Music and evolution
Posted: 24 February 2007 09:45 AM   [ Ignore ]
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In this episode, I heard Steven Pinker state that there doesn’t seem to be any evolutionary explanation for our appreciation of music and art.  He is not the first person I have heard say this, and the statement always puzzles me.  I am not a scientist in any field, let alone evolutionary biology, and I have no evidence but I do have a hypothesis for how evolution led to our appreciation of music.  I base my hypothesis on the observation that many animals produce and respond to mating calls.  At some point, evolution designed creatures that would essentially get "turned on" by certain hearing certain sounds made by members of their species of the opposite sex.  In human beings, our desire to procreate has gotten entangled with our emotional center, hence the experience of "love."  It doesn’t seem like that great of a stretch to me to think that the part of our brain which once responded to mating calls in order to enhance a desire to procreate has evolved to respond to music emotionally.

J. D.

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Posted: 24 February 2007 10:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Re: Music and evolution

[quote author=“jdmack”]evolution designed creatures that would essentially get “turned on” by certain hearing certain sounds made by members of their species of the opposite sex.

I guess the question is: why do both sexes, male and female, enjoy music? Who is attracting whom? OTOH, I just read recently (don’t remember where) that some species of female birds sing. The scientists are puzzled by this. Why do they sing? Aren’t they supposed to be selecting the best singer?

I still have to listen to Pinker’s interview.

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Posted: 25 February 2007 06:31 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I think it’s to do with our more modern perspective of the arts as being something special.
From the artisan to the artist.
Crafter of tools to creator of fine art.
Both require the same skill and imagination.

And is music any different than language?

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Posted: 26 February 2007 12:23 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Re: Music and evolution

[quote author=“jdmack”]In this episode, I heard Steven Pinker state that there doesn’t seem to be any evolutionary explanation for our appreciation of music and art.

I think he was saying that we hadn’t found anything yet that was convincing. He wasn’t really making the stronger claim that there wasn’t an evolutionary explanation, simply that we weren’t yet sure if there was one.

[quote author=“jdmack”] At some point, evolution designed creatures that would essentially get “turned on” by certain hearing certain sounds made by members of their species of the opposite sex.  In human beings, our desire to procreate has gotten entangled with our emotional center, hence the experience of “love.”  It doesn’t seem like that great of a stretch to me to think that the part of our brain which once responded to mating calls in order to enhance a desire to procreate has evolved to respond to music emotionally.

Yes, but the question is how this enhanced fitness. Nobody denies that birds sing, although usually it’s the males who do so in order to establish and defend territory. The question is why the same sort of thing would have evolved in humans. (Actually, it’s really not the same sort of thing).

Also the “emotional center” is a separate issue. All of our drives—and arguably all drives in nonhuman animals—are entangled with their emotional centers. One should not think of emotions as sort of useless excrescences like Spock on Star Trek. Emotions are the way that evolution gets us to do what we need to do for survival and reproduction. They get us to do things quickly, without thinking. Usually in our ancestral environment these emotions were useful. Not all the time, but often enough for them to survive along with us.

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Posted: 27 February 2007 07:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Most of you have heard me say this before, but I think the idea of many human behaviors as “by-products” of complex behavioral mechanisms selected for by something else is a powerful one. I associate the idea with Stephan J Gould (essay The Sandrels of San Marcos and the Panglossian Paradigm), but Richard Dawkins does an excellent job of applying the idea in The God Delusion as well.
Essentially, evolutionary pressures selected for cognitive and social skills, and their underlying neural mechanisms, that facilitated survival and reproduction in relatively direct ways. These systems, by their very complexity, by the inclusion of the capacity for abstract thought, and by other features, allow for the development of “metabehaviors,” patterns of behavior not directly related to survival and reproduction, such as art and religion. It is sometimes possible to construct arguments for how these behaviors might affect fitness (e.g. religion makes groups more cohesive, which then facilitates the spread of the behavior by modified group selection theory, or art is a form of display that advertising the wealth, and thus presumed reproductive fitness, of the patron, etc), but these hypotheses are hard to test and not, I think, strictly necessary. Unless a behavior is grossly maladaptive in the context of our current society, or is controlled by fairly simple genetic mechanisms that can be quickly selected against, it is possible for behaviors to endure which do not have much relationship to reproductive fitness.

A common misconception about evolution is that anything not perfectly adapted would have been selected out of a species long ago, so current traits must be adaptive in some way, if only we can find the right “just so story” to demonstrate it. But the current traits of any species reflect selective pressure that may no longer apply, as the environment has changed, and they represent the best available adaptation given the starting material, NOT the best possible strategy for adapting to the environment. And humans have changed our own selective conditions over the last 10,000 years or so far more rapidly than evolution is likley to be able to change our underlying physiology and behavior to accomodate. So not all our behaviors need be adaptive, and this includes the arts.

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Posted: 27 February 2007 07:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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[quote author=“mckenzievmd”]So not all our behaviors need be adaptive, and this includes the arts.

Quite so. But likely our aesthetic senses are adaptive, at least within certain contexts. (Mate selection, dwelling selection, food selection, dominance heirarchies, etc.) It’s likely for reasons such as these that we have any sort of aesthetic preferences at all, and that our aesthetic preferences can be so robust and persuasive.

So while the general “artistic behavior” (if there really is such a thing) may well not be adaptive in any interesting sense, certain of our natural drives that are involved in that behavior may well have been adaptive for various reasons.

I don’t take what I’m saying to be particularly controversial here—clearly vision is adaptive, and is necessary in the aesthetic appreciation of painted artwork, for example. But we should be careful to analyze complex societal behaviors when discussing them in an adaptationist context.

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Posted: 06 March 2007 07:18 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Re: Music and evolution

[quote author=“jdmack”]At some point, evolution designed creatures that would essentially get “turned on” by certain hearing certain sounds made by members of their species of the opposite sex.

It’s called the Barry White Effect.  :wink:

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