Tuesday, October 26, 2010

340. A New Website

After 339 posts, I may have reached the point where I either have no more to say or may simply have run out of steam as far as this blog is concerned. If I get inspired with a new idea, or some relevant new research becomes known to me, I may well want to add more posts. I have been busy with related projects, including a rather ambitious essay on cultural history, drawn largely from what I've already written on this blog, and the development of a book proposal, tentatively titled Soundings from the Depths: Music, Genes and Culture in Deep History. Which could well be the title of this blog.

Meanwhile, during the summer months I managed, finally, to dig some old reel to reel tapes out of the attic, and make decent digital copies. I even managed to complete an unfinished work that had been on my mind for over 40 years! I was so pleased to once again hear these early electronic music compositions that I decided to put together a web site where I could share them with friends and other interested parties. And while I was at it, I decided to make several other compositions of mine also available via the same site: The Music of Victor Grauer. Anyone interested is invited to check it out, but I'll warn you: some of these pieces are long and require fairly intense concentration as well as considerable patience. On the other hand, certain rituals held by indigenous peoples can go on for days and nights at a time, while the longest work on my website lasts "only" 45 minutes. :-)

Monday, September 13, 2010

339. Tonoexodus 2

In a recent comment, Maju called our attention to a very interesting new article in which a possible connection between tonal and non-tonal languages is tested and discussed: Real-Time Correlates of Phonological Quantity Reveal Unity of Tonal and Non-Tonal Languages, by Juhani Jarvikivi1, Martti Vainio and Daniel Aalto. (How does he find this stuff?) The authors point specifically to the influence of tone in certain non-tonal "quantity languages," (i.e. languages in which differences in syllable length have phonemic import), citing evidence suggesting
that in non-tonal quantity languages such as, Estonian,
Finnish, Japanese, and Serbo-Croatian, tonal differences affect
speakers’ judgments of vowel length, in so far
as the available evidence can be taken to suggest that the speakers
of these languages tend to categorize syllables or words as long
more often than short when the target syllable has a falling rather
than a level tone. (p.2)
To further test this hypothesis, the authors performed experiments with Finnish speaking subjects, to determine the effects of certain tonal configurations on their perception of lexical difference. For them, the results of these experiments "are clear: whether the first syllable has a falling or a level (high) tone is a robust online cue to . . . lexical identity in Finnish" (p. 4).

In a Discussion section, they elaborate on the meaning of their results:
In contrast to the usual assumption that there is a clear-cut
conceptual distinction between tone and non-tonal quantity
languages, we have put forth the idea that, cognitively, these two phonological systems could perhaps be seen as two variants of . . . the same underlying mechanisms. In addition to reviewing the available evidence that we thought would point this way, we carried out two experiments investigating whether pitch information would affect perception of length and thus word recognition in a language with a par excellence example of a quantity-based lexical-phonological system. The answer based on the two experiments was a clear affirmative (p.4).
In short, "our results showed that pitch information is an important co-index of the quantity opposition in Finnish." On this basis, they make a rather startling claim: "Consequently, . . . our results imply that in terms of the production and perception mechanisms, pitch in Finnish is probably in all respects like pitch in any prototypical tone language, e.g., Mandarin Chinese" (p. 5).

In more general terms,
we would like to argue that rather than a
discrete categorical classification of languages into tone languages
and non-tone languages, a more fine-grained account is needed
that takes into account the extent to which (in this case) pitch
information is actually used to distinguish phonological categories
in processing. This would not only sharpen our criteria of tone
languages, but would also provide a more realistic, more refined,
explanandum for studies of linguistic evolution. (p. 6)

With regard to tonogenesis - at least in some cases - it
may be that tone in the phonetic sense has been present all along
and only surfaces phonologically when other linguistic factors force
the change. Importantly, our results suggest that there is no
unidirectional link from perceptual sensitivity to pitch information
to the emergence of a tone language. (p. 6)
The authors never go far as to question the tonogenesis dogma per se, but their work certainly raises many questions regarding its validity as a "unidirectional link" in linguistic evolution.

What I find especially intriguing in this research is the fact that two of the three European languages they cite as typical "quantity languages," Finnish and Estonian, are Uralic languages, thus among the very few non-Indoeuropean languages on that continent. Since the establishment of Indoeuropean throughout almost all of Europe appears to be a relatively recent phenomenon, and Uralic is widespread among languages spoken by indigenous peoples scattered through vast regions of northern Europe and Asia, it seems likely that the Uralic complex could predate Indoeuropean and thus might represent an earlier stage of lingustic evolution.

Indeed, according to a very interesting paper by Mario Alinei (Interdisciplinary and linguistic evidence for Palaeolithic continuity of Indo-European, Uralic and Altaic populations in Eurasia, with an excursus on Slavic ethnogenesis, 2003), a new theory of Uralic origins
was advanced about thirty years ago and is now universally recognized by linguists as well as archaeologists: it is called the Uralic Continuity Theory (UCT) and claims an
uninterrupted continuity of Uralic populations and languages from [the] Paleolithic (Meinander 1973, Nuñez 1987, 1989, 1996, 1997, 1998)

According to this theory, which historically represents the first claim of uninterrupted continuity of a European people from [the] Paleolithic, Uralic people must belong to the populations of Homo sapiens sapiens coming from Africa, who occupied mid-eastern Europe in Paleolithic glacial times . . . and followed the retreating icecap in [the] Mesolithic, eventually settling in their present territories . . . (pp. 12-13)
I don't want to pursue my speculations too far, since my knowledge of historical linguistics is very limited and I might well be on the wrong track entirely. Nor are such speculations really necessary with regard to the overall argument I've been presenting over the last few posts. Nevertheless, I do find the link between tonal languages and non-tonal quantity languages very interesting and definitely worthy of further investigation. As I wrote in my response to Maju's comment,
If the earliest language was indeed tonal, as I strongly suspect (due to the saturation of tone languages in Africa, and the lack of evidence for "tonogenesis" on that continent), then the association these linguists found between tone and quantity could represent a first step in an evolution from tonal to non-tonal language. . . . I'm now wondering whether Uralic languages such as Finnish, Estonian and Saami were among the "native European" language families displaced by the advent of Indoeuropean. If so, then the close association with tone language demonstrated in this paper would make a great deal of sense. . . The evolution from a tone to a quantity language would have been the exact opposite of the "tonogenesis" so confidently assumed by so many linguists.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

338. Tonoexodus

As I see it, there is little question that the earliest languages must have been tone languages. Since modern humans are almost universally thought to have originated in Africa, and since the great majority of African languages are tonal, it would be extremely difficult to explain how an originary non-tonal language could have produced so many tone languages on the continent of its birth. The hypothesis is reinforced by the fact that "there are no documented cases of tonogenesis in Africa, despite the wide variety of languages . . . and the widespread presence of tone on the continent" (George Tucker Childs, An Introduction to African Languages, 2003, p. 86.).

Since linguists are in agreement that tonogenesis represents some sort of universal process through which all tonal languages are generated from non-tonal ones, the abundance of tone languages in Africa, plus the lack of evidence for tonogenesis anywhere on that continent, should represent something of an embarrassment -- but apparently not. From what I've read in the surprisingly extensive literature on tonogenesis (not to mention many other topics in linguistics), linguists seem much too preoccupied with the discovery of universally valid principles and far too little concerned with the messy contingencies of history, as reflected in the worldwide distribution of the traits they study (the WALS project being a notable, and very welcome, exception).

Given the preponderance of tone language in Africa, it seems likely that the original Out-of-Africa migrants must have also spoken a tone language. And since this is generally understood as the founding group, both genetically and culturally, for all peoples outside of Africa, it seems likely that non-tonal languages could only have arisen via a process that must be regarded as the reverse of tonogenesis, i.e.: tonoexodus.

When I "coined" this term in a tongue-in-cheek comment on the previous post, I wasn't aware that it was already in circulation. And, yes, some linguists have considered the possibility of what they too have named (with a straight face, apparently) "tonoexodus":
Tone systems are not static. A language can acquire tones and then increase the complexity of this tone system but it can also decrease the number of its tones and ultimately become non-tonal. These two processes, acquisition and recession of tones, have been termed tonogenesis [Matisoff 1970, 1973) and tonoexodus [Lea 1973). Cases of tonoexodus are rare and it is not clear what the intermediate historical stages between the tonal and non-tonal stages are. (CONSONANT TYPES, VOWEL HEIGHT AND TONE IN YORUBA, by Jean-Marie Rombert, 1977, p. 174.)
I suspect that "cases of tonoexodus are rare" only because 1. linguists aren't looking for them; and 2. they tend to focus on very specific processes within specific languages, rather than taking the big picture into account. I've seen countless studies of "tonogenesis" as it appears to have developed in a single language, but have noticed not one study of the topic as applied to the worldwide distribution of tone.

