The adaptive strategies behind music and violence

I’ve got a couple pseudo-science, evolutionary psychological news bits to share with you. The first is coverage of Alan Harvey music evolutionary theory that he presented at the Annual Australian Neuroscience Meeting. From the article,

“[Alan Harvey] says music is not just a pretty sound, but also a way of communicating that is just as important as language… [and] music has been central to the evolution of the modern mind.”

I really can’t think of a way to go about proving that the ability to make and appreciate music has been positively selected in humans. In Harvey’s mind, the reason why we see music in all human cultures is indicative of its selective advantage. But that’s not convincing enough for me.

I’ve been thinking about ways to show scientific basis for this hypothesis. Perhaps comparing and contrasting activity in the auditory association area of the brain, the Wernicke’s area, in the temporal lobes of different non-human primates and humans from different cultural backgrounds subjected to music will elucidate how much more activity is required to process and associate music. Anyways, that’s just one possible experiment. The rest of Harvey’s thoughts are summarized in this 2006 transcript, “History of language and music in humans,” where he mentions the book, “The Singing Neanderthals.”

To be really honest, I know little about the music throughout human evolution. The aptly titled book, “The Origins of Music” or this paper, “Music, Cognition, Culture, and Evolution,” maybe a nice place to start informing myself of this topic. I think one of our frequent commenters, Victor Grauer, will do better justice if he decides to cover this news bit.

The next pseudo-scientific topic is about, “what evolution can say about why humans kill — and about why we do so less than we used to?”

I feel as if this topic has been talked about ad nauseam, so I really don’t know why I’m giving it special coverage. I guess its because I find the ‘homicide adaptation theory’ the article describes as a dumbed-down reiteration of game theory, the theory that says individuals will choose strategies that will maximize their return. Here’s what’s actually said of the the ‘homicide adaptation theory’ from the book “The Innate Mind,”

“The theory proposes that, over evolutionary history, humans have repeatedly encountered a wide range of situations in which the benefits of killing another person outweighed the costs — particularly when the assessed costs of murder are low, success is likely and other non-lethal options have been closed off.”

The article goes on to describe the violence we see in non-human primates and compare that to human violence behavior. There’s also a run down on the history of violence. Some discussion is given to concept, the culture of violence.

I think these two news bits aren’t incredibly insightful but they are interesting topics to think about. How can one go about explaining behaviors as beneficial adaptations? I don’t wanna rehash the argument behind sociobiology as an adaptionist program, because Lewontin did a great job addressing this shortcoming in sociobiological/evolutionary psychological thinking… But I can’t help but to think, why do these behaviors have to be considered through an adaptive framework? In other words, why can’t these behaviors just be features of being human?

5 thoughts on “The adaptive strategies behind music and violence

  1. Music fascinates animals. A well known story tells that the famous pianist Baremboim was touring Africa and lions penetrated in his suite and he started to play the piano and the animals relaxed and did no harm to him.
    Wait? Wasnt Baremboim the pianist eaten by lions in his African tour?
    Yes, that was when the old hearing-impaired lion arrived…

  2. OK, I’ll give this one a shot. Thanks for asking.
    There’s recently been considerable interest among cognitive scientists, linguists, etc., in both the evolution of music and possible early connections between music and language. But much of this thinking is from the “bright idea” or “light bulb over the head” school. You get a bright idea, very logical and reasonable, of how music might have originated and/or evolved and/or how it might be connected with language and you then proceed to weave a lovely web compounded of fanciful thinking and selective forays into the biological and/or archaeological literature that, lo and behold, reinforce your theory.

    Many very interesting ideas have been presented and some interesting studies done, physiological, neurological, psychological, etc. Much of it is certainly worth reading — and pondering. But in my view there are two very important things missing from all these speculations and all this research. First of all, before we can speculate on how music got started and what it means, we have to have some idea of what it is. Which means we have a responsibility to educate ourselves regarding the many different types of music now being made in the world around us, especially that of indigenous and other tradition oriented peoples.

    No linguist, nowadays at least, would dream of speculating on the origins and evolution of language without spending a fair amount of time becoming acquainted with at least some of the research being done on the major language families and possible relations between them. Similarly, imo, no one can have any hope of coming up with anything meaningful regarding musical origins and evolution without taking the time to become acquainted with the major musical families.

    Second of all, if we are to get anywhere in relating music and language, we must add semiotics to the intellectual mix. No amount of neurological or psychological research or phenomenological speculation will take us very far if we fail to see both music and language as mediated, and mediating, systems of communication/expression, controlled by the sorts of processes and codes that consitute the semiotic domain .

  3. My own research on paleolithic musical traditions ( coupled with what we’re learning from the genetic research, plus a considerable amount of ethnographic research, tells us that the earliest “modern” humans were most likely 1. egalitarian; 2. gender-equal; 3. non-violent; 4. non-aggressive; 5. much more prone to share food, property, etc. than accumulate it. While this was once regarded as a “romantic,” “idealized” view of early humans, it is now becoming widely accepted again, due to the preponderance of evidence, especially the genetic evidence, which points to relatively gentle, nonviolent groups such as the “Bushmen” and “Pygmies” as most closely related to our earliest ancestors. Many other indigenous groups living in marginal areas in many different parts of the world, hunter-gatherers or horticulturalists share a very similar cultural ideal. It’s a shame that so many people still think of humans as “naturally” violent. There’s no evidence for that. The tendencies toward violence, aggression and competition most likely came later, probably due to the need to adapt, culturally, to conditions of extreme deprivation — such as, for example, those described by Turnbull in his book, “The Mountain People.”

  4. These behaviors can be features of being human–indeed, they obviously are. And understanding why they are is exactly what we are trying to figure out. (Positing that “these behaviors are just features of being human”, end of investigation, completely sidesteps the ‘why?’ question.) When a suite of behaviors is widspread throughout any speacies (in other words, its not an anomaly), there almost certainly must be a processual explanation for it. Evolution by natural selection (i.e. adaptation thinking–Lewontin, Gould and Kamin’s criticisms obviously notwithstanding) is the only process which has been shown to generate such behavioral phenotypes and morphological phenotypes. Saying that so and so behaviors are just featurs of humans is synonomous with saying that “its just culture”; both explanations leaving any critical thinker asking herself “yah…so what explains the existence of so and so features?” Agree with these authors or not (I have my reservations), they are at least attempting to explain these features, not to explain them away.

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