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.

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