But the (apparently revolutionary) notion that tone language came first, is only part of the story. Because if the first language was a tone language, then it seems only logical to go a step farther to consider whether it might have consisted exclusively of tones. Or, to be more accurate, specific tones presented in specific rhythms, which also happens to be a way of defining music. In a comment on the previous post, Marnie reminds us that a great deal of content in a great many African languages can be conveyed by the "talking drum," limited exclusively to differences of tone and rhythm. She asks the very sensible question, "is it possible that pitch and rhythm developed together in our earliest languages?"

In response to my previous post, I received an email from a very perceptive reader, Alex Petrov, who provided a link to this extremely interesting Wikipedia article on Whistled Language. I had always assumed that so-called whistled "languages" were merely elaborate signalling systems, but there is clearly more to it than that:
A whistled language is a system of whistled communication which allows fluent whistlers to transmit and comprehend a potentially unlimited number of messages over long distances. Whistled languages are different in this respect from the restricted codes sometimes used by herders or animal trainers to transmit simple messages or instructions. Generally, whistled languages emulate the tones or vowel formants of a natural spoken language, as well as aspects of its intonation and prosody, so that trained listeners who speak that language can understand the encoded message.

Whistled language is rare compared to spoken language, but it is found in cultures around the world. It is especially common in tone languages where the whistled tones transmit the tones of the syllables (tone melodies of the words). This might be because in tone languages the tone melody carries more of the "functional load" of communication while non-tonal phonology carries proportionally less. The genesis of a whistled language has never been recorded in either case and has not yet received much productive study.
Especially interesting is the observation that "In continental Africa, speech may be conveyed by a whistle or other musical instrument, most famously the "talking drums . . . As two people approach each other, one may even switch from whistled to spoken speech in mid-sentence." If so much in so many African tone languages can be communicated by tone and rhythm alone, then it is only logical to wonder whether any of the other features of such languages are necessary -- and whether their existence could be undersood as the initial stages of a progression from a language of pure tones to a tonal language, and from there to a non-tonal language -- i.e.: tonoexodus.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

337. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 8: Speech

Most linguists have managed to convince themselves that tone languages must have derived from non-tone languages, under the assumption that the earliest languages must have been non-tonal. The process through which a non-tone language evolves into a tonal one is known as "tonogenesis." Very strangely, however, almost all the research on tonogenesis has been centered in either East Asia or the Americas. Africa, the continent with the largest number of tone languages by far, has been all but ignored -- and for good reason, apparently:
What is quite surprising . . . is that there are no documented cases of tonogenesis in Africa, despite the wide variety of languages . . . and the widespread presence of tone on the continent. (George Tucker Childs, An Introduction to African Languages, 2003, p. 86.)
Since almost every single language in sub-Saharan Africa is tonal, "widespread presence" is something of an understatement. To illustrate, let's take a look at the world map of tone languages produced by WALS, the World Atlas of Language Structures:

The red and pink dots represent tone languages, the white dots non-tone languages. As is clearly evident, Sub-Saharan Africa is simply saturated with tone languages, with only two or three exceptions represented in the enormous WALS sample. It's interesting to note that a similar degree of tonal saturation is depicted for Southeast Asia and Melanesia. I've discussed the possible meaning of this very odd distribution in an earlier post, but it need not concern us here.

What does concern us at this point is the overwhelming genetic and archaeological evidence that's developed over the last 20 or 30 years pointing to Sub-Saharan Africa as the locus for the development of "modern" humans (homo sapiens sapiens), who are thought to have migrated from there to the rest of the world roughly 60,000 to 80,000 years ago. Since most historical linguists now agree that all human languages must have had a common ancestor, then, if the Out of Africa model is correct, that ancestor could only have originated in Africa. And since just about every language in Africa (including Khoisan, considered by many to be the oldest surviving language) is a tone language, then there is clearly something very wrong with the widespread assumption that the earliest languages must have been non-tonal, and linguistic tone could only have been produced via "tonogenesis."

Which returns us to the experiments by Diana Deutsch (see previous posts), and the surprisingly strong correlations she found between tone language and absolute pitch. Unlike some of the other common features of language and music, such as interactivity, cooperation, phrasing, etc., the use of discrete pitches is the only one generally regarded as uniquely musical. And the puzzle we've been considering, of how such tones could have developed, and, more important in the context of the present discussion, what sort of adaptational advantage they might have posed, can now be seen in an entirely new light.

Based on the evidence presented above, the following sequence may now be considered:

1. Interactive "hooted" vocalizations of early primates and pre-humans, along the lines of the "duetting" and "chorusing" of certain contemporary ape and gibbon populations. The adaptational advantage of such behavior would most likely be the facilitation of both long distance communication and cooperation.

2. The development from the above, among early humans, of precisely pitched vocalizations. Among the various means by which this may have come about, one stands out as particularly suggestive as far as adaptation is concerned. Since many birds sing using discrete pitches, there would have been an advantage for humans in learning how to imitate bird songs as a lure. This could have been accomplished through the morphing of pre-human "hooting" into precisely pitched yodeling. Since yodeling involves a process akin to the "overblowing" of wind instruments (such as pipes, flutes, etc.) to produce discrete overtones, it might have been the simplest means by which humans would have become aware of certain basic pitch relationships. Another possibility might have been the discovery that simple reed pipes or hollow bones could be blown into in such a way as to produce discrete pitches that in many cases could be used as bird-call imitations. Since each reed or bone could only play a single note, it would require close cooperation on the part of a group to imitate multi-pitched bird songs. Reed ensembles of this type are still widely found in Africa and elsewhere among indigenous peoples, and such performances are in many cases associated with birds and their calls. Vocal ensembles organized along similar lines may have developed either independently or in imitation of the wind ensembles.

3. Since bird songs are precisely pitched, hunters with absolute pitch would have been more effective than those without it, giving a selective advantage to those with absolute pitch.

4. On the basis of the above, admittedly speculative, sequence, it's not difficult to see how both vocalizing and playing with discrete pitches could have led to the development of a language of sorts, based exclusively on tonal relations. For one thing, each such musical sequence would have symbolized a specific species of bird. For another, it's possible to see how, for those with perfect pitch, each pitch could have been perceived as an easily identified semiotic "module," very close, in fact, to a linguistic phoneme, which it could have anticipated.

5. If the earliest "language" consisted essentially of discrete pitches, then we can see how, for early humans, the development of musical awareness would have had a powerful adaptational advantage (now lost, of course). This would also explain the widespread presence of tone languages in the continent where early humans developed, since the use of tonal phonemes would have persisted even after non-tonal elements were added.

The above is highly speculative of course. A great deal depends on whether or not Deutsch's results, based on research among East Asians, can be replicated with African subjects.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

336. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 7: Speech

In her recent Scientific American article, Speaking in Tones, psychologist Diana Deutsch describes some remarkable research, by herself and others, revealing some unexpected and very exciting links between speech and music. For example, despite many years in which it was assumed they were controlled by two completely different regions of the brain, "Psychologists, linguists and neuroscientists have recently changed their tune . . . as sophisticated nueroimaging techniques have helped amass evidence that the brain areas governing music and language overlap." The two regions are so interconnected that "an awareness of music is critical to a baby's language development and even helps to cement the bond between infant and mother" (p. 37).
This overlap makes sense, because language and music have a lot in common. They are both governed by a grammar, in which basic elements are organized hierarchically into sequences according to established rules. In language, words combine to form phrases, which join to form larger phrases, which in turn combine to make sentences. Similarly, in music, notes combine to form phrases, which connect to form larger phrases, and so on. (pp. 38-39)

I'm a bit skeptical regarding the many examples of baby-mother interaction she provides, because, like so many others in her field, and in cognitive science generally, she assumes that all babies and mothers interact similarly, based on research typically limited to American and European subjects. Before attempting to universalize such evidence, it's important to compare it with evidence from non-Western societies, as well as various indigenous groups from a wide range of different world areas.

The above reservations do not apply to her most remarkable and exciting results, regarding a completely unexpected and indeed very surprising correlation between absolute (or "perfect") pitch and tone language. She made the astonishing discovery that among students who had received musical training by the age of five, fluent speakers of Mandarin, a tone language, were far more likely to have absolute pitch than a comparable group of students who grew up with English or some other nontone language. We're talking a huge difference, of 92% of "very fluent tone language speakers," as opposed to only 8% of English speakers. To determine whether the correlation were primarily genetic rather than linguistic, she tested East Asian students who grew up speaking a non-tone language and discovered that they too scored only about 8%. The correlation seems definitely associated with tone language rather than genetic inheritance.

