Bird nests: Adaptive variation on innate Bauplans

Session Date: 
Oct 11, 2024

To provide a novel perspective on architecture, the meeting opens with a discussion of the construction of bird nests as a model for human construction (of buildings, drawing and language) – a case for this approach has been offered by (Arbib, Fragaszy, Healy, & Stout, 2023).

As distinct from the buildings of termites (interesting though these are), bird nests offer a more apropos point of comparison for human buildings – they are conducted by single vertebrate (or a few) and can be adapted to varied circumstances, with even a small effect of social learning (Healy, 2023; Healy, Tello-Ramos, & Hébert, 2023). However, the basic Bauplan remains species-specific, unlike the creativity of the human architect. 

Since nonhuman primates lack much in the way of flexible vocal control and learning, birdsong has become a powerful model for brain mechanisms of human vocal learning – even though birdsong lacks the syntax and compositional semantics of human language. Similarly, nonhuman primates lack interesting building skills, and so we suggest that bird nest construction may come to play a similar comparative role for architectural design. The static Bauplan of birds can be compared to the near-stasis of human tool use until the end of the Paleolithic, challenging us to assess the changes in human practice that unlocked an increasingly rapid process of cultural evolution.