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Birdsong and the Image of Evolution

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image of Society & Animals

For nearly a quarter of Darwin's Descent of Man (1871), it is the singing bird whose voice presages the development of human aesthetics. But since the 1950s, aesthetics has had a perilous and contested role in the study of birdsong. Modern ornithology's disillusionment with aesthetic knowledge after World War II brought about the removal of musical studies of birdsong, studies which were replaced by work with the sound spectrograph, a tool that changes the elusive sounds of birdsong into a readable graphic image called a spectrogram. This article narrates the terms under which the image, rather than the sound, of birdsong has become a sign of humanity's ability to reason objectively. Drawing examples from the strange evolutionary tales that exist at the juncture of ornithology, music history, illustration, and linguistics, this story suggests how it was that the human ear disappeared in the unbridgeable gap between the sciences and the study of aesthetics so tellingly termed "the humanities."

Affiliations: 1: New York University


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