Evolution of Music

In the Science section of today’s New York Times, there’s an interesting and (as usual) problematic article about the evolution of human beings’ “ability to enjoy music”. All human cultures seem to value and make music; this is a problem for evolutionary theory, because music “does nothing evident to help survival.” How could it therefore have evolved?…

In the Science section of today’s New York Times, there’s an interesting and (as usual) problematic article about the evolution of human beings’ “ability to enjoy music”. All human cultures seem to value and make music; this is a problem for evolutionary theory, because music “does nothing evident to help survival.” How could it therefore have evolved?…

The article offers three theories about the evolution of music:
1)music evolved through sexual selection, as Darwin mentioned as a possibility, and as Geoffrey Miller has recently argued;
2)like language, music allowed for social cohesion on a larger scale than was available to more primitive primates, which create and enforce group ties through the physical process of mutual grooming: this is Robin Dunbar‘s hypothesis;
3)the enjoyment of music is just a “happy accident,” a by-product of mental mechanisms that evolved for other purposes: this is Steven Pinker‘s position.

Now, there are several things to say about these competing arguments. One is that none of them is a scientific theory, since none of them are empirically testable, or falsifiable.

(The article suggests, at one point, that if a brain region specifically dedicated to music were discovered, this would at least prove that musical enjoyment had a particular evolutionary reason for coming into being, and therefore Pinker, at least, would be shown to be wrong. But I am dubious. Even if such a discovery were to be made, it wouldn’t provide any criterion for distinguishing between Dunbar’s and MIller’s theories, or for that matter any other theories as to why music evolved. Also, the degree of feedback between different parts of the brain is so enormous, that currently fashionable theories about the brain being made of separate “modules” are severely compromised from the outset. The argument for mental modules, made by Pinker and others, is overly simplistic, anyway. It is usually presented as the only alternative to an impossible view of the mind as an all-purpose reasoning device; but this is really just arguing against a straw man.)

In any case, and like so many other hypotheses of the so-called science of “evolutionary psychology,” these explanations are really just what the late Stephen Jay Gould called “just-so stories.” They are superficially plausible, but offer no way to be verified, falsified, or tested. Which theory one adopts is a matter of taste, an aesthetic judgment rather than a scientific one.

Now, it seems to me that the only thing wrong with Gould’s critique is that he thinks there is something wrong with “just-so stories” generally. In fact, though, “just-so stories” are the only way to proceed when interpreting a mass of historical data. Scientific theorization, with its tests and predictions, works by induction. That is a legitimate interpretive method in many instances, particularly when examining phenomena that are limited in scope (i.e. they can be isolated from external influences) and repeatable. But for historical research, which involves matters that are neither so limited in scope, nor repeatable, more complex methods of interpretation are necessary. Induction simply doesn’t work in such circumstances.

So Gould and the evolutionary psychologists are really symmetrical opponents. Pinker et al. think they are doing rigorous science, when in fact they are not. Gould points out that they are not, but keeps scientific induction as his criterion. I would say, rather, that evolutionary psychologists ought to ‘fess up to the fact that they are historians, not experimental scientists. And it’s on the grounds of historical research, rather than scientific experimentation, that evolutionary psychiatry ought to be judged. Most evolutionary psychology theories are lame, not because they are bad science – since they aren’t science at all – but because they are bad history.

Thus, it is laughably naive (at best) for MIller to back up his argument that music evolved through sexual selection, by citing Jimi Hendrix who had “sexual liaisons with hundreds of groupies, maintained parallel long-term relationships with at least two women, and fathered at least three children in the United States, Germany, and Sweden. Under ancestral conditions before birth control, he would have fathered many more.” Aside from being utterly pathetic as an explanation of Hendrix’s genius, this also implies that, in general, musical ability must have only evolved in men, since it is they who use music to seduce women. (And let’s not even get into the question of what racial fantasies in Miller’s mind are behind his choice of Hendrix as an example).

While Dunbar doesn’t say anything quite this egregious, his argument is similarly weak; it has no empirical evidence to back it up besides a loose analogy between how human beings behave in the present, and how other primates behave (also in the present). There is absolutely no evidence, pro or con, relating to Dunbar’s hypothesis (or Miller’s) in the fossil and archaeological records.

Explanations of this sort make several logical errors. One is the essentialist error of thinking that music is a single entity, or that it has basic, underlying features that can be separated from its merely accidental and secondary ones. Dividing the object of study in such a way is a strategy which, in scientific research, can often be justified on purely pragmatic grounds: it pays off when it allows the construction of abstract models which turn out to have predictive value. But again, such a strategy is totally inappropriate with history, where many different sorts of factors come into play, undermining any division between essential and adventitious features. When evolutionary psychologists apply these sorts of abstractions in discussing something like how music evolved – thinking they can separate the essential nature and function of music from its multiplicity of configurations and uses in different emotional and social contexts – they are falling into what Alfred North Whitehead called “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.”

The other major logical error of evolutionary psychology is something that Nietzsche warned against: the assumption that the meaning and purpose of a practice or social institution can be derived from its origin. However something like music or language originated, it has subsequently been used for all sorts of purposes, and been given all sorts of meanings, that have nothing to do with how it first evolved. This is something like what Gould and Richard Lewontin famously called “exaptation” – something that originally had one use, or that had no use at all but was just a byproduct of something else, but that then turns out to function in an entirely different manner. But if anything, the theory of exaptation understates the case. For reinventions of meaning and purpose happen all the time in nature, as an evolutionary response to changed conditions. Thus, where Gould and Lewontin oppose exaptation to the more normative Darwinian doctrine of adaptation, I would say rather that all adaptation is already exaptation. that natural selection should itself be understood as a continual process of experimentation and exaptation. When you have history, you have exaptation; nothing can be fully understood in terms of functional, adaptive utility.

What all this leaves is Pinker’s suggestion that musical enjoyment is just a happy accident. I rarely find myself in agreement with Pinker. But where Pinker treats music as an exception, I’d say that everything in “human nature” is such an exception. Pinker sees music as a trivial part of the human mind and of human experience, unlike the major “cognitive” faculties whose meanings, he says, are universal and unvarying. Whereas I’d say that everything in human culture, including language and technology, is indeterminate in the same way music is, and as subject as music to all sorts of diversifications, ramifications, and mutations.