Another important discovery concerns the pitch sensitivity of tone language speakers generally. It's always been assumed that the pitches of tone language are relative and not absolute, yet Deutsch learned that
not only were Vietnamese and Mandarin speakers very sensitive to the pitches that they hear, but they can produce words at a consistent absolute pitch. . . We found that their pitches were remarkably consistent: when compared across days, half of the participants showed pitch differences of less than half a semitone (p. 42).

In the next post, I'll explain why I attach such importance to these results.

Monday, August 30, 2010

335. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 6: Speech

It's not very difficult to see that the development of language would have provided early humans with an enormous adaptational advantage over both predators and other primates competing for a similar array of resources. What's much more difficult to understand is what sort of adaptational advantage could have been provided by the development of music. At this point, the only answer that makes sense to me is that music and speech must have developed in tandem. Indeed, in order for music to have survived, in the Darwinian sense, it must have functioned as a sign system of some sort from the very beginning.

Is there any evidence for this? Yes:

1. The long-range "proto-musical" interactive hooting of Bonobos, as described by Hohmann and Fruth (see Post 330), appears to function as a type of communication and as such, might certainly confer an advantage with respect to both predators and prey. Since Bonobos appear to have so much in common with the ancestral humans I've defined here as HBP, or Hypothetical Baseline Population, and since their duetting and chorusing have a dynamic so similar to the hocketed vocalizing of Pygmies and Bushmen, it seems reasonable to assume that early humans could have been communicating vocally in a similar manner.

2. The fact that musical pitches and rhythms are perceived not simply acoustically but also semiotically, in terms directly parallel to the phonemic organization of literally all forms of speech (as outlined in the previous post), strongly suggests a historical connection between the two modes of communication.

3. Since music is "phonemic" in the above sense and speech is both phonemic and symbolic (in terms of the so-called signifier/signified relation), it seems reasonable to conclude that phonemic awareness must have preceded symbolic awareness.

4. If, as I have argued in many places on this blog and elsewhere, the musical style of the Pygmies and Bushmen is essentially the same as that of the common ancestor (HBP), then it's difficult to ignore the fact that the vocal music of both groups is dominated by meaningless vocables, with only very brief interjections of meaningful text. As a play of "phonemically" articulated tones, linked syntactically, but with little or no morphological content, it's not difficult to imagine how such a practice might have preceded the development of meaningful speech.

5. The fact that music is not only "phonemic" but also has an important syntactic dimension, tells us, first, that music represents an evolutionary "advance" over primate vocalizations, which appear to lack anything more than the simplest syntactic organization, and, moreover, suggests the possibility that linguistic syntax may have developed from that of music.

An important study of the relation between music and language has just been published in Scientific American Mind: Speaking in Tones, by Diana Deutsch. Her article contains many very interesting observations, based on some of the most recent developments in psychology, cognitive science and linguistics, including some remarkable findings especially relevant to the question at hand that I'll be discussing in the next post.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

334. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 5: Speech

When evaluating musical behavior as an adaptation, it's essential to ask ourselves, before anything else, what it is, exactly, that makes music music, as distinguished from any other type of sound production (such as bird calls, primate "hootings," human speech, etc.) or cooperative interaction (such as ritual, dance, warfare, etc.). And as far as I've been able to determine, it seems reasonable to accept the following very simple "working definition"*: the production, by either voice(s) or instrument(s), of clearly defined pitches and/or clearly delineated rhythms. However, when we investigate the nature of pitch or rhythm, we discover that in both cases we are dealing with something far more complex than a simply auditory phenomenon. For example, here is a spectrogram representing 14 notes, as played by a violin, in purely acoustic terms:

This image can be found at the Wikipedia Commons website, along with the audio file that was used to produce it.

Note that each pitch is represented, not by a single line, but a vertically aligned array of short horizontals, each representing a separate "overtone." This is what is known as the "spectrum" of the sound, and all sounds, musical or otherwise, have a spectrum.

What we see in the spectrogram is a reasonable image of what we actually hear, in strictly acoustic terms. But, obviously, this is not anything like what we hear psychologically, which for most of us will be a simple series of "notes." Contemplating the difference between a sonogram image of a musical performance and what it is we think we hear, can give us an idea of the degree of psycho-cultural processing we perform when we listen to music. Musical notes are, in fact, not simply acoustical but also semiotic, i.e., acoustic phenomena filtered through a symbolic system.

To clarify, I'll take the liberty of offering an extensive quote from my paper, Echoes of Our Forgotten Ancestors:

As linguist Roman Jakobson once noted, “[t]here is...exactly the same relationship between a musical value and its realizations as there is in language between a phoneme and the articulated sounds which represent this phoneme in speech” (1987: 456). In other words, a pitch class (or a time point class) and a vocable class (phoneme) operate in more or less the same way. In semiotic terms, music, like speech, possesses second articulation [i.e., the ability to break sounds into distinct phonemes]. But unlike speech it lacks first articulation (morphology, the basis for the signifier/signified relation).

A basic principle behind what we usually understand as music is in fact this field of tonal and/or rhythmic values which can produce pitch and/or time-point classes, i.e., “second articulation” (see Grauer 1993, 2000). This is not something to be taken for granted. Music is (traditionally) not made from raw sounds (with apologies to John Cage) but from sounds that are (with a nod to Claude Levi-Strauss) “cooked.”

To put it yet another way (with a further nod to Jacques Derrida), that famous “supplement,” music notation, was in some sense always already there, in the form of the tonal/metric “force fields” which give rise to the values, or notes, “inscribed” in music from the start. The existence of tuned pipes, either free or bundled into panpipes, is early evidence of this, as such pipes can already be regarded as a form of pitch notation, each pipe standing for a given note, the whole set for a particular scale.

What all this suggests is that early music may well have set the stage for language by providing a kind of laboratory for phonological and semantic experimentation. It is perhaps only a short step from the play of sung “nonsense” vocables and the construction of tuned pipes to the birth of signs. While one might need to rely on “native speakers” to puzzle out the phonology of a given verbal language, the “phonology” of music is, apparently, already given to us—i.e., we ourselves may already be “native speakers” of any and all (traditional) musical “dialects.” This could explain why we are able to enjoy, and also notate, so many different kinds of music (p. 43).

(to be continued . . . )

*By "working definition," I mean a definition that would seem to apply in the great majority of cases, but not necessarily all. Additionally, while it's been argued that a great many peoples have no word for what we call "music," it is also true that in almost all cases, there are words for singing and words for the playing of instruments. Thus, for the purposes of my "working definition," music can be understood in the context of either singing or playing or both together.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

333. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 4

On the following page, Dissanayake makes a questionable, though all too common, assumption: "Although ritual ceremonies are cultural inventions, all human groups practice them so they must be biologically-predisposed." The possibility that such ceremonies could stem from traditions established in the culture of a common ancestor has, apparently, never crossed her mind. I'm not claiming that such ceremonies could not have originated in biologically determined adaptations -- possibly they did -- but I must protest the commonly held view that any cultural "universal" could survive only due to a biological predisposition, based on the questionable assumption that cultural practices per se are subject to continual change and could not have survived unless continually reinforced by biological imperatives.

There is another hidden assumption worth discussing here as well, the assumption that Darwinian adaptation is strictly biological. As I understand it, the basic unit of adaptation is not the gene but the organism (and/or population) as a whole (see Mayr, What Evolution Is). If, for example, one population is better organized socially than its neighbors, this would confer on them a selective advantage potentially as effective as anything biologically determined (such as, for example, physical strength).

Dissanayake continues with some further speculations under the heading, THE ADAPTIVE FUNCTION OF PARTICIPATION IN RITUAL/MUSIC. As in so many other cases, among so many others who have considered such questions, what is really being discussed is the context in which musical behavior occurs, rather than the very specific nature of musical performance per se.

In sum, while there is much to be said about the adaptational efficacy of certain practices associated with music, such as social cooperation, ritual behavior, etc., there is nothing in any of the theories developed along such lines that distinguishes the sort of behavior that can be associated with music from what actually happens when people sing or play instruments (or, for that matter, dance). Thus, while cooperation per se undoubtedly constitutes an effective social adaptation, and musical cooperation may well serve to enhance its efficacity, there is nothing about singing or playing clearly defined pitches and/or clearly delineated rhythms that, as far as we know from either ethnographic or historical data, would appear to have conferred any significant competitive advantage on human individuals or groups.

Which returns me to the first of the alternatives proposed in Post 328: music may have prepared the way for the development of language.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

332. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 3

Vocalizing together in precisely timed harmony, counterpoint, or interlock, is one of the most highly cooperative activities of which humans are capable. But what sort of competitive advantage did such behavior confer on our ancestors? And if there were no advantage, then for what reason did musical skills develop?

