In a recent scientific press release, the opening sentence is, “A sense of rhythm is a uniquely human characteristic.” I am used to this sort of thing in opening sentences; I think to myself that they definitely have no evidence for that statement; they have not studied most animals, done a literature search or watched the videos of parrots dancing on the back of chairs. Never mind, it is an opener, just read on.
But the next paragraph starts, “What most people call the sense of rhythm — the mechanism that enables us to clap along or dance to music — is an intangible ability that is exclusive to human beings.” So it is not just the usual unexamined opener. And to top it off, the third paragraph starts with, “Human beings are the only species that recognise these patterns and scientists suspect that an evolutionary development is at the root of it.” Well I am not convinced that they have even thought much about these statements.
I find it very difficult to believe that anything is really, purely, uniquely human. The first assumption until proven false should be that our anatomy, genome, behavior etc. is part of the general characteristics of mammals. There will be other examples, or very similar examples, or the un-elaborated roots of any human ability to be found in some other animals. That is an assumption that is almost forced on us by the nature of evolution. But so many resist this approach and assume uniqueness without evidence of it.
Having a sense of rhythm would be very useful to many animals in their ordinary lives. And rhythms of many kinds occur in all living bodies. Movement in particular is rhythmic (perhaps particularly for swinging through trees). It would be something of a miracle if being able to entrain to a beat was not found in any other animal – just unbelievable.
And this reminds me of how annoying it is to still run across the rule against being anthropomorphic. It is not that we should assume that animals are like us in their mental lives without testing the idea. But it is also wrong to assume the opposite without testing. If it looks like a duck, and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, hey, it just maybe is a duck. If the only way I can understand and predict the actions of my dog is to assume she has emotions similar to mine; then my tentative assumption is that she has those emotions. The rule against seeing similarities between ourselves and other animals shows a level of misunderstanding of both.
The need to see ourselves as unique and as fundamentally different from other animals is a left-over from the old beliefs in there being a hierarchy of life with man at the pinnacle. It is about time we got over this notion, just like we had to get over being the center of the universe. Our biggest differences from the rest of the animal world is the extent of our culture, not our basic biology. Other animals have consciousness, memory, emotion and intelligence, just like us. We are all different (each unique in their own way) but as variations of a theme – the fundamental plan of vertebrates is the starting point for all vertebrates. And I would bet money that a sense of rhythm is part of that basic plan.