Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login
Volitional Control of Vocalizations in Crows (plos.org)
25 points by bookofjoe on Aug 31, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 10 comments

Absolutely escapes me why anyone would think that any birds would not have conscious control over vocalizations. Highlights what is wrong with biology ie the assumption that we are surrounded by mindless organic automatons vice living, thinking creatures.

> "However, it is unclear whether songbirds can cognitively control their vocal output."

The second sentence of the abstract.

These biologists did not seem to assume that 'we are surrounded by mindless organic automatons' at all. They just didn't know and that's why they did some research. They probably started this research because they had some conviction that (at least some) birds do have control.


As simply sitting with one of these birds will quickly convince you that they aren't just smart but have a lot of control, I'm moved to think that they simply explored the inefficiencies of mechanized training approaches.

As a comparison, humans can't control stomach rumbling sounds, and can't stop blinking for an extended period.

That's an invalid comparison. The stomach is controlled mostly by the autonomic nervous system, as it is in all vertebrates. You aren't comparing like with like. Same for the blink reflex, breathing etc.

It is valid to compare vocalisation between species. Humans have it mostly under voluntary, conscious control. We do sometimes make sounds unconsciously or involuntarily, but it's not often. It's very likely the same considerations are at play for most vertebrates as well. Dogs clearly bark, growl, whine in response to what's going on around them. As well as screaming in pain if you e.g. accidentally stand on their paws while wearing heavy boots. It's almost certainly consciously controlled, because you can tell them to be quiet! I found it quite funny when I told mine to shut up after growling and barking for a while at stuff going on outside; the odd mini-growl showed they were trying to keep a lid on it not entirely successfully!

Neurologically, the essentials of the nervous system are almost entirely the same in higher vertebrates. Some things are more elaborated in some species, but the fundamentals are pretty much identical. There's even a large amount of similarity with invertebrates like insects. Which makes sense when you consider that all animal life has a common ancestor. I would be extremely surprised if vocalisation wasn't entirely voluntary in every single vertebrate species. I'm sure there's some behavioural and learned component to it, of course, but that's rather different than whether it's voluntary or not.

> Dogs clearly bark, growl, whine in response to what's going on around them. As well as screaming in pain if you e.g. accidentally stand on their paws while wearing heavy boots.

That's not concious. That's affective.

> It's almost certainly consciously controlled, because you can tell them to be quiet!

It's probably conciously suppressed. Although you can't be sure that suppression isn't affective response to fear of your disapproval.

No, such beliefs were perhaps entertained by Descartes. But to assume that humans are separate from animals in our conscious perception of the world and our agency flies completely in the face of our understanding of basic biology, from genetics, developmental biology, to neurophysiology.

We could claim that all other human beings aren't conscious as well, and that any reactions are affective only. It's clearly not serious, but claiming the same about mammals and other higher vertebrates can't be serious either given their extremely close biological similarity. It is extremely unlikely that they aren't as entirely as aware of the world as ourselves, and it is not logical to assume there is some fundamental cognitive difference when our observations show such close similarity.

In most birds vocalizations serve an evolutionary purpose, such as maintaining territory. Why could this not be autonomous?

Every aspect of biology serves an evolutionary purpose at some level. It has all been selected for at some point in time. Many behaviours are innate, including many (most?) of our own. However, the fact that we have many innate aspects to our own behaviour does not affect our functioning as conscious, aware, individuals with agency (or does it?). It is quite a stretch to presuppose that all the other species lack consciousness and agency, which is the default assumption for much research. I believe that assumption is probably wrong. Evolution has resulted in us having very well developed cognitive abilities, but we are not the only species with a brain, and most of the rest have broadly the same capabilities which we do. What separates us from the rest is advanced spoken language and written language, and even then, there are plenty of examples of other species which can communicate with their own basic language, or can learn ours. Our cognitive abilities might not be that much better than many other species; the differentiator is advanced language.

The general behaviours observed in a species does not imply a lack of conscious will governing individual actions. It's certainly possible that vocalisations could be involuntary. However, given our understanding of evolutionary and developmental biology, I think that it more likely that the opposite is true. However, disproving this hypothesis definitively would be quite difficult. It's difficult enough for individuals within our own species!

It's odd that crows were chosen for this study. It's well established that crows are talented vocal mimics, and in captivity to use those vocalizations to interact with their captors. It's analogous to looking for this behavior in parrots, if less obvious.

In regards to biology's approach to animal intelligence and psychology, I'm currently reading (and would recommend) "Are We Smart Enough To Know How Smart Animals Are?", which goes into this topic in detail.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact