We can learn about humans by studying other animals – but what about the other way around?

Marisa Hoeschele, group leader and scientist at the Acoustics Research Institute (ARI), together with her colleagues from the ARI provides insight into their published review about animal acoustic cognition through comparisons with humans.

By imagining how we would study a type of behaviour as if humans were another species, we can come up with new approaches to apply seemingly complex human behaviour to other species. For example, we have used this method to study human language as if it was an animal vocalization and apply it to the complex vocalizations found in rare non-human species. By doing this we may be able to find something akin to language in the animal kingdom. The illustration is fig. 1 from the quoted article.

In our cluster on biology we are well aware that we humans can learn highly interesting things about ourselves by studying other species. But what about the other way around? In this review paper we argue that using humans as a model for other species can produce just as exciting insights as the more usual route.

Our argument about the benefits of this approach is based on a number of examples from our fields of study, including rhythm, pitch-based musicality, and vocal units in non-human animals. By analysing how our approach functioned in previous studies we arrive at a generalized framework of how to choose species to study and how to test them.

We describe how, despite our insider knowledge about our own species, we can essentially take the perspective of an alien researcher. This helps us to identify the traits that would be most rewarding to study across species. The benefit in that is that by studying humans just like we would any other species we arrive at maximum comparability between different species and thereby at the most sound – and often original – insights. We refer to the proposed approach as the “objective human-centric approach”.

By publishing this review in “Animal Cognition” we hope to entice more people working in animal cognition to use a similar approach to maximize the benefits of being part of the animal kingdom while maintaining a detached and scientific perspective on the human species. We are convinced, that this way many exciting insights will be gained which would not be accessible by more usual approaches.

Hoeschele, Marisa; Wagner, Bernhard; Mann, Dan C.: „Lessons learned in animal acoustic cognition through comparisons with humans”, in: Animal Cognition, 2022, vol. 26, pp 97-116. Doi:10.1007/s10071-022-01735-0