There is a common assumption within linguistics that more is better. In particular, the more languages we study the better it is for linguistics. The assumption is that the best way to study what linguists should study is by looking at more and more languages. Why do we think this? I am not sure. Here are two possible reasons.
First, linguistics is the study of language and thus the more languages we study the further we advance this study. There are indeed some linguists that so consider the enterprise. I am not one of these. I am of the opinion that for modern GG the object of study is not languages but the faculty of language (FL), and if this is what you aim to understand then the idea that we should study more and more languages for each language studies advances our insight into the structure of FL needs some argument. It may, of course, be correct, but it needs an argument.
One possible argument is that unless we study a wide variety of languages we will not be able to discern how much languages vary (the right parameters) and so will mistake the structure of the invariances. So, if you want to get the invariant properties of FL right, you need to control for the variation and this can only be controlled by wide cross linguistic investigation. Ergo, we must study lots of languages.
I am on record to being skeptical that this is so. IMO, what we have found over the last 30 years (if not longer) is that languages do not change that much. The generalizations that were discovered mainly in the basis of a few languages seem to have held up pretty well over time. So, I personally find this particular reason on the weak side. Moreover, the correct calculation is not whether cross linguistic study is ever useful. Of course it is. Rather the question is whether it is a preferred way of proceeding. It is very labor intensive and quite hard. So we need to know how big the payoffs are. So, though there need be nothing wrong with this kind of inquiry, the presupposition that this is the right way to proceed and that every linguist ought to be grounded in work on some interesting (i.e. not English) language goes way beyond this anodyne prescription.
Note that the author of the Nautilus piece provides arguments for each of the model animals. Zebra fish larvae and c-elegans are there because it is easy to look into their brains. Fruit flies and mice have "easily tweak able genes." So, wrt the project of understanding neural mechanisms, these are good animals to study. Not the assumption is that the mechanisms are largely the same across animals and so we choose the ones to study on purely pragmatic grounds. Why add the corvid? Precisely because it raises an iterating question about what the neocortex adds to higher cognition. It seems that corvids are very smart but have none. Hence they are interesting.
The linguistic analogue of this sort of reasoning should be obvious. We should study language X because it makes, say, binding, easy to study because it marks in overt morphological form the underlying categories that we are interested in. Or, we should study language X because it shows the same profiles as language Y but, say, without overt movement hence suggesting that we need to refine our understanding of movement. There are good pragmatic reasons for studying a heretofore un(der) studied language. But not, these are pragmatic considerations, not principled ones.
Second, that's what linguists are trained to do, so that's what we should do. This is, I am sure we can all agree, a terrible argument. We should not be (like psychologists) a field that defines itself by the tools that it exploits. Technology is good when it embodies our leading insights. Otherwise it is only justifiable on pragmatic grounds. Linguistics is not the study of things using field methods. It is the study of FL and field methods are useful tools in advancing this study. Period.
I should add that I believe that there are good pragmatic reasons for looking at lots of languages. It is indeed true that at times a language makes manifest on the surface pieces of underlying structure that are hard to discern in English or (German or French, to name just two obvious dialects of English). However, my point here is not to dismiss cross ling work, but to argue against the assumption that this is obviously a good thing to do. Not only is this far from evident, IMO, but it also is far from clear to me that intensive study of a single language is less informative than the extensive study of many.
Just to meet expectations, let me add that I think that POS considerations, which are based on the intensive study of single Gs, is a much underused tool of investigation. Moreover, results based on POS reasoning are considered far more suspect than are those based on cross linguistic investigation. My belief is that this has things exactly backwards. However, I have made this point before, so I will not belabor it now.
Let me return to the linked paper and add one more point. The last paragraph is where we find the argument for adding corvids to our list of model animals (Btw, if corvids are that interesting and smart there arises a moral issue of whether we should be making them torture neuro subjects. I am not sure that we have a right to so treat them).
If, as Nieder told me, “the codes in the avian NCL and the mammalian PFC are the same, it suggests that there is one best neuronal solution to a common functional problem”—be it counting or abstract reasoning. What’s fascinating is that these common computations come from such different machinery. One explanation for this evolutionary convergence could be that—beyond some basic requirements in processing—the manner in which neurons are connected does not make much difference: Perhaps different wiring in the NCL and PFC still somehow leads to the same neural dynamics.
The next step in corvid neuroscience would be to uncover exactly how neurons arrive at solutions to computational challenges. Finding out how common solutions come from different hardware may very well be the key to understanding how neurons, in any organism, give rise to intelligence.
So, what makes corvids interesting is that they suggest that the neural code is somewhat independent of neural architecture. This kind of functionalism was something that Hilary Putnam was one of the first to emphasize. Moreover, as Eric noted in his e-mail to me, it is also the kind of thing that might shed light on some Gallistel like considerations (the kind of information carried is independent of the kind of nets we have which would make sense if the information is not carried in the net architecture).
To end: corvids are neat! Corvid brains might be neurally important. The first is important for youtube, the second for neuroscience. So too in linguistics.