Don't get me wrong. In itself, learning to cooperate certainly conferred enormous advantages on humans. Evidence of effective cooperation, in strictly practical terms, among virtually all human groups abounds. Nevertheless, despite evidence that human singing may have originated in the highly cooperative, interactive vocalizations of certain apes and gibbons, it remains difficult to understand what there was, or is, about vocal cooperation per se that could have provided either primates or humans with a competitive edge. The hallmark of cooperation may be interaction, but what was there, specifically, about vocal (or even instrumental) music that would have made this highly distinctive type of behavior effective enough to be selected for according to the classic Darwinian model? While it's certainly possible that musical cooperation might have been helpful in encouraging humans to cooperate, it's not difficult to think of other, much simpler, types of cooperation that could have had the same effect.

Merker has suggested that rhythmic entrainment may have been "selected for as a means for signal competition in the context of mate selection during rhythmic chorusing," (Op. Cit., p. 8) but there is no evidence for such a function among either humans or apes. In a fascinating, but also rather fanciful, recent paper by Ellen Dissanayake, entitled If music is the food of love, what about survival and reproductive success?, the author concentrates on certain musical features of mother-infant interactions. Significantly, she points to "interactive behaviors" between mother and child that
take place . . . sequentially, in bouts of 1.5 to 3 seconds, on a time base, so that each partner in the dyad reacts and responds contingently to the other’s signals within one-half second or less, anticipating and participating in an ongoing, changing, cocreated engagement. I propose that the dyadic coordination developed in mother infant interaction is likely a precursor of human music in which individuals mutually coordinate their voices and body movement in temporally and dynamically structured sequences (my emphasis, p. 177).

Since, as we have learned, a very similar type of interaction, also "paced at roughly 2 Hz" (Merker, Op. Cit., p. 7), i.e., two times a second, is characteristic of Bonobos, Dissanayake's observations seem remarkably consistent with the notion of a possible link between human and Bonobo vocalizations, reflected in the structure of the mother-infant bond.

Dissanayake moves on from there to consider "A HYPOTHETICAL PROGRESSION FROM PROTO-MUSIC TO MUSIC" based on the invention of "ceremonial ritual":
Like music and the other arts, ritual ceremonies occur universally in human societies. Indeed, the arts and ritual tend to occur together. Although human ceremonies are not instinctive — and indeed are culturally highly varied and complex — I propose that they build upon the proto-musical capacities and sensitivities that developed during human evolution to create and reinforce the mother-infant bond. . . . Emancipated from their maternal-infant origins, the elements of what eventually became music were probably first developed and elaborated by individual cultures, ancestrally, in religious practices (ritual ceremonies), which served to unite groups temporally and hence emotionally, as their proto-musical sources did for mother-infant pairs (p. 178).

As I see it, this sort of thinking, however interesting, and indeed suggestive, becomes far too vague far too quickly. We are still left wondering what it is about either mother-infant interactions or ceremonial rituals that caused something so distinctive and complex as musical behavior to emerge.

(to be continued . . . )

331. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 2

With reference to the "gibbon-like nature of [Bonobo] long-distance hooting," as quoted at the end of my last post, I'll once again (as in Post 21) present the following youtube video, of interactive "duetting" between Siamang Gibbons:

Since I haven't been able to find any Bonobo examples, and since their hooted "duetting" has been described as "gibbon-like," this video will have to do for now. For some examples of interactive human vocalizing of a somewhat similar type, see Post 22.

As far as function is concerned, Hohmann and Fruth state that their study
supports the general, assumption that high-hoots are part of a system of signals that facilitate communication between members of different parties. The small number of observations available on locomotion and vocal activity of different parties suggests that the calls affect movements and, thus, may regulate proximity between single individuals, groups, or parties. . . [Thus] high-hoots may be the major device to regulate and to maintain the social network of the community. (p. 780).
If this is the case, and if primate duetting-chorusing is in fact "proto-musical," as the striking similarities with the "shouted hocket" of so many indigenous peoples suggests (as per the comparisons on Post 22), then the close cooperation associated with this type of vocal interaction might well have conferred an adaptational advantage on both early humans and their pre-human ancestors by enhancing social integration.

I must confess, however, that I'm not completely convinced. While interaction of this sort might well promote social stability and enhance the ability of a group to act in close coordination, I see no reason why either social stability or coordination would require the relatively precise synchronization so characteristic of both Bonobo or Gibbon vocalizations and human music-making. While primates and humans are capable of varying degrees of cooperative activity, none of these species appear to gain any sort of competitive advantage from acting in strictly synchronized concert. Aside from certain types of military drill, which are almost certainly a relatively late development, human "entrainment" of this sort appears to be limited exclusively to certain types of musical performance and dance.

Thus while the interactive element of Bonobo and human "proto-musical" and musical behavior might have conferred an adaptational advantage related to cooperation, it's much harder to see any such advantage accrueing from the precisely synchronized "entrainment" associated with it. Loosely coordinated cooperation would seem to have been equally effective as far as the survival of any of these species is concerned. It's also very difficult to see what adaptational advantage the more or less precise tuning of specific pitches, an essential element in almost all human music, might confer, since the sort of close cooperation required in deploying such pitches in either polyphony or unison appears to have no correlate in any other aspect of human behavior associated with cooperation per se.

There is one other possibility we have not yet discussed however, and this will be the principal topic of my next post.

Monday, August 23, 2010

330. Did Music Originate as a Behavioral Adaptation? -- 1

This brief video presents the essential elements of a remarkable experiment:

The "subject" is not only willing to share, but goes to the trouble of unlocking another Bonobo's cage to make sure his pal can also get to the food. Compare with the following description of Aka Pygmy sharing, by Michelle Kisliuk:
On another occasion I brought a tomato to the Bagandou camp . . . I gave a wedge to Bandit sitting beside me, expecting him to pop it in his mouth. Instead, he proceeded to call for a knife and cut the wedge into about sixteen tiny pieces, sharing it with everybody in sight (Seize the Dance, p. 132).
One of the points Savage-Rumbaugh stresses (in the presentation linked to in the previous post) is that the remarkable behaviors of the Bonobos she works with appear to be cultural rather than simply instinctive. Which raises the question of whether Bonobo sharing, and other types of cooperation (including interactive vocalizing) represent learned traditions or biologically determined behaviors. As in many other cases, elements of both may play essential roles.

Since the sharing of food and other useful items is a hallmark of both Pygmy and Bushmen behavior, I included "the sharing of vital resources" as one of the "core values" of HBC, the (hypothetical) baseline culture of the ancestral group from which all contemporary humans are descended (to learn how this baseline was derived, see Posts 228 et seq.). If my hypothetical baseline is accurate, it seems likely that our earliest human ancestors may have been more like Bonobos than Chimps (who do not share) or other primates, which makes the (apparent) similarities between Bonobo hooted "duetting" and "chorusing" and Pygmy/Bushmen yodeled hocketing (see post 328, below) especially interesting. Of course, there are many other notable similarities between Bonobo "culture" and HBC, including female assertiveness, non-hierarchical political structure and a tendency to non-violence.

I haven't yet had an opportunity to actually listen to any example of interactive Bonobo hooting, but the reports by de Waal and others seem convincing. However, in a more recent article than the one I quoted earlier, Björn Merker surprisingly appears to reverse himself with respect to Bonobo vocalizations, pointing to "a number of other specieis, none of them closely related to humans, that also engage in group synchrony of behavior through entrainment to an isochronous pulse" (my emphasis -- Merker et al, On the role and origin of isochrony in human rhythmic entrainment, Cortex 15, 2009).

Merker refers to de Waal's research, but appears reluctant to make too much of it since the Bonobos he studied were in captivity:
A vocal rather than a manual source for the crucial isochrony underlying musical rhythmicity is hinted at by the vocal behaviour of bonobos called ‘‘staccato hooting’’ (DeWaal, 1988, pp. 282–283; Bermejo and Omedes, 1999). To date, it furnishes the only indication that a great ape may be capable of entrainment. The repetitive hooting is paced at roughly 2 Hz (i.e., in the range of rhythmic music, see Moelants, 2002), and is reported to include inter-individual synchrony of hoots (De Waal, 1988). Few issues would seem to provide more leverage for the comparative study of the biology of human musical rhythmicity than a thorough characterisation of bonobo staccato hooting in the wild. Should it occur, and serve inter-individual entrainment of voices, the genus Homo would not be alone among the apes in having evolved a capacity for rhythmic entrainment of voices. (my emphasis -- p. 7)

Merker appears unaware of earlier research by Gottfried Hohmann and Barbara Fruth, whose studies of Bonobos in the Lomako Forest of Central Zaire emphatically confirm de Waal's observations:
From analyses of simultaneous high- hootings of mature pairs, it became apparent that calls of both apes were given often in more or less perfect alternation, indicating a remarkable degree of behavioral coordination between them. Jordan (1977) and de Waal (1988) mention a high degree of synchronization between vocalizations of different individuals, and the latter author emphasized the gibbon-like nature of long-distance hooting. (Structure and Use of Distance Calls in Wild Bonobos, 1994).

