Friday, August 7, 2009

181. Music and Cultural Evolution -- Part 8

There's a lot more that could be said regarding what can happen to a society in the wake of the sort of disaster or dispute or adventure or misadventure that could lead to a population bottleneck and/or founder effect, leading in turn to a fresh branching of both the genetic and cultural phylogenetic trees. As I asserted earlier, a certain degree of loss would be almost inevitable. The loss of certain individuals most familiar with certain rituals could result in the loss, or simplification, of those rituals. The most gifted carvers might not have survived, or been left behind, in which case age-old artistic traditions might be lost. Similarly, certain musical or dance repertoires or styles could be lost if those responsible for the perpetuation of those traditions had not survived or been left behind.

A natural disaster such as a drought, hurricane, tsunami, earthquake or volcanic eruption might decimate a particular group to such a degree that only a few survivors remain. If several men but only a few women survive, competition between the men for the women could encourage aggressive, competitive and sexist behaviors -- and the establishment of traditions promoting such behaviors as desirable. On the other hand, a situation where several women but only a few men survive could lead to the establishment of polygyny as a new tradition.

As far as music is concerned, such a disaster might isolate only a small number of survivors, or, as in the case of the Ik, turn them against one another, to the extent that all but the most rudimentary forms of group vocalization might be lost forever. In the event that only a single family of relatively unmusical individuals were to survive, this could result in the loss or simplification of certain musical practices; drone polyphony might be substituted for P/B style counterpoint; or unison singing substituted for spontaneous harmonization. If the most talented performers on certain instruments are lost or left behind, those instrumental traditions might die out. If a family of gifted instrumentalists were to break away from the main group, instrumental traditions might flourish among their descendants at the expense of vocal music.

While losses of various kinds would be all but inevitable, a bottleneck of this sort might lead to certain gains as well. Those who survived might have done so due to special aptitudes or skills, not previously appreciated, skills that could be cultivated and passed down to their descendants. In classic Darwinian fashion, weaker or more inflexible individuals or those less well adapted to the new, harsher environment, might die off or fail to reproduce, while stronger, more adaptable and inventive individuals might flourish.

In my Echoes essay (p. 34 et seq.), I take this line of thinking even farther, arguing that a series of population bottlenecks caused by a single natural disaster provides the most likely explanation for much of the diversity we now see in the world, morphological (i.e. "racial") as well as cultural -- and certainly musical as well. (See also, post 17. The Bottleneck, et seq. on this blog.) While it might seem more reasonable to assume that all this diversity is simply the result of gradual evolutionary processes, the most compelling evidence as I see it, geological, genetic, morphological, cultural, and musical, points to sudden change as a much more likely fundamental catalyst of some of the most basic types of diversity, at a crucial moment in human history.

From this perspective, it would seem that evolutionary processes as we usually visualize them (i.e., as a series of incremental steps or stages) only come into play at a later stage of cultural "evolution," when, as we have seen in the case of the Bantu (see the last two posts), an increased emphasis on specialization, competition and incremental innovation emerges among certain groups.

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