Thursday, August 5, 2010

326. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 10

There is, of course, a great deal to be said on the topic of the human mind and its relation to both Darwinian evolution and culture. And a great deal has already been said. What I'd like to zero in on is the aspect that most interests me: music -- and the role of music in both natural selection and the development of culture. In contrast to almost all my earlier posts, my explorations in this domain are not based on a hypothesis, for the simple reason that I have none. Not yet, at any rate. What I have are some disconnected thoughts that I'm formulating into questions and hoping to be able to bring together at some point into a coherent scheme. So for now basically what I'm doing is improvising -- on a theme.

It seems clear that bird song can be related to adaptation, especially with respect to its function in sexual selection. This isn't difficult to see. What's difficult is the question of exactly what is going on in the brain/mind of a female bird when she chooses a mate based on his song and the way he sings it. And what is going on in the mind of a male bird when he attempts to tune his song to the preferences of his sexy fans.

It's not so clear whether the vocalizing of primates has a similar function, but I've never seen any evidence that primate vocalizations either attract or repel potential mates. However, like birds, certain primates vocalize interactively, often in the form of antiphonal duets between male-female pairs, but also in so-called "chorusing" activities, where an entire group will vocalize in an interlocking manner very roughly reminiscent of Pygmy/Bushmen vocalizing. For more on this, see post 21 et seq.

An interesting fact about music in humans is that most (but not all) of us are born with certain innate musical gifts. But some of us have little or none. And this group does not seem to be at any serious disadvantage as far as success in finding a mate is concerned. On the other hand, a small minority of humans appear to be born with extraordinary musical gifts, which often manifest themselves very early indeed, as early as the age of 3 or 4 and many go on to become so-called musical "prodigies." Great musical gifts do not, however, ensure success with the opposite sex, and as is well known, some of the greatest musical prodigies (I'm thinking Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, for example) were not particularly prolific where progeny production is concerned. [Added August 20: An anonymous commenter has informed me that Mozart's wife, Constanza, had several miscarriages and that the couple wound up with two surviving children, which means that he was in fact relatively prolific in producing offspring, though certainly not above average for his time. I was not aware of any miscarriages and assumed he'd had only one surviving child. Sorry for the misinformation.]

Now the element of natural selection that produces truly remarkable effects, such as the wings (and songs) of birds, the eyes of animals, the human brain, and musical prodigies, is not simply mutation and the variation produced by it, but the much more complex and sophisticated process of adaptation, which fine-tunes a species to its environment. And if there is no obvious adaptational "payoff" to musical ability among humans, then the existence of such truly amazing musical gifts among certain extremely young, untrained children is very difficult to explain. The only explanation I can think of is that musical ability must, at one time, have had a very strong adaptational function, which is now largely lost.

Which returns me to a consideration of the music of the Pygmies and Bushmen, where musical abilities are taken for granted, and someone with a "tin ear" or no sense of rhythm, would be at a distinct disadvantage.

(to be continued . . . )


Maju said...

I would think that musical ability has psychological, social and emotional functions and is directly related with the overall auditive-vocal communicational system in our brains and social realities and by extension also with the communicational system that is not made of sounds (gestures, caresses, etc.)

As I see it music brings people together either as orchestra (dancing included, probably the original thing) or as shared listeners (in the less participative of styles) by some sort of psycho-social (emotional) "magic" which is intrinsically bound to the way our brains work.

Here there's an interesting article on music and primates. It seems music is tightly bound to other ways of communication. New world monkeys like tamarins do not understand human music but they understand "tamarin music" made ex-professo based on their own sound cues and expressive rhythms. There's for tamarins also exciting and soothing music, depending on what type of vocalizations the music mimics.

The same we do use different tones in normal speech to convey different emotions, we use different types of music for the same purpose, maybe unconsciously but we do anyhow.

"We use legato (long tones) with babies to calm them. We use staccato to order them to stop. Approval has a rising tone, and soothing has a decreasing tone. We add musical features to speech so it will influence the affective state of a baby. If you bark out, 'PLAY WITH IT,' a baby will freeze. The voice, the intonation pattern, the musicality can matter more than the words."


"[Tamarin] Monkeys interpret rising and falling tones differently than humans. Oddly, their only response to several samples of human music was a calming response to the heavy-metal band Metallica". :)


This use of musical cues to manipulate the psyche is often at play modernly at public places such as supermarkets or the dentist's waiting room. In a natural hunter-gatherer state, we would also use these musical cues to convey each other with calm (probably evocative of motherly love and protection, even of fetal state), happiness or enthusiasm (sadness and fear inducing music are probably more recent fashions because they seem to serve little purpose in a natural hunter-gatherer context - though expressing sadness in particular is also emotionally relieving).

So I don't think you can say that music's adaptive role is lost. Maybe some aspects of it are less strong or expressed in other ways but it's quite clear that musicality (including dance) is natural in humans and helps in promoting oneself as fit (dance in particular has been often described as a prime way of expressing one's health, agility and coordination) and in creating emotional bonds, which also helps fitness. Particular cases of exploited child geniuses don't seem to change the overall picture much, IMO.

DocG said...

Maju: "As I see it music brings people together either as orchestra (dancing included, probably the original thing) or as shared listeners (in the less participative of styles) by some sort of psycho-social (emotional) "magic" which is intrinsically bound to the way our brains work."

I agree. But the question is: why? You've hit on an important aspect of my own thinking, however, by emphasizing music's function in bringing people together. I'll be discussing this in future posts.

Thanks for the link to the very interesting article on "monkey music." And of course what you write about the beneficial psychological effects of music is certainly true.

But I find it difficult to see in any of this a sufficient reason for musical ability to be so pronounced in certain individuals, since abilities of such complexity cannot simply be attributed to chance mutations but, it seems to me, must have arisen at some point in the past when musical ability must have had considerable adaptive significance. We see this clearly in language, but in music it remains a real mystery.

And if we see how certain individuals with no musical abilities, or even the ability to respond to music in any way, can nevertheless live completely successful lives despite this inability, then it seems clear that music no longer represents any adaptive advantage. It might thus be considered a kind of cultural "vestigial organ." Which is not to say that it is no longer important in our lives, only that it is no longer essential.

Anonymous said...

I would remove Mozart from your list here. During the ten years of their marriage, Constanza Mozart had six pregnancies come to full term, of which only two children survived infancy. Even excluding the likelihood of additional miscarriages during this time, this is close to the maximum capacity for the couple.

DocG said...

Thanks for the heads up regarding Mozart, Anonymous. I wasn't aware that Constanza had had any miscarriages and assumed they'd had only one surviving child, not two. I'll correct that in the blog post.

However, my larger point still stands. Their extraordinary musical genius did not make composers like Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Mozart more successful with the opposite sex than men with no such genius, or even aptitude, for music. As I'm sure you're aware, Mozart's first choice was Constanza's sister, who rejected him.

There are certainly exceptions, most notably Bach, who had a great many children, and Wagner and Liszt, who had many affairs. However, on balance, it would seem that musical genius per se does not confer any real advantage in the Darwinian "strugge for survival."

The above does not apply to "rock stars," who do seem to attract a great many females, but for reasons other than musical genius, it would seem.