(to be continued . . . )

Saturday, August 21, 2010

329. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 13

I've returned from my trip and am now taking some time to research the sort of Bonobo vocalizations described by Frans de Waal, as quoted in my previous post. I've also been trying to find some clips of Bonobo "duetting" or "chorusing," but so far Google has let me down. I keep finding links to the singer who calls himself "Bonobo," which is no help at all. If we can trust de Waal, however, they perform vocal duets, and also group "choruses" in an interactive manner somewhat similar to what can be heard in certain types of African Pygmy and Bushmen vocalization. I've already presented some of my ideas regarding human-primate parallels of this sort in a series of earlier posts (see especially posts 21 et seq and 34 et seq), in the context of a discussion of the origins of music, but at this point I want to take things a step farther to consider the adaptational advantage of "musical" cooperation in the development of the earliest humans.

I must confess that my efforts to find good recordings, or videos, and more up to date literature on this topic, are taking more time and trouble than I'd anticipated, so this post is going to be unusually brief. I've found some interesting writings, but need more time to digest it all.

Meanwhile, I'll leave you with a link to this wonderful video lecture on Bonobos by Susan Savage-Rumbaugh, which will give you some idea of how extraordinarily intelligent they are.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

328. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 12

If, as I strongly suspect, the vocalizations of our earliest ancestors resembled those of today's Pygmies and Bushmen, then there's little reason to believe sexual selection could have been an important factor in the evolution of human music, despite the intriguing parallels with bird song. For one thing, bird song is largely produced by males, while both male and female Pygmies and Bushmen are equally involved in the performance of music. For another, male birds compete with one another for the attention of females, whereas all forms of competition are actively discouraged in both Pygmy and Bushmen societies.

If sexual selection is ruled out, then what other possibilities remain? I see two: 1. music may have prepared the way for the development of language; 2. music may have played a role in the development of certain uniquely human social skills, especially the very close and precise cooperation needed to both fend off predators and hunt big game.

I'll leave aside the very difficult issue of the association with language for the moment, to concentrate on the relatively straightforward issue of cooperation. And no sooner did I raise this issue here than an answer has magically appeared as I (just now) did a Google search on "cooperation among bonobos" -- and instantly found this article, entitled, Sex and co-operation - it's the bonobo in you. Here's how it starts: "Could there be more of the bonobo in us than the chimpanzee? And does this explain the extraordinary ability of humans to co-operate with each other to create everything from a symphony concert to a space station?" Here are some more intriguing bits:
To find out how co-operative bonobos were, [Vanessa] Woods and her colleagues tested those living in the Lola ya bonobo sanctuary in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo, and compared their performance with that of chimps.

Pairs of apes were presented with a long plank with food on it and a rope threaded through either end. If the two chimps or two bonobos pulled together, they could get the food.

When there were two bowls of fruit, chimps would work as a team to get the goodies, as long as they knew and liked each other.

When there was only one bowl, or they were paired with a chimp they did not like, co-operation fell apart. "They wouldn't do it any more," said Ms Woods. Bonobos, on the other hand, did not care who their partner was, nor how much food was on offer.
First of all they spent some time playing and engaging in sexual behaviour. Then they each grabbed one end of the rope, slid the tray towards them, and shared the spoils. "They were better co-operators than chimpanzees," she said.

The study, published in the journal Current Biology, has revealed the importance of social tolerance in the development of co-operation. "What probably happened with humans when we split from our common ancestor with chimpanzees and bonobos 6 million years ago is that we became very tolerant [like bonobos], which allowed us to compete in ways that had never been seen before."

I've seen similar reports describing how Bonobos, unlike Chimps, will routinely share a portion of food with other Bonobos, even when they're in separate cages. What makes such results especially interesting is that 1. Pygmies and Bushmen are also known for their willingness to freely share food and other valuable items; 2. Bonobos, unlike Chimps, vocalize in a manner that resembles certain aspects of Pygmy and Bushmen communal singing. To clarify, here are some relevant excerpts from an article on primate vocalization, by Björn Merker, that I quoted back in Post 21:
Synchronous calling of the kind postulated here, that is, true cooperative synchronous calling rather than synchrony as a default condition of competitive signaling, requires a motivational mechanism for mutual entrainment. We assume that such a mechanism was selected for in the course of hominid divergence from our common ancestor with the chimpanzee, and was retained to the present day in the form of our propensity to join in and entrain to a repetitive beat. This propensity is apparently lacking in the common chimpanzee, which seems unable to keep time even with training ..., but may be present in bonobos. . . Genuine synchronous chorusing may exist, at least incipiently, among bonobos. A report by de Waal ... on captive bonobos describes a call variant apparently lacking a homolog in the vocal repertoire of common chimpanzees, namely, a loud and explosive sound called staccato hooting. According to de Waal “during choruses, staccato hooting of different individuals is almost perfectly synchronized so that one individual acts as the ‘echo’ of another, or emits calls at the same moments as another. The calls are given in a steady rhythm of about two per second.” (from Björn Merker,"Synchronous Chorusing and Human Origins," in Wallin, N. L., B. Merker & S. Brown (eds), The Origins of Music. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2000, p. 318-319).

While Merker seems primarily interested in "entrainment" as the precursor of synchronous singing among humans, what leaps out at me is de Waal's description of hooting Bonobos echoing one another in almost perfect synchronization, which calls to my mind the auditory image of hocketed yodeling among Pygmies or Bushmen. ("Hocketing" is the breaking up of a musical line into fragments, echoed back and forth among two or more performers.)

No more for now. I'll be out of town for a week or so and away from my computer, so may not be doing much blogging till I get back.

Friday, August 6, 2010

327. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 11

One of the things that distinguishes Pygmy and Bushmen singing from literally all other indigenous music is the extraordinary degree of cooperative integration required, to the extent that everyone participating must be aware of what everyone around them is doing. And, since everyone present is expected to participate, it seems clear that all members of each band must be "gifted" with musical awareness and skill well beyond what might be expected of the average individual in just about any other society. The extraordinarily open, resonant, relaxed and effortlessly fluid qualities of Pygmy and Bushmen voices have astonished many musical professionals in our own society. Such abilities are, amazingly enough, widely shared among just about all members of any given band. In this case, we are not talking about the remarkable musical abilities of a small number of unusually "gifted" individuals, but of the society as a whole.

While elements of P/B style can be found in both the vocal and instrumental music of indigenous peoples in many other parts of the world, in most such cases the degree of spontaneous integration is much less. Typically, such music is performed by especially selected individuals, who must carefully rehearse before presenting their music to the rest of the group, usually as part of a ritual associated with a particular time of year or special occasion (e.g., harvest, planting, initiation, funeral). Among Pygmies and Bushmen such performances occur spontaneously, on a daily basis.

It might be tempting to dismiss the special musical aptitudes of these populations as a coincidence, a quirk of nature with no further significance. However, as I have demonstrated, it is precisely the Pygmies and Bushmen of Africa whose lineages are consistently associated, in study after study, with the deepest branches of the human family tree. And on the basis of this evidence, coupled with the musical evidence, I've been able to produce a "Hypothetical Baseline Culture" (HBC), representing the culture of our common ancestors, based on evidence drawn from traditions held in common by various Pygmy and Bushmen groups. (See Post 226 et seq.)

Therefore, unless I am mistaken (always possible), our Most Recent Common Ancestors would very likely have had more or less the same remarkable musical aptitudes as today's Pgymies and Bushmen. Which suggests that musical ability might indeed have provided a powerful adaptive advantage during the earliest stages of human history. But what could that advantage have been?

(to be continued . . . )

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 . . . )

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

325. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 9

If evolution, and even life itself, can be understood in terms of a "complementary" relation between the materialist viewpoint of biological science and the non-materialist viewpoint of the conscious observer, then on what side of the dichotomy does culture reside? The following questions immediatly come to mind: To what extent is culture the product of processes set in motion by natural selection and to what extent could it be understood as the product of a kind of collective consciousness? What is the difference between the unique perspective afforded by the individual mind of a particular observer, and the shared perspectives of the members of a collective? To what degree can certain aspects of animal (including human) behavior be considered either instinctive or cultural -- and what, if any, would be the difference?

