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Evolutionary Psychology’s Continuing and Transparent Silliness

Denyse just alerted me to this latest gem of wisdom in the evolutionary psychology arena, concerning the origin of musical ability and appreciation:

http://www.boston.com/news/globe/ideas/articles/2006/09/03/survival_of_the_harmonious

The one thing that always amazes me is that Darwinists concentrate on the survival value of a certain trait (why natural selection would select that trait), while assuming that the trait can be had on the cheap and for the asking. Do any of them ever ask, What random mutations would it take to genetically rewire a non-musical brain so that it could appreciate and create music, and what are the probabilities that these mutations could have arisen by chance and been fixed in the population in the time available, with the number of generations available in that time frame, and with the number of individuals in the population?

These quintessential questions are never asked because the answer is obvious: There is no chance that this could have happened, and most people with a modicum of common sense figure this out. One needs a Ph.D. in evolutionary theory to not figure this out.

Is it incomprehensible that the human penchant for music and the arts was programmed into us, just like the machinery of life?

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25 Responses to Evolutionary Psychology’s Continuing and Transparent Silliness

  1. auditory cheesecake???

    With psycho-babble like this it won’t be long till we win the war. The only unfortunate part is that many of the public reading this will think that some ‘really serious scientific research and experimentation’ went into this! Thus not realising that it was a result of another quick ‘darwinism-explains-everything-thumb-suck’ paper to apply for grant money in the continuous attempt to dumb down the unwashed masses and keep that elitist ivory tower where is belongs. Lest anyone question the unassailable god of evolution.

  2. This is so irrational. David Stove, would be amused.

  3. “Do any of them ever ask, What random mutations would it take to genetically rewire a non-musical brain so that it could appreciate and create music, and what are the probabilities that these mutations could have arisen by chance and been fixed in the population in the time available, with the number of generations available in that time frame, and with the number of individuals in the population?”

    No, because they don’t allow any sort of constraints on the creative power of RM + NS, especially vis a vi teleology. It is omnipotent. It is this denial of constraints to the power of chance that betrays the fact that Darwinism is just naturalism pure and simple.

  4. It wasn’t programmed into *me*. I wouldn’t give you a plugged nickel for all the music and art in the world.

  5. Can\’t carry a tune in a bucket, Dave? :p

  6. Well I think they should continue trying to find the roots of music. Perhaps it might proven that some apes play musical instruments. Some studies should be conducted to see if cimpanzees have any interest in music – maybe give them a few triangles, drums and cymbals or something.

    Of course, if it can be shown that humans are the only ones who know how to create music – and if there is no evidence that any of his ape-like ancestors possessed such an ability, it should be taken as evidence that we seem unique because we really are.

  7. Music is a near-universal phenomenon, far broader than the human species. Birds do it. Whales do it. Frogs do it. Crickets do it.

    The more, however, I look at the question of beauty in all of its variants, the more I see this as a real challenge to NDE.

  8. 8

    bFast wrote:
    Music is a near-universal phenomenon, far broader than the human species. Birds do it. Whales do it. Frogs do it. Crickets do it.

    The more, however, I look at the question of beauty in all of its variants, the more I see this as a real challenge to NDE.

    I agree that the elements of music – tone, rhythm, melody, etc. – have been around for a long time. So Gil’s “non-musical brain” has been acquiring those musical modifications at least since insects could hear in air.

    As to beauty, the evo psych answer is of course that whatever has survival value is what the average person considers beautiful – you wouldn’t like it if it hadn’t helped your ancestors survive. That might work ok for “tasty food isn’t poison” and “symmetry + clear skin = good genes + no parasites = good sex partner”, but with “good beat, you can dance to it” you start to wander into the realm of just-so stories.

    That’s Pinker’s point in the original article. With only 150 years of practice with the shiny new hammer of evolution, scientists are still working out the nail/thumb dichotomy the old fashioned way – bash it, if it hurts, it’s not a nail. With respect to the hammer of evolution, musicality might not be a nail.

  9. One of the traits that allows man to survive is pattern recognition. It seems to me that music and art are very close kin to pattern recognition. True?

  10. “Is it incomprehensible that the human penchant for music and the arts was programmed into us, just like the machinery of life?”

    Perhaps, but could the brain not be a dynamic machine that is capable — at least to some extent — of learning music without being pre-programmed? The brain is not strictly like (say) a bone that follows a preset genetic code is it? Is it not dynamic enough that it ‘grows’ more in areas that stimulate it?

