May 09 2009
When I see people dancing, I sometimes want to join in. Other times another part of my brain kicks in and I think, “What odd behavior. I wonder how the tendency to engage in it evolved.” Dance is, after all, a cultural universal. Which means it is likely not just a matter of learning. There is something innate about the urge to dance. In humans. But what about other animals?
In a new piece of research conducted over at Harvard University, we learn that some animals “seem to be able to keep a beat, implying an evolutionary link between the two capacities.”
First off, big kudos for the use of “seem to be able.” For further down in the article we read the words of lead author, Adena Schachner:
“Our analyses showed that these birds’ movements were more lined up with the musical beat than we’d expect by chance,” says Schachner. “We found strong evidence that they were synchronizing with the beat, something that has not been seen before in other species.”
Second comes the “two capacities” part. Besides keeping a beat, what is the other? And here is the fascinating part – vocal mimicry. The ability to imitate sounds.
You may have observed that dogs are notoriously bad at disco dancing. The are also largely inept at vocal mimicry. Parrots, however, are another matter. It seems that they can get a bit of a groove on. Maybe if the researchers had better set the mood with a disco ball and some gold neck chains for the birds . . . .
And here is the suggestion of a clue to the evolution of human dance -
“Our data suggests that some of the brain mechanisms needed for human dance originally evolved to allow us to imitate sound,” says Schachner.
That certainly could be an important part of it. Could be. I wonder if mirror neurons and the human aptitude at motor/gestural mimicry could also play a role.