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Discussion Details

Title: Starlings and Recursion
Submitter: Oren Sadeh Leicht
Description: In re: LINGUIST List issue: http://linguistlist.org/issues/17/17-1286.html

In reference to the paper claiming that Starlings may possess a uniquely
human trait, that of recognition of recursion, I would like to point out
that this latter conclusion is incorrect.

The sequences Starlings had to respond to were of the sort AABB or AAABBB,
for instance. This means that rather than internalizing the concept of
recursion, all they had to do was to count. If two B's were preceded by two
A's, then they pressed a bar and were rewarded. they didn't have to possess
recursion for that. But even that could be argued against. The birds could
just detect a change in pattern, say a change from A to B. If they detected
it an adequate amount of times when it was (accidentally) 'recursive' (note
that there were 10,000 - 50,000 trials), this would become statistically
significant, enabling to falsely argue that they succeeded in recognizing

The conclusion must be that Starlings do not possess anything similar to
the core property of human language (recursion). The above comments are
also valid to studies of Tamarins (by Hauser and Fitch). In fact,
experiments involving self-embedding (AB)^n do not show anything about
recursion because of this complication.
Date Posted: 29-Apr-2006
Linguistic Field(s): Philosophy of Language
LL Issue: 17.1317
Posted: 29-Apr-2006

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