Is bird song essentially biological, or essentially cultural?
Early experiments by Thorpe in 1954 showed the importance of a bird being able to hear a tutor's song. When birds are raised in isolation, away from the influence of conspecific males, they still sing. While the song they produce resembles the song of a wild bird, it lacks the complexity and sounds distinctly different. (Wikipedia)

Is bird song associated with natural selection?
Scientists hypothesize that bird song has evolved through sexual selection, and experiments suggest that the quality of bird song may be a good indicator of fitness.

If bird songs are learned rather than simply produced via instinct (as are insect songs for example), does that make them cultural, at least in part?

If bird songs are produced instinctively, does that make them biological?

What bearing might this have on the vocalizations of primates?

What bearing might this have on the vocalizations of humans?

(You can see where I'm going with this.)

More later.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

324. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 8

For describing our mental activity, we require, on one hand, an
objectively given content to be placed in opposition to a perceiving
subject, while, on the other hand, as is already implied in such an
assertion, no sharp separation between object and subject can be maintained, since the perceiving subject also belongs to our mental content. -- Niels Bohr, 1934

It would be a grave mistake to confuse what I have called "radical dualism" with the reinstatement of the traditional dualistic standpoint desired by Le Fanu, in which the differences between the purely materialistic explanations of science and those based on the notion of an independent mind or soul would be resolved on some higher level, incorporating the most meaningful elements of both. As should by now be clear, a "dialectical" integration of this sort, roughly equivalent to the "intelligent design" model, can't work. In the context of radical dualism, the two interpretations are never resolved on some "higher" level, but must be regarded as mutually exclusive -- by analogy with Bohr's "Copenhagen Interpretation" of quantum mechanics, in which the wave and particle interpretations of light (and all other electromagnetic phenomena) are regarded as mutually exclusive. The term used by Bohr was "complementarity":
The complementarity principle states that some objects have multiple properties that appear to be contradictory. Sometimes it's possible to switch back and forth between different views of an object to observe these properties, but in principle, it's impossible to view both at the same time, despite their simultaneous coexistence in reality. For example, we can think of an electron as either a particle or a wave, depending on the situation. An object that's both a particle and a wave would seem to be impossible because, normally, such things are mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, an electron is truly both at once (Wikipedia).

In such terms, the purely materialistic explanations of Darwinian evolution, as elaborated by modern biological science, must be seen as, in principle, correct. Every aspect of life, from its earliest manifestations to its most sophisticated "achievements," as exemplified most impressively in the human brain, can be explained via the basic principles set forth by Darwin, as summarized in the phrase "natural selection." This is true even to the extent that the "mind" and/or "soul" can be understood as a secondary (or emergent) effect of activities centered in the brain and nervous system, as they have evolved over many millions of years. In fact, this "must" be so, because, from the standpoint of modern science, there is simply no other explanation consistent with the evidence.

On the other hand, the opposite viewpoint, based on the notion of a fully independent "mind" or "soul" that could only have emerged through some mysterious process beyond scientific explanation, must also be regarded as correct. Because, from the standpoint of the conscious individual, there is simply no other explanation consistent with his or her own personal experience of both the self and the world. The two mutually opposed views can never be reconciled, but can be understood as "complementary" (in the sense defined by Bohr) to one another.

By the way, the application of "complementarity" in this sense to other fundamental problems, including the very problem we are discussing here, was proposed by Bohr himself, in a lecture titled Light and Life.

There are a variety of ways in which the analogy with quantum physics can be expressed. For example, the purely materialistic view of evolution, stemming from Darwin, could be seen as analogous to the understanding of light as an accumulation of discrete particles, while the "mentalist" view could be seen as analogous to the understanding of light as a wave. In the first case, everything is explained by the gradual build-up of discrete, incremental changes over time, step by step, mutation by mutation, adaptation by adaptation. On the other hand, everything is explained as part of a teliological process, in which, as in a wave, the various elements are subsumed within an all encompassing totality.

Or one could see the dichotomy as analogous to another aspect of quantum physics, the so-called "collapse of the wave function," where a particle appears only when a specific measurement is made. In such terms, one could say that the mentalist view "collapses" whenever a scientific analysis of a specific life form is made.

Another important analogy with quantum physics is the notion that the two complementary views presented here represent, between them, a complete description of evolution. For Le Fanu, the materialist view presented by science is incomplete: "Some other dramatic mechanism, as yet unknown to science, must account for that extraordinary diversity of life as revealed by the fossil record. . ." Thus, there is a "necessity for there to be some prodigious biological phenomenon, unknown to science, that ensures the heart, lungs, sense organs and so on are constructed to the very highest specificiations of automated efficiency" (pp. 120, 122). From Bohr's perspective, such an expectation would be equivalent to what, in physics, has been described as the "hidden variable" theory, the notion, held by Einstein among others, that the strange contradictions of quantum duality might someday be resolved at some indefinite point in the future, when new evidence becomes available. To Einstein's consternaton, Bohr completely rejected such a view, insisting that quantum theory was "complete."

I would now like to move from the realm of biology to that of culture. And the question that we are now in a position to ask goes something like this: can culture be best understood as the product of a purely biological process (Darwinian evolution), in terms of the first element in our dichotomy, or, in terms of the second, as a pure product of the mind?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

323. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 7

To put the problem somewhat differently: On the one hand, if everything, including the mind, can be understood in purely Darwinian, i.e., materialist terms, then what is left to do the understanding? Without a mind positioned outside the realm of the material, there is no way to represent it and nothing to represent it to. On the other hand, if the mind can exist outside the realm of the material, then why does it need a brain at all? why is it so vulnerable to injuries or diseases of the brain, such as concussions, brain cancer, Alzheimer's, etc.? and how can we reconcile the allegedly "spiritual" human mind or soul with the existence of a brain that has so much in common with that of animals such as the chimp or gorilla -- or even the mouse or common housefly?

If we want to insist that the world around us is fully material, then we can't represent it; and if we want to insist that it's fully immaterial, i.e., the product of pure mind, or soul, then that world can't be represented either. In both cases the all important subject-object dichotomy breaks down and we find ourselves in the quesionable world of metaphysical presence*.

Le Fanu claims that he wants to see the world as a "duality," in which both the immaterial world of the mind and the material world of the brain are independent of one another. But his notion of "duality" requires a complete rethinking of evolution along lines that clearly favor the former at the expense of the latter. In other word, the "duality" he argues for is really not a duality at all, but a realm in which the most important and challenging problems of evolution must be guided by vaguely defined, but for him essential, immaterial forces. So what he is really arguing for is a monism, in which the material world is ultimately the product of the mind.

What's important to understand, as I see it, is that neither the purely material (i.e., scientific) nor the purely immaterial (i.e., spiritual or mental) view is fundamentally wrong. Both views oppose one another, but at the same time, both have to be correct (since there is no other alternative). And not only relatively correct, but profoundly correct. The impossible position I am describing here could be called "radical dualism." Not to be confused with the so-called "dualism" espoused by Le Fanu, in which the scientific view is rejected in favor of a type of spiritualism. Nor should it be confused with the approved "scientific" position, in which the mind is reduced to a secondary effect of the brain. Nor should it be confused with the Hegelian dialectic, in which an apparent contradiction is resolved on a "higher" level. There is no higher level on which such a fundmantal contradition can be resolved. It is in fact not simply a contradiction, but an aporia, i.e., a fundamentally unresolvable dilemma, literally an impasse.

But how can we think such an impossible thing? Fortunately, we have a powerful precedent for dealing with an aporia of this kind, which has already arisen in the realm of physics, specifically quantum theory. For a long time it was assumed that light, like sound, took the form of waves, and this became the basis for just about all research in this area throughout the nineteenth century. Early in the Twentienth Century, however, it became evident through research by Einstein, among others, that light could also be understood in terms of discrete particles, or photons -- i.e., "quanta" of light. So what was light, really: waves or particles? Further research determined that neither interpretation could be falsified -- that both must be true.

It was the genius of the physicist Neils Bohr, in my opinion one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived, which recognized that the so-called wave-particle duality (or, more accurately, aporia) was fundamentally a problem of representation. According to Bohr,
There is no quantum world. There is only an abstract physical description. It is wrong to think that the task of physics is to find out how nature is. Physics concerns what we can say about nature.
(to be continued . . . )

* ". . . in truth the loss of what has never taken place, of a self-presence which has never been given but only dreamed of and always already split, repeated, incapable of appearing to itself except in its own disappearance." Jacques Derrida

Friday, July 30, 2010

322. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 6

The human brain is a machine which alone accounts for all our actions, our most private thoughts, our beliefs. It creates . . . the sense of self. It makes the mind . . . we [may] feel ourselves to be in control of our actions, but that feeling is itself a product of our brain, whose machinery has been designed by means of natural selection.