    In object-orientated programming, it could be something like:

    BrainFunction Music = new BrainFunction();

    Robo

  11. Robo: “Perhaps, but could the brain not be a dynamic machine that is capable — at least to some extent — of learning music without being pre-programmed?”

    Better to say it is preprogrammed to learn music. We are preprogrammed to experience certain kinds of conscious modes when certain kinds of waveform relationships are heard.

    Some people are obviously more capable of learning and/or creating music than others. Whatever gives us that capability, is seems reasonable to call it a preprogrammed ability.

  12. Robo: I think I remember reading a study a while back about how babies responded to music. They were played both harmonious and dischordant notes and apparently their brains responded differently to the two sets of stimuli. So it would seem, IMO, that the brain comes pre-configured to comprehend music.

  13. “Music is a near-universal phenomenon, far broader than the human species. Birds do it. Whales do it. Frogs do it. Crickets do it.”

    I would be inclined to disagree, all of these are forms of communication much more similar to human speech than music. When a bird sings it is either used as a territorial gesture, to attract a mate, as contact calls, more equivalent to humans saying: stay away, look at me, or hear I am where are you. But you won’t hear a bird singing for shear pleasure, or listening to others out of enjoyment.

  14. “When a bird sings it is either used as a territorial gesture, to attract a mate, as contact calls, more equivalent to humans saying: stay away, look at me, or hear I am where are you. But you won’t hear a bird singing for shear pleasure, or listening to others out of enjoyment.”

    - Falco

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    You don’t see that music can be sexy for humans? Ever seen a teenage girl swooning over a rock star?

    As for enjoying music, cows certainly do; they find it soothing. It’s common to leave the radio on in dairy barns– because relaxed cows give more milk than stressed ones. Cowboys who could sing were in great demand for cattle drives; those cowboy songs we learned as kids relaxed the cattle, making them less prone to stampede. Some horses will spontaneously start prancing when they hear music, and gibbons sing in solos and duets.

    “Of course, if it can be shown that humans are the only ones who know how to create music – and if there is no evidence that any of his ape-like ancestors possessed such an ability, it should be taken as evidence that we seem unique because we really are.”
    -WinglesS

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    Our ethical system certainly makes makes us humans unique. But what really sets us apart is the fact that we waste time on message boards instead of getting enough sleep!

  15. Falco, “But you won’t hear a bird singing for shear pleasure, or listening to others out of enjoyment.”

    How the heck do you know that?

    I have spent hours with my very vocal cocKatiel. When the bird was happy (not stressed, well fed etc), he would sing and sing — even if no one was looking.

    I have watched birds sitting in the sun. They often use such a pleasant place to recite their repotoir. I say that birds sing for the sheer pleasure of singing, for the same kind of reasons that people do.

    As far as birds “listening to the other” goes, well my cockatiel, again, seemed to be quite intrigued by my song. He would cock his head and listen intently. I am sure I wasn’t saying anything meaningful in “bird”. My bet is that my song was fun for him to listen to.

    Have you ever watched a dog respond to music? They sometimes try to “chime in”. Its halarious. Bottom line — I think animals have the same “enjoyment of music” as we do, maybe to a different degree, but qualitiatively the same.

  16. As a musician and composer, my primary complaint with the linked article, and with one of Gil’s inferences, is that music appreciation is ubiquitous. The article’s example of music that chill’s one spine is simply something that does not happen to most people. Very few can understand or relate to the fact that when I hear a certain pieces of music, I am transported, and fewer still can even understand that music has the power to give some of us a taste of the sublime. Many can feel the power of music when it conjures up memories – usually by a specific piece or song, but very few can truly close their eyes and immerse themselves in music, to the extent that one’s awareness of one’s self is almost nonexistant. Thus, from a Darwinian perspective, I don’t necessarily think that music appreciation would have to be a survival characteristic – and I believe, from an analytical perspective, that only a fraction of humans are actually hardwired to truly appreciate music as I have described above and as is described in the article. It could be fairly easily explained away as a randomly persistant mutation; especially given that the study quoted in the article looked strictly at *musicians* who are far more likely to have this characteristic than an average person.

