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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

What's In the Genes? Birds Re-Create Their Music

Can Culture Be Encoded in DNA? New Research Says "Yes"
Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory scientists isolated a Zebra Finch, preventing it from learning the songs of its parents (and probably pissing off a bunch of PETA activists). These finches are known to learn their song from elder male relatives, which is why the scientists were surprised to see the same songs emerge from a colony of these utterly isolated birds.

They didn't get it right immediately. The first isolated bird, cut off from its culture, emitted a cacophonous screeching about as melodious as nails being dragged down a pieces of broken blackboard which were, in turn, being dragged down an even larger blackboard. It even tried to teach its kids the same, but they obviously thought "that sucks" (in bird) and made a few improvements. After four generations, the original finch songs reappeared, meaning that either

a) Cultural information can be genetically encoded or
b) Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has embarrassingly bad sound insulation.
We're going to assume a) for now.

The implications are enormous: the encoded information wasn't immediately available like some kind of genetic database, but as the baby birds learned and improved what they saw they were all along being guided by built-in information. At every point, if you'll forgive the outrageous anthropomorphization, they "thought" they were working it out for themselves while dancing to the genetic tune. That's the kind of thing that would make you think very seriously about free will.

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