Professor Colin Blakemore, "Britain's most prominent neuroscientist," as quoted in Why Us? by James Le Fanu (p. 231)

As should be clear from the previous post, I agree with Le Fanu that the above statement is problematic. But for very different reasons. The problem is not that such a "materialist" interpretation violates some basic principle of the sort Le Fanu raises, such as the existence of "subjective awareness," "free will," "human reason" or the "sense of self," which Le Fanu assumes to be well beyond the capacities of a purely evolutionary description to explain. This is certainly not the case. All of them can be easily explained as secondary functions of processes taking place within the human brain, which as Le Fanu himself would be forced to admit, is fundamentally not all that different from the brain of many animals.

As research in cognitive science has demonstrated over and over again, the production of exactly these sort of secondary effects is a large part of how the brain operates. Not through the workings of some simple mechanism, of course, but on the basis of very complex electrical interactions -- which may possibly also involve particle interactions at the quantum level that would be very complex indeed (and also very mysterious, since quantum interactions defy rational explanation).

And the human brain didn't just appear out of nowhere. As Le Fanu would also be forced to admit, it clearly evolved from neurological formations in "lower" life forms. Le Fanu's problem is that he can't imagine how all the wonderful functions claimed for the brain could possibly exist independent of a "mind" or "soul" that would give them meaning. But, assuming an unevolved mind or soul could exist independently of an evolved body or brain, then at exactly what stage of evolution would one expect it to appear? And on what basis would one be able to research such a question? Is such a question even scientific to begin with? And if not, then how are we to think about it? Le Fanu claims he is not arguing on behalf of a religious interpretation, and the term "intelligent design" doesn't even appear in his index. So on what basis is he formulating his objection?

The real problem with the above quotation, as with any attempt to make Darwinian evolution account for every aspect of life, is the problem I raised in the previous post: if all our mental faculties are simply products of the brain, then what is it that observes the brain as it is being studied? Le Fanu quotes a remarkably apt poem by Emily Dickenson: "The brain is wider than the sky/ For, put them side by side,/ This one the other will include/ With ease, and you beside." But if the whole universe, including the "self," can be enclosed within the brain, then what exists outside the brain that makes us aware of it? And wouldn't such an interpretation make the brain the equivalent of a kind of all-knowing, all-seeing God?

What makes science possible is precisely the fundamental duality which for Le Fanu science has rejected. Because science is, at base, a means of representing the real world, and without any means of formulating a clear and coherent opposition (in this case, subject vs. object, or mind vs. brain), there is no basis for representation. Basic linguistics -- or, to be more accurate, semiotics. And the same problem arises for Le Fanu's position as well, based on what he calls "the direct knowledge we have of our spiritual inner selves . . . the reality of my non-material self as a unique, distinct, structured spiritual entity" (228). This is the sort of thing the French philosopher Derrida characterized as "metaphysical presence," i.e. a "mystical" presence felt to exist beyond the reach of the process of represenation, which depends on linguistic/semiotic differences or oppositions. (As I see it, many if not most of the problems faced by modern scientific research, particularly in the realms of cognitive science, but also even physics, are fundamentally problems, not of the determination of what is real, but how certain entities and relationships can be represented. In other words, semiotics is ultimately more fundamental than either biology or physics.)

If the mind cannot be separated off from the brain, as so many cognitive scientists and neurologists insist, then there can be no science of the brain, since there is nothing outside the brain to study it. On the other hand, if we attempt to reinstate the dualism of mind and matter as favored by Le Fanu, we find ourselves unable to proceed scientifically at all, since the mind, as a metaphysical presence completely divorced from the workings of the brain, cannot be properly represented, much less studied.

Have we reached a total impasse? Not necessarily, as I will attempt to explain in the following post.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

321. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 5

While the trick I described is extremely simple, it's also extremely deceptive. I'd like to think that anyone with some scientific training could easily figure it out, but I have a feeling many scientists might be just as baffled as everyone else in the audience who observed with amazement how a fly that was clearly dead was brought back to life. I also have the feeling that, even after many years of scientific research, the method by which this "miracle" came about might still remain a mystery.

The secret lies in the fact that the trick was prepared in advance. A living fly was exposed to dry ice smoke, which put it into a state of suspended animation. In other words, it simply passed out. It was then placed on the window sill by the magician, who patiently waited for some passers-by to assemble, perhaps entertaining them with some juggling. For best results, he would have arranged to have an accomplice to accept his challenge by pointing to the fly, since it would look suspicious if he chose it himself. Once the fly was warmed by being held in the hands and breathed on, it quickly revived and went on its way.

Is this a mystery beyond the scope of scientific research, demonstrating for all time that our "materialistic" view of the world is mistaken? I'll leave it for you to decide.

But there's more to Le Fanu's book, and his argument, than his extremely limited, dogmatic view of science. He has an ace in the hole, conveniently provided by evolutionary science itself. According to Professor Paul Churchland, of the University of California,
'Conscious intelligence is a wholly natural phenomenon, the outcome of billions of years of evolution,' while [subjective mental qualities, as described earlier by Le Fanu] are . . . 'nothing but' the 'interaction of nerve cells and the molecules associated with them.' (224)
Le Fanu goes on to quote philosopher Daniel Dennett, who claims that "Conscious human minds are more-or-less serial virtual machines . . . implemented on the parallel hardware that evolution has provided for us." (224) Philosopher John Searle presents a somewhat more sophisticated version of the same assertion:
The distinctive properties of the brain and mind are, he insists, readily reconcilable by conceiving the mind as an 'emergent property' of the brain -- just as the phenomenon of water in its various forms of liquid, ice and steam is an 'emergent property' of the arrangement of its molecules of hydrogen and oxygen atoms (224-225)
In roughly the same terms, the mind has sometimes been described as an "epiphenomenon" of the brain, a secondary effect that has no reality in and of itself. As one might expect, Le Fanu trots out some of the usual (and rather obvious) difficulties associated with this idea, demanding explanations for
how, for example, the monotonous firing of [the brain's] neuronal circuits translates into that rich subjective world out there, or how those 'emergent' non-material thoughts can cause my hand to move so as to write one word rather than another (225).
In response, he presents a list of five "cardinal mysteries of the mind that taken together offer the profoundest of insights into our understanding of ourselves": The Mystery of Subjective Awareness; The Mystery of Free Will; The Mystery of the Richness and Accessibility of Memory; The Mystery of Human Reason and Imagination; The Mystery of the Self.
The difficulties he enumerates lead us back
to that crucial moment in the mid-nineteenth century when science changed the direction of Western society by denying the dual nature of reality, of a material and non-material realm, and asserted instead the priority of its materialist view over the philosophical view of the world as we know it to be (228).
Putting aside Le Fanu's questionable assertion regarding "the world as we know it to be," we could, of course, debate the pros and cons of the duality he invokes for as long as we like, without making much progress beyond what the ancient Greeks were able to achieve a few thousand years ago. Does it "make more sense" to assume that everything is purely material or to assume that there are two separate realms, the material and the mental, which are fundamentally different?

I'll save us all a lot of time and trouble by offering an argument that neatly parenthesizes all those countless years of endless hairsplitting to take us rapidly to the main point:

The "dual nature of reality" Le Fanu wants to assert, in opposition to the materialist view espoused by the Darwinians, already resides at the heart of science itself and cannot, therefore, support the argument he is attempting to make. But the problem cuts both ways. To get directly to the point: if we want to argue that what we think of as the mind is nothing more than a secondary effect of the brain, then we are forced into a profound epistemological difficulty. Because science is founded on the basic distinction between the observer and the observed, "subject" and "object" respectively. If there is no mind and only a brain, then what is there that can serve as the subject needed in order to observe the brain as object? And if the brain cannot be observed from outside itself, then it cannot serve as an object of scientific research. What pleases me most about this veritable aporia is that it makes no claim regarding what is "real" or "not real," or what is ultimately true or false, but goes beyond such questions to something even more fundamental: our ability to represent the world around us.

(to be continued . . . )

320. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 4

If you thought explaining organs such as the heart, kidneys, eyes, etc. presented a challenge to Darwinian evolution, consider the brain. Le Fanu dwells on two aspects of the problem: first, the extraordinary complexity of the brain, which goes far beyond anything else we might want to consider; and second, the apparent paradox presented by the relation of the brain to things like consciousness, personal identity, imagination, free will and the capacity for language -- in short, the problem posed by what we usually refer to as "the mind."

