring it may be. But birdsong can’t count as real music. Why not? Probably the most popular reason for thinking that taking birdsong to be music is simply for the birds stems from long-discarded ideas. Many people suppose the vocalizations of birds to be instinctive, matters of running some innate program. Birds have evolved to make a species-typical pattern of sounds in order to attract mates. Come springtime , they perform by rote. Amateur ornithologists, especially those with sensitive ears, can cite innumerable cases by way of refutation. Hollis Taylor is a professional ecologist specializing in avian behavior (especially vocal behavior), and her ears are surely as keen as any ever to absorb hours of birdsong. After a long career as a violinist, composer, jazz performer, ethnomusicologist, and avant-garde musician, she has become captivated by the vocal talents of a particular bird species: the pied butcherbird, so named for its habit of seizing smaller birds and mammals and storing its food by impaling its prey on twigs. As she puts it, she has fallen in love with “a convict.” Her book is the decisive rebuttal of dismissals of avian creativity. It is a gift to our species and a mitigating plea on behalf of another, the principal target of her research. Birds may sing to attract mates. They may learn a species-typical pattern around which they weave their songs. But, as Hollis’s extensive fieldwork shows, their creativity is extraordinary. They may sing for hours foreword xi on occasions on which advertising to potential partners seems entirely irrelevant. They absorb sounds from the ambient environment into their songs, using them as cues or directly imitating what they hear. Anyone who is inclined to assimilate these activities to some blind instinct or some mechanical program should ponder whether our own musical effortsmightmeritakindredexplanation .Don’tsomemusicalmasterpieces have obvious functions? Composers write to celebrate a royal marriage or to honor the deity, songs are sung to woo, and dance music offers opportunities of closer contact. Are the processes of composition rooted in the pleasurable sounds we hear? Scientists investigating birdsong have joined the consensus among bird lovers...


Subject Headings

  • Birdsongs -- Australia.
  • Butcherbirds -- Behavior -- Australia.
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