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martedì 4 agosto 2015


 (in Eng?ish)

The interview opens with PiPs, on its way to the lunar-monthly appointment with its dermatologist (PiPs still can’t figure out how those damn armpits of its really work), passing by a chirping mayhem of birds that form a very long feathered line outside of, and fill the foyer up to the ceiling (literally, I mean, they’re birds, they can fly for [fill in with the deity of preference by the way Bacco seems a fun guy or Thunder pretty hard core it too] sake!) of the movie theatre “The fun’s beak” formerly known as “The high-flyer” (name dismissed ‘cause it made the theatre to be confused, on and on, with a Dutch coffee-shop for pilots) and before that as “The bald eagle’s wig” {name eventually dropped ‘cause it discouraged the other winged species which thought it was a filthy playground for adult narcissistic predators only and offended the eagles [notoriously among the touchiest creatures in the world along with dodos (which, science says, went extinct ‘cause they refused to feed unless a formal apology had came, and it obviously never did, from the ‘UNB’* for the fact that the other birds kept on mocking them for their look and inability to fly)] and all the ferns (no one really understood why)} while storming the sugar-coated worms/roasted bugs/not-popped corns/candy-seeds shops before the show begin**. And the film projected, hence the multitude, is: “Angry Birds: the movie! (In 3D)”.

PiPs and "The (Angry) Birds" (by sciencemug)
PiPs and "The (Angry) Birds" (by sciencemug)

But PiPs sees also another thing in all that noisy chaos. It sees a human standing still among the tweeting animals. She’s a girl. In a lab coat (ok people, ok, the whole thing is absolutely cuckoo, but, as it has been remarked before, PiPs' reality is a very very, very peculiar place).

PiPs_by SM
PiPs by SM
PiPs- I’m sorry to bother you miss, but, unless this is the weirdest creation of Madame Tussaud and you’re one of the most realistic wax sculptures I’ve ever seen, well, you’re alive. And human. So, may I ask who are you?


Miss Madza Farias-Virgens_by sciencemug
Miss MFV by SM
Miss Farias-Virgens - Hello! My name is Madza. I’m a PhD student in the Department of Anthropology at University of California at Berkeley. I work in one of the branches of Anthropology called Biological Anthropology [aka BioAnthro]. BioAnthro is dedicated to the study of human evolution and biological variation. But I’ve not always being a biological anthropologist, I started out my college level studies in the Biomedical Sciences, and later specialized in Medical Genetics during my Masters in Brazil (I’m Brazilian). I have made proteins wiggle and gotten lost among A T G C sequences [A, T, G, C are nucleobases, that is the four letters of the DNA’s alphabet. Ever wondered why Andrew Niccol entitled his movie “GATTACA”, well, “GATTACA”? SM's note] . Those were fun times, but I always thought of pursuing questions in Human Evolution, and the conclusive motivation came after reading pieces of Professor Terrence W. Deacon’s fantastic book "The Symbolic Species". Professor Deacon is now my PhD adviser and we work together in the BrainEvoLab. Professor Deacon and I are studying how the human language
evolved, and we believe that birds and in particular the Bengalese finch and the white-backed munia (two strains of the L. striata species) can help us answer this question.

PiPs_by sciencemugP- Aaah I see, eheh, so I figure you’re not here to watch the movie per se, but to pay an homage to the scriptwriter (a former birdwatcher converted to the birdglancing) and the way he put the dialogues together (by the way, rumors have it that he have joined the Légion étrangère after the movie has been shot, to run away from some shady tools sent after him by the lobby of binoculars manufacturers who threatened him ‘cause his public conversion to that less orthodox practice could have potentially attracted others and cause a collapse of their lucrative business). Anyway, now I’m curious. Why did you choose to study birds to investigate the evolution of human language? I mean, I understand you didn’t pick cats, they would never have shown in the lab on time, they’d have sabotaged your daily work schedule just because, not to speak of the fact that their publicists and agents would have driven you crazy with all sort of absurd request from their clients (like to always have at disposal a bowl, carved into Carrara marble, always three and a quarter twelfths full of milk milked, by hands gloved with gloves of shantung, exclusively from the two youngest goats of a specific farmer of a village in the most remote valley of north-eastern Nepal). So, no cats, I get it and I’m totally with you on this, but why not other animals like those chitty-chatty dolphins, or the whales (I heard there’s a white one with a really good story to tell), or the chimps and other primates? And then, why did you choose specifically those two strains of birds for your research and not, like, Tweety the bird or that canny Road Runner (unless you didn’t ‘cause, as for the rest of the DNA based creatures on this planet and probably Kepler-452b, you can’t stand both of them scums)?

Miss Madza Farias-Virgens_by sciencemugMFV- Don’t you see that birds are the coolest of all?! Well, of course they are, but yes, there are greater reasons for why I have chosen birds… You are right [PiPs almost has a stroke at this point ‘cause it’s the very first time a smart entity says “you are right” to it without stating the sentence right after PiPs itself have just said “I’m such a useless as my verbose mysterious armpits dumbass”] when you say that dolphins and whales could serve the purpose (not to mention seals, sea lions, bats, mice and elephants). All these animals are vocal learners [i.e. animals that can learn sounds, namely, that are able to modify their vocalizations as they get in touch with those of other animals3* SM’s note], just like songbirds, parrots, humming birds and us. However, we still don’t have too much information on how their brains process vocal behavior and auditory information. Without this kind of information it’s hard to make complex hypotheses that add up. Dolphins, whales, seals, and sea lions are extra technically challenging to study (either in the wild, in captivity, and especially in the lab), because they are no less than massive animals, among other reasons. Working with chimpanzees presents the same technical difficulties as any one of these big animals, plus, as far as we know, they are not really vocal learners. So, chimpanzees cannot be an animal model for vocal learning, but they are a model against which we compare humans, which are vocal learners. Indeed, a lot has been done comparing humans to chimpanzees (studies on genes, brains, behavior, cognition), but primates are so complicated, that we still don’t really know what we are looking at. So, back to your question: the idea is to study a supposedly simpler system, birds, to more easily look for patterns and try to compare them to a more complex system, us primates.