The most interesting feature of Le Fanu's brain chapter ("The Unfathomable Brain") is his methodical review of some truly fascinating research by neurologists and cognitive scientists delving into the workings of the brain, and its relation to things like vision, memory, emotion, etc. According to Le Fanu, the deeper they have delved, the more anomalies they have discovered, until we reach the provocative heading to be found on p. 222: "2000 and Onwards: the Rediscovery of the Soul."
[T]he most striking feature of the neurosciences, 'unparalleled' in any other field of scientific enquiry, is how each of the phases of the progressive unravelling of the secrets of the brain has been marked by a further deepening of the perplexity of its links with the spiritual mind (223).
For example:
[T]he 'Big Science' of neuroscience observing the brain in action has revealed processes that defy all imagining: how every detailed nuance of the three-dimensional world is generated from within the dark recesses of our skulls, deconstructed and reconstructed within a fraction of a second; or how the brain categorises our memories into different 'baskets', shifts them from one to the other and somehow maintains them as a permanent record in those ever-changing neural circuits; or how, contrary to every known law of nature, non-material thoughts and emotions directly influence the physical structure of the brain.

Hence the paradox where the more we have learned from that great unravelling of the brain, the more elusive any general theory of its relation to the mind has become (223-224).
On the one hand, Le Fanu is making the point that the most thorough and up-to-date research on the workings of the brain is taking us farther and farther away from any scientific theory that might hope to explain it; on the other hand, he is simply restating, in more modern language, one of the oldest paradoxes in the history of Western thought: mind-body duality.

Before continuing, it's important to make the point that there is nothing in Darwinian evolution that pretends to explain either the workings of the brain or any other organ, nor the precise manner in which natural selection works to produce any of its effects. What Darwin (and Wallace) recognized was that 1. multiple variations are produced in all species due to essentially random effects (what we now call "mutations," though Darwin had no way of knowing about that); 2. while the great majority of such variations are transient, some persist due to the process of "natural selection," i.e., adaptation of the organisim and/or population to the environment; and 3. it is the meaningful process of progressive adaptation (as opposed to the random production of meaningless variation), that produces the "miracles" we find in nature, such as the wings of birds, the evasive maneuvers of insects, the workings of the cell, and the design of the most complex organs, such as the heart, liver, eye and, yes, the brain.

Le Fanu argues, for one thing, as though evolutionsists explain all such "miracles" as purely the result of random processes. That is most definitely not the case. It's the progressive selection of the results of random processes over considerable lengths of time that works to fine tune the population to its environment in such a way as to produce organisms and organs so perfectly adapted to the world around them. If they were not so perfectly adapted, they would not have survived in the face of competition from better adapted organisms. For another thing, Le Fanu assumes that the viability of Darwinian principles is dependent on the ability of modern science to fully explain exactly how they produce their effects in all cases. In short, he has taken what amounts to a program for future scientific research and turned it into a standard by which the underlying theory must live or die, based on his own convictions regarding what can reasonably be explained and what cannot.

Consider a simple magic trick. A street magician claims he can bring the dead back to life. To demonstrate, he points to a dead fly sitting on a window sill, cups it carefully in his hands, breathes on it, and -- lo and behold -- it ruffles its wings a bit and flies away. I've seen this trick done myself. By Le Fanu's standards, this event can either be explained scientifically or it cannot. And if it cannot, then thousands of years of scientific research can safely be tossed out the window, in view of the "miracle" that all present have just witnessed -- which "proves" that certain people have supernatural powers beyond the ability of science to explain. In fact very experienced scientists have been totally baffled by magic tricks and in some cases even felt forced to admit that certain individuals are endowed with "paranormal" powers.

In the next installment I'll explain how this trick works, which will give you an idea of how absurd Le Fanu's demands actually are. I'll then move on to the real problem at the heart of his book, to which he returns ad nauseum: the ancient, but nevertheless profound, problem of mind-body dualism.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

319. Some Thoughts on Evolution, Natural and Cultural: 3

Le Fanu's objections become more interesting when he considers relatively recent developments, such as the efforts of bioengineers to develop artificial human organs. What initially seemed a relatively straightforward project, the artificial heart, turned out to be far more difficult than anticipated. And the heart, basically a pump, is "simpler by far than the complexities of kidney or brain, or the sense organs such as the eye." Thus, "it seems merely perverse to suggest that the undirected process of nature, acting on numerous small, random genetic mutations, could give rise to this or any other of those 'masterpieces of design'." He makes it clear that "this is not to suggest there must be a Creator after all . . ." but is simply drawing attention "to the necessity for there to be some prodigious biological phenomenon, unknown to science, that ensures the heart, lungs, sense organs and so on are constructed to the very highest specifications of automated efficiency" (p. 122).

Dramatic advances in the field of developmental biology have in fact revealed a "prodigious biological phenomenon" of precisely this sort -- but since this represents something known rather than unknown to science, Le Fanu prefers to see it as a problem rather than a solution.
[W]hen it takes six thousand genes to build a heart, what chance was there that a 'random mutation' in any one of them might generate a beneficial variation in favour of the heart's further perfection? Perhaps there were some 'mastermind' switching genes, turning the others 'on and off' according to some preconceived plan. . . . And sure enough, in the late 1980's, . . . the Swiss biologist Walter Gehring discovered two clusters of those master genes. These Hox genes, as they are known, determine the three-dimensional organization of the front and back half of the fly respectively . . . (p. 140)
What Le Fanu is referring to is the discovery, not only of the Hox genes, but a group of genes with very special functions, pertaining not to the transmission of specific traits, but controlling the development of the organism during various stages of its life. The study of such genes has given rise to the field of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, described as follows in Wikipedia:
The developmental-genetic toolkit consists of a small fraction of the genes in an organism's genome whose products control it's development. These genes are highly conserved among Phyla. Differences in deployment of toolkit genes affect the body plan and the number, identity, and pattern of body parts. The majority of toolkit genes are components of signaling pathways, and encode for the production of transcription factors, cell adhesion proteins, cell surface receptor proteins, and secreted morphogens, all of these participate in defining the fate of undifferentiated cells, generating spatial and temporal patterns, which in turn form the body plan of the organism. Among the most important of the toolkit genes are those of the Hox gene cluster, or complex. Hox genes, transcription factors containing the more broadly distributed homeobox protein-binding DNA motif, function in patterning the body axis. Thus, by combinatorial specifying the identity of particular body regions, Hox genes determine where limbs and other body segments will grow in a developing embryo or larva. A paragon of a toolbox gene is Pax6/eyeless, which controls eye formation in all animals. It has been found to produce eyes in mice and Drosophila, even if mouse Pax6/eyeless was expressed in Drosophila [18].
The existence of these "toolkit" genes goes a long way toward explaining not only organs such as the heart, lungs, kidneys, etc., but the famous problem of the eye, which troubled not only skeptics such as Le Fanu, but Darwin himself. For Le Fanu, however, the glass is not half full, but half empty:

But when Gehring and his colleagues pursued this extraordinarily important discovery further, they found something yet more astonishing still . . . : that precisely the same 'master' genes mastermind the three-dimensional structures of all living things: frogs, mice, even humans (p. 140).

This is, in fact, a legitimate puzzle, and a legitimate concern, expressed in the Wikipedia article as follows:
Among the more surprising and, perhaps, counterintuitive (from a neo-Darwinian viewpoint) results of recent research in evolutionary developmental biology is that the diversity of body plans and morphology in organisms across many phyla are not necessarily reflected in diversity at the level of the sequences of genes, including those of the developmental genetic toolkit and other genes involved in development. . . The finding that much biodiversity is not due to differences in genes, but rather to alterations in gene regulation, has introduced an important new element into evolutionary theory.[25] Diverse organisms may have highly conserved developmental genes, but highly divergent regulatory mechanisms for these genes. Changes in gene regulation are "second-order" effects of genes, resulting from the interaction and timing of activity of gene networks, as distinct from the functioning of the individual genes in the network.

For Le Fanu, the fact that the same "toolkit" genes regulate the development of so many different creatures, from fruit flies to mice to humans, presents an insurmountable obstacle to Darwinian evolution, which, as he sees it, has no other choice but to concede defeat. For Ernst Mayr, however, the same evidence has a very different meaning: "Mice and flies share 6 Hox genes, which the common ancestor of Protostomia and Deuterostomia already must have had." In other words, "Everything indicates that the basic regulatory systems are very ancient and were later coopted for additional functions when these were acquired" (What Evolution Is, p. 110).

Le Fanu has forgotten a basic principle of Darwinian evolution: descent from a common ancestor. If the same gene (or system of genes) is found among a great many different creatures, that tells us that all these creatures may well have inherited it from the same ancestor, even if that ancestor may have lived hundreds of millions of years ago. And if that gene must have had a different function in that long lost ancestor, that tells us that genes can change their function in different settings, and thus be "coopted" to adopt Mayr's term. Truth can often be far stranger than ficiton -- and science far stranger than skeptics such as Le Fanu can imagine.

But we have yet to consider the greatest puzzle of them all: the human mind.