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?