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Music did not evolve just to make you sexy, scientist contends

When founder Denis Dutton (who wrote a book called Literary Darwinism was alive), Arts and Letters Daily was a virtual home for just about any and every piece of litter blowing around the evolutionary psychology press.

Here, for a change, is a link to an actual discussion at Atlanticwire (Apr 16 2012),

Music is everywhere, but it remains an evolutionary enigma. In recent years, archaeologists have dug up prehistoric instruments, neuroscientists have uncovered brain areas that are involved in improvisation, and geneticists have identified genes that might help in the learning of music. Yet basic questions persist: Is music a deep biological adaptation in its own right, or is it a cultural invention based mostly on our other capacities for language, learning, and emotion? And if music is an adaptation, did it really evolve to promote mating success as Darwin thought, or other for benefits such as group cooperation or mother-infant bonding?

Here, scientists Gary Marcus and Geoffrey Miller debate these issues. Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University and the author of Guitar Zero: The New Musician and The Science of Learning and Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of The Human Mind, argues that music is best seen as a cultural invention. Miller, a professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico and the author of The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature and Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, makes the case that music is the product of sexual selection and an adaptation that’s been with humans for millennia.

You can probably make up the “really evolve(d) to promote mating success as Darwin thought” stuff yourself because you don’t need much information for such a speculative enterprise. You need only find, say, a less technologically developed culture somewhere, where people “sing” conversations and you are thereby entitled to proceed to make judgements for all of human history.

Here, however, are some points that Marcus makes on behalf of “ music is best seen as a cultural invention”:

Ancient” seems like a bit of stretch to me. The oldest known musical artifacts are some bone flutes that are only 35,000 years old, a blink in an evolutionary time. And although kids are drawn to music early, they still prefer language when given a choice, and it takes years before children learn something as basic as the fact that minor chords are sad. Of course, music is universal now, but so are mobile phones, and we know that mobile phones aren’t evolved adaptations. When we think about music, it’s important to remember that an awful lot of features that we take for granted in Western music—like harmony and 12-bar blues structure, to say nothing of pianos or synthesizers, simply didn’t exist 1,000 years ago.

When ethnomusicologists have traded notes to try figure out what’s universal about music, there’s been surprisingly little consensus. Some forms of music are all about rhythm, with little pitch, for example. Another thing to consider is the music is not quite universal even with cultures. At least 10 percent of our population is “tone deaf,” unable to reproduce the pitch contours even for familiar songs. Everybody learns to talk, but not everybody learns to sing, let alone play an instrument. Some people, like Sigmund Freud, have no interest in music at all. Music is surely common, but not quite as universal as language.

If 10 percent of the population is tone deaf, is there any evidence that they are less likely to have children?

Also, here is Inuit throat singing, as an example of “surprisingly little consensus”:

(The Inuit are a circumpolar people in Canada, the chief inhabitants of Nunavut Territory.)

Music is spread very broadly throughout the brain. There doesn’t seem to be any part of the brain that is fully dedicated to music, and most (if not all) of the areas involved in music seem to have “day jobs” doing other things, like analyzing auditory sounds (temporal cortex), emotion (the amygdala) or linguistic structure (Broca’s area). You see much the same diversity of brain regions active when people play video games. Face recognition has a long evolutionary history, and a specific brain region (the fusiform gyrus) attached, but music, like reading, seems to co-opt areas that already had other functions.

That, of course, implies that it is part of a general human tendency, not something that evolved for a specific purpose (sex), as Darwin thought.

Enjoy the rest for yourself here.

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One Response to Music did not evolve just to make you sexy, scientist contends

  1. Darwin said music was invented for mating??
    Oh brother! Can he be right about anything?

    Let a YEC creationist explain music.,
    there is no such thing as music.
    Rather its just expressions of human thought.
    Music/singing is simply lingering on a thought which is expressed in audio bythe noise of the vocal cords or musical cords.
    Instruments and voice are doing the same thing.
    They are expressing understood thoughts.
    Music is all about agreed understood thoughts expressed by noises and words.

    Music is simply human thoughts.
    this is why animals don’t do music.
    they have too few thoughts.
    A presumption of seeing human beings as special beings made in the image of God would quicker allow figuring out these matters.

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