Photo by Maki Ikebuchi (modified by sciencemug)
Photo by Maki Ikebuchi (modified by sciencemug)

[On the left, the white-backed munia and on the right, the Bengalese finch]

As for the strains, I’ll explain now why I have specifically chosen, for my research, to compare the domesticated Bengalese finch with its wild ancestor, the white-backed munia.
About 250 years ago, one of the Japanese federal kings imported white-backed munias from China. Since then, these birds have been domesticated in order to select the individuals with better parental capacity and with a white plumage, but they were never selected for their songs. Nevertheless, their songs changed radically. White-backed munias sing a simple, stereotyped, linear sequence of songs, while Bengalese finches sing a multi-branched, much more complex sequence of songs. Ever since my collaborator, Professor Kazuo Okanoya, found this difference in the songs of the two strains of birds, he decided to study why the Bengalese finch song became so complex, and what brain mechanisms support such complexity. My colleagues and I believe that, once understood this, we hopefully will be able to understand exactly what to look for, when we compare our species with other primates.  

PiPs_by sciencemugP- That’s really interesting! So, what are you going to do to study those birds? Are you recording them while they’re doing their feathers at the feather-stylist shop or their paws and beaks at the beautician, and then try to decipher their conversations? Or may be you plan to spend a long long time alone with them on a desert island and get to their language like Tom Hanks got to Wilson’s (rest its bladder in peace… Even if, in my dreams Wilson survived and now it’s wildly happy, lives in a new beautiful island and it’s married to a brand-new sexy tennis ball from Papuasia and they are rising their three ping pong little balls in perfect armony) one? 

Miss Madza Farias-Virgens_by sciencemugMFV- Hahahahaha. Sure, I’m planning to go to Taiwan and watch white-backed munia’s behaviors. I’m excited for that, and I’ll come back full of bird stories. But, what I’m really planning to do for my main research project is to study how the genes of Bengalese finches and white-backed munias are different from one another. To do that, I’ll have to collect blood from a group of birds from each strain, extract and sequence their DNAs, and spend tons of hours analyzing data. Another thing that I’m going to do is to compare how the genes are actually activated in the brains of both songbird strains. 

PiPs_by sciencemugP-  Cool… Well… Eheh, to be honest I didn’t grasp a single word of what you just said… But thaat’s BECAUSE I AM LITERALLY BRAINLESS! I’m sure readers, instead, did understood your explanation and find your science amazing, and they all hope you have enough money for your experiments. By the way, how are you funding your research? Look, I know that asking Twitter for a sponsorship wouldn’t probably work, so I’d suggest another way. But it’s a bit, well, let’s say, dirty… Ok, my idea is this: you first select the three richest people in the world among those with a proudly displayed fetish for outrageously expensive cars.

by sciencemug
by sciencemug

And then you threaten ‘em saying you will train your highly intelligent and motivated birds to “aim” en masse, every day, always and only, at every and each of their beloved cars, unless they cover all your lab costs (plus bonuses and benefits).
Gross? Sure. Unfair, probably. Effective? Ab-so-lu-te-ly.

 Miss Madza Farias-Virgens_by sciencemugMFV- This is a good idea! I’m driving to Laguna Beach tomorrow to try this strategy… Indeed I’m applying for grants from the National Science Foundation. But, you know, US financial crises and money for basic research don’t go well together. So, I’m going alternative and for my research I just launched a crowdfunding campaign on “experiment4*: “Birdsong and the Evolution of Human Language”.
Hopefully more and more people are going to help us to reach our goal.

PiPs_by sciencemugP- Well, I certainly wish you good luck with your campaign, and also with your research and career! Thank you so much, it’s been really kind of you to share your time with us (me and my boss sciencemug who’s too shy to speak with clever people so it pushes me on the front line instead). But before we wrap it up, one last question: Miss Madza Farias-Virgens, why science?

 Miss Madza Farias-Virgens_by sciencemugMFV- Wow, this got me thinking! What got me into science was the need to pose and answer questions. But, science is not the only way of answering questions, or even the more correct one. The scientific agenda is to pose models that would allow to unbiasedly answer questions. I like this idea.

The ‘Researcher Suggests’ corner:
The researcher, MFV
If you're interested in language, brain and evolution the researcher Madza Farias-Virgens suggests that you read these:
- Deacon, T. W. (1997). The symbolic species : the co-evolution of language and the brain, 1st edn (New York: W.W. Norton).
- Deacon, T. W. (2010). Colloquium paper: a role for relaxed selection in the evolution of the language capacity. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A 107 Suppl 2, 9000-9006.
- Fitch, W. T. (2010). The evolution of language (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press).

United Nations of Birds

Aaaand the world record for the most messy convoluted and stupid sentence in the history of blogs has just been shattered...

Vocal learning […] refers only to learning sounds, that is, to instances where the vocalizations themselves are modified in form as a result of experience with those of other individuals. Learning that affects usage and comprehension of sounds will be referred as to contextual learning as opposed to vocal learning.” Janik, V. M., and Slater P. J. B. (1997). Vocal learning in mammals. From the book: Advances in the Study of Behavior. VV.AA. (1997), Academic Press Volume 26, 59
The campaign is hosted by, a very cool site focused on crowd-raising money exclusively for sience projects. In their words: “Experiment is a platform that lets you discover, fund, and share science that matters to you”.

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