~ • ~ • ~ • ~
I don’t like nature. It’s big plants eating little plants, small fish being
eaten by big fish, big animals eating each other ... It’s like an enormous
—WOODY ALLEN (Love and Death)
Many consider Charles Darwin one of the three greatest scientists
of all time, in the company of Newton and Einstein. Darwin and
Alfred Russell Wallace independently came up with the insight now
called Darwinian evolution. Darwin wrote a number of landmark
books identifying and describing natural selection, sexual selection,
and other aspects of evolution.
evolution is the most important theory in all of biology. Voluminous evidence
from modern science shows that Darwin got it right, despite having no knowledge
of DNA or genes. Darwin discovered that life evolves in distinct lines, with
each species on its own individual twig of an ever-widening bush, each species descended from
a common ancestor, but destined never to meet. (However, at the bacteria level
some evidence indicates “gene-swapping” goes on between unrelated organisms.)
Humans did not “descend from apes,” and chimpanzees will never evolve into
Darwin came under fierce attack for pointing out (correctly, it
turns out) that humankind is merely one of millions of species that
evolved from earlier life forms. Moreover, nothing creative or
directional goes on in evolution. No ultimate goal exists in the
evolution of any species. Homo sapiens does not represent the
culmination of anything and is not evolving towards anything.
an interesting paradox that humans, with dazzling cognition and insight about
everything from Einsteinian relativity to genetics to artistic expression, are
clearly unlike any other species on the planet—and yet humans evolved by exactly
the same processes as all other species on the planet and carry the same genes
as the humblest of them.
Darwinian evolution causes the emergence of adaptations such
as bipedalism, music, and language in two ways: natural selection
and sexual selection.
1. How Natural Selection Works
All living things compete to survive and pass on their genes. In a
given species, each individual differs slightly from all the other
individuals. Therefore, in the prevailing environmental conditions, the
ability to survive and procreate varies from individual to individual.
This variability means some individuals thrive better than others under the same
environmental conditions. Those that do best—the winners in the evolutionary
struggle for resources and opportunities to reproduce—are thus “naturally
selected” to pass on their genes to the next generation. Those individuals that
do not fare well in the same environment do not pass on their genes.
2. How Sexual Selection Works
Although some species do not reproduce sexually, most do.
Members of species that reproduce sexually compete with each
other to mate with individuals of the opposite sex. Individuals of both
sexes vary in their attractiveness and availability as potential mates.
This variability means some individuals are more successful than others in