Scientists have found that many birds exhibit strikingly human-like musical principles in their songs—a revelation that may be difficult for evolutionists to explain.
In a paper published in “Royal Society Open Science,” an international team of researchers share their findings from a thorough analysis of bird songs. The scientists focused on the singing performances of Australian pied butcherbirds, whose songs are so complex and skillful that even composers have taken notice.
“Their songs are ideal for studying regularity across levels of song structure because song units (notes, phrases) are both complex and easy to identify,” the scientists wrote in their report. “Butcherbird vocalizations can be similar in sound to a piping flute, a cornet or an organ and also have inspired composers (such as Olivier Messiaen), who have referred to timbre, contour, gesture, rhythm, repetition, scales and formal structure as meaningful parameters of butcherbird vocalizations.”
The scientists were primarily interested in the relationship between repetition and novelty found in the butcherbird songs. This balance between repetition and variation is essential to most musical compositions, because it helps the music avoid habituation or overload.
“[B]alance between repetition and variation is highly abundant in music (within styles) and is one of the most-studied universals in music,” the scientists wrote.
Do birds, like humans, strike a balance between predictability and variety in their songs? This is the question the team set out to answer in their study.
“If this hypothesis is correct, then the level of temporal regularity in singing behaviour should be balanced against complexity: individual birds with larger song repertoires should aim at higher temporal regularity, and vice versa,” they noted.
To test their hypothesis, the researchers recorded and analyzed hundreds of recordings of bird songs, looking for repeating motifs and musical features. They founds that the birds’ songs do indeed exhibit human-like musical principles.
“[Butcherbirds] balance their performance to keep it in a sweet spot between boredom and confusion,” said co-author Ofer Tchernichovski, a psychologist at Hunter College. “Pied butcherbirds, not unlike jazz musicians, play around with their tunes, balancing repetition and variation.”
The notion that complex musical principles are integral to bird songs was once dismissed as preposterous.
“However, the extensive statistical and objective analysis of the new paper demonstrates that the more complex a bird’s repertoire, the better he or she is at singing in time, rhythmically interacting with other birds much more skillfully than those who know fewer songs,” wrote Dean Maskevich with the New Jersey Institute of Technology.
“Since pied butcherbird songs share so many commonalities with human music, this species could possibly revolutionize the way we think about the core values of music,” stated violinist and biomusicologist Hollis Taylor of Macquarie University.
According to Dr. Jeffrey Tomkins, Director of Life Sciences at the Institute for Creation Research (ICR), this study “poses a big problem for the evolutionary model of human origins” for several reasons.
“Rhythm and synchronous ability do not provide any apparent selectable advantage for survival,” Tomkins wrote in an online article. “Plus, the intricate neural wiring required for such a complex trait must be engineered in just the right way for it to function. An additional evolutionary anomaly is brought to light by this research: the only other types of creatures with this unique ability are certain species of birds and, in one documented case, an elephant—creatures not directly related to humans on the evolutionary tree.”
Furthermore, the fact that songbirds exhibit “incredibly complex and human-like” musical abilities makes no sense in the evolutionary paradigm, writes Tomkins.
“If evolution were true, one would expect that such behavioral complexity found in humans, developed gradually over millions of years, would be found at a reduced level in humanity’s supposed closest ancestors—the great apes,” he said. “Or if not found in apes, then surely such a complex trait along with its intricate neural wiring would not be present in any other organisms lower on the so-called evolutionary tree of life, especially those with such small brains as birds.”
“But as is typical in the amazing diversity of life on Earth,” Tomkins continued, “we see unimaginable engineered complexity at every level that utterly defies evolutionary predictions and points directly to God’s omnipotent creative powers.”