Birds learn to sing in much the same way that humans learn to talk — they absorb vocabulary and rules of usage through imitation. But a new paper by neurobiologist Partha Mitra suggests that in birds, at least, grammatical rules are hard-wired.
Mitra raised a group of male zebra finches in total isolation, with no exposure to other birds. As expected, their songs were far less structured and melodic than normal finch songs. Then Mitra let newly hatched finches learn songs from the isolated males; as that second generation matured, she let a third generation learn songs from them — and so on. Each generation imitated the older one — but corrected the songs’ ragged structures in a way that made all the songs increasingly resemble the songs of wild zebra finches. According to Mitra, an innate structure was asserting itself within the population.
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