Where Science and Faith Converge

Bird Thinks It Can Dance - Soulish Animals Designed to Bring Joy

By Hugh Ross - September 1, 2009

Sometimes tests for the validity of evolutionary and creation models come from unusual research. In this case it’s a bird’s dancing ability.

Reasons To Believe’s creation model claims that before humans existed, "soulish" animals–those endowed with mind, will, and emotions (Genesis 1:24)–were designed and equipped by God for their special roles. These qualities allow them not only to form relationships with humans, but also to serve and please us in their own distinct ways.

Naturalistic evolutionary explanations for life would assert that all animals preceding humans bear no specific-to-humanity innate capacities to serve and to please.

Only in the past few months has suitable testing gained notoriety and momentum among research biologists. The instigator: a cockatoo named Snowball. This amazing bird achieved international fame through a YouTube video that shows him dancing to the Backstreet Boys’ song, “Everybody.” Snowball bobs his head and body and kicks his legs in rhythmic response to the music’s beat.

A neurosciences research team from UC San Diego suspected Snowball’s movements represented a response to off-camera visual cues. So they traveled to his home to study him in person. They determined that Snowball danced on his own and actually altered his moves and dance tempo as the researchers either sped up or slowed down his favorite music.1 This discovery demonstrated that a nonhuman animal possesses the brain structure and circuitry to comprehend and appreciate a musical beat and to synchronize body movements in response to the beat.

Another research team from Harvard, MIT, and Brandeis then searched the YouTube database for evidence of other species’ dancing to a musical beat.2 They found 34 additional examples, including cockatoos, parrots, and even an Asian elephant. Through their investigation they determined that the capacity to dance to a musical beat is strictly limited to “vocal mimics,” those animals with the ability to emulate spoken words, musical sounds, or machine noises. To their surprise, none of the primate species they studied showed any capacity for either vocal mimicry or for rhythmic dancing to musical beats.

Further investigation by the leader of the San Diego-based research study, Aniruddh Patel, showed that an animal’s ability to dance to a beat emerges only if that animal has forged a strong bond with a human. He noted that parrots in the wild do not dance—not even to the songs that accompany their courtship displays.3 He further observed that the stronger the emotional bond between the vocal mimic and its human owner, the more spectacular its ability to dance to music.

Anecdotal evidence may be of limited value, but I find it easy to corroborate these studies’ findings by my firsthand experience with a family pet. During my teen years my family acquired a green conure (small parrot) named Pedro. Pedro became particularly attached to me, so strongly bonded that he would assist in my personal grooming. He never soiled my shirts while sitting on my shoulder, and––to the chagrin of my bridge opponents––he would cheer loudly and dance whenever I won a hand.

Pedro also served as a music critic. Whenever my sisters played rock music, he’d throw a screeching tantrum, but would bob and sway to my selections––classical music. He seemed especially fond of Bach.

As both research teams implied, it would be a mistake to conclude that cockatoos, or even Snowball in particular, are Backstreet Boys fans, while conures or even Pedro specifically, are Bach aficionados. (Though if my pet were alive today he might spawn an upsurge in “Vote for Pedro” T-shirts.) Rather, both creatures bonded so closely to their human caregivers as to detect and reflect human emotions. Snowball and Pedro responded in accordance with the people with whom they were bonded.

The two teams involved in these animal behavior studies proposed an evolutionary explanation for their findings. The difficulty they faced, however, is that every evolutionary paradigm hypothesizes a much closer evolutionary connection between humans and the great apes than between humans and birds or humans and elephants. And yet humans are the only primate species that “evolved” this sophisticated bird and elephant capacity to dance to a musical beat.

It should also be noted that dancing to a musical beat offers vocal mimics no recognizable survival advantage. Thus, no evolutionary model would predict this ability as a natural-process outcome. The fact that this dancing behavior is not manifested in the wild underscores the point. However, the behavior does seem to fit with the biblical creation model claim that God designed soulish creatures in ways that would later bring joy and laughter to humans.

  1. Aniruddh D. Patel et al., “Experimental Evidence for Synchronization to a Musical Beat in a Nonhuman Animal,” Current Biology 19 (April 30, 2009): 827–30.
  2. Adena Schachner et al., “Spontaneous Motor Entrainment to Music in Multiple Vocal Mimicking Species,” Current Biology 19 (April 30, 2009): 831–36.
  3. Aniruddh Patel, quoted by Virginia Morell, “That Bird Can Boogie,” ScienceNOW Daily News (30 April, 2009), https://sciencenow.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/full/2009/430/1?rss=1. Accessed June 7, 2009.

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