Psychologists Gary Marcus & Geoffrey Miller debate the origins of human music and its associated behaviors. Is it a cultural invention, a technology that piggy-backs on language? Or is there a deeper genetic wiring behind our music and its neurological effects?
“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.
While Miller says:
Darwin argued that music evolved mainly by sexual selection through mate choice—and that we’re uncomfortable acknowledging that fact. He wrote back in 1871 that, “The impassioned orator, bard, or musician, when with his varied tones and cadences he excites the strongest emotions in his hearers, little suspects that he uses the same means by which his half-human ancestors long ago aroused each other’s ardent passions, during their courtship and rivalry.” He knew that music didn’t need to have a “survival value” for the individual or the group; it could spread through purely reproductive benefits. He suggested that the more musically talented proto-humans attracted more sexual partners, or higher-quality sexual partners, than their less-musical rivals. We see sexual selection for music in many other species—insect song, frog song, bird song, whale song, and gibbon song—so I think that’s a reasonable default theory for how humans evolved music. It’s the theory to beat.
It’s an article that makes a compelling case for both sides. I think the jury is still out, based on the current state of neuroscience and genetics in this area. Give it a read and see what you think.
And if you absolutely refuse to take a side, Mark Changizi comes down in the middle and says they might not have to be either instinct OR invention.