The Nature vs. Nurture of Song Learning

What's the Science?

Learning is affected by individual genetic differences and previous experience. The way that genetics and experience interact to affect learning is not fully understood. This week in PNASMets and colleagues set out to determine whether song learning by birds is influenced by genetics and whether quality of instruction has any impact on this genetic influence.

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How did they do it?

To test whether genetics has an impact on learning, they performed an experiment where birds (finches) from different genetic backgrounds learned a song tempo after receiving computer instruction. To see whether the quality of instruction changes the influence of genetics on learning, a second set of birds received enriched instruction (tutoring by other birds).

What did they find?

They found that the birds with different genetic backgrounds and the same level of experience produced songs with a range of different tempos. This shows that genetics alone has a strong impact on learning song tempo. When they factored in the quality of instruction, they found that the genetic influence on learning became weaker, meaning that experience also has a strong impact on learning and can even override the impact of genetics. 

What's the Impact?

This is one of the first studies to test the contribution of genetics and experience on learning. Importantly, this study highlights that the influence of genetics on learning can depend a lot on our experience. Rather than ‘Nature vs. Nurture’, learning seems to be all about the interaction between the two.

Read the original journal article here.

D. G. Mets, M. S. Brainard, Genetic variation interacts with experience to determine interindividual differences in learned song. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. 115, 421–426 (2017).