    Far more interesting (physiologically and evolutionarily speaking), I think, is the relationship between the feeling that I get when I hear a piece of music that gives me that taste of the sublime, and the feeling that happens when one feels God’s presence during worship. Each touches me deeply, and sends chills down my spine, leaving me feeling as though someone has doused me with a bucket of cold water; I believe that a great many others can describe a similar feeling and would likely attribute it to the supernatural. What survival advantage could that feeling give to prehistoric man? Why would that feeling (which presumably takes place in the same part of the brain that is stimulated by food and sex, per the article) cross the boundaries of the obvious requirements of survival? This seems a question poorly (if at all) answered by the Darwinists.

  17. “As evidence mounts that we’re somehow hard-wired to be musical, some thinkers are turning their attention to the next logical question: How did that come to be?

    Daniel Levitin writes “To ask a question about a basic, omnipresent human ability is to implicitly ask questions about evolution.”"

    In a different group of thinkers, to ask a question about a basic, omnipresent human ability is to implicitly ask questions about Intelligent Design.

    Our assumptions about the omnipotence, or otherwise, of Random Mutation and Natural Selection to create, will determine which question we ask. Which question we ask, will determine to some extent what answers we come up with.

  18. EricH

    Music doesn’t give me feeling you describe, nor art, but sometimes natural beauty and inner reflection will cause that response. It’s not at all the same pleasure response evoked by food, a bit like sex, and very similar to scalp tingling caused by amphetamines.

  19. “As for enjoying music, cows certainly do; they find it soothing. It’s common to leave the radio on in dairy barns– because relaxed cows give more milk than stressed ones. Cowboys who could sing were in great demand for cattle drives; those cowboy songs we learned as kids relaxed the cattle, making them less prone to stampede. Some horses will spontaneously start prancing when they hear music, and gibbons sing in solos and duets.” – Karen

    Some people even say that plants appreciate music, but I’m not interested in musical appreciation but musical creation. If cows like music, why don’t they sing? Do any animals actually create music for a non-communicative purpose?

  20. 20
    sagebrush gardener

    Falco,

    When a bird sings it is either used as a territorial gesture, to attract a mate, as contact calls, more equivalent to humans saying: stay away, look at me, or hear I am where are you.

    As someone put it… Yo momma!, Yo, baby!, and Yo!. :)

  21. WinglesS, “If cows like music, why don’t they sing? Do any animals actually create music for a non-communicative purpose?”

    I worked for a period of time at a dairy. I assure you, cows make “moo-sic”. They can get going. Their vocal range is a little limited, but they give it the old college try.

    If you’ve ever listened to a pack of coyotes in the evening. I don’t know what they are doing but it sounds like they are doing their best to sing.

    “do animals actually create music for non-communicative purposes?” Does man? If I write a song and share it with my friends, there is a communicative purpose is there not? The only indication that I can find that music is created for non-communicative purposes is if it is performed when the performer doesn’t expect that anyone is listening. When I sing in the shower, I have no communicative purpose. My cockatiel breaks out into song exactly when he assumes that no one is listening. I must assume that he is singing “for non-communicative purposes”.

  22. To get a feel for how viscerally fundamental music is to humans, try turning off the soundtrack while watching a movie. Even back in the silent-movie days they always had a pianist or theater organist provide music to accompany the films.

  23. The coolest thing is, I know all of the classics (that I know) from watching Bugs Bunny. ‘Didn’t realize that they were spoon-feeding me culture.

  24. “Does man? If I write a song and share it with my friends, there is a communicative purpose is there not? The only indication that I can find that music is created for non-communicative purposes is if it is performed when the performer doesn’t expect that anyone is listening. When I sing in the shower, I have no communicative purpose. My cockatiel breaks out into song exactly when he assumes that no one is listening. I must assume that he is singing “for non-communicative purposes”.” – bFast

    This can be easily demonstrated using a piano. What does music played on a piano mean? It doesn’t communicate any message. Cow’s mooing might really be them speaking. Even if you worked at a diary before I doubt you can speak cow speak. Wolf’s howling serves a purpose according to wikipedia. I wonder why you seem so angry? Don’t you find human’s tendency to compose music strange?

  25. [...] Gil Dodgen, who is a concert pianist (as well as a present, former, and possibly late hang glider), offered some useful thoughts on this pop sci amusement by Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe on the alleged origin of music. The evolutionary benefits of our affinity for food (nutrition) and sex (procreation) are easy enough to explain, but music is trickier. It has become one of the great puzzles in the field of evolutionary psychology, a controversial discipline dedicated to determining the adaptive roots of aspects of modern behavior, from child-rearing to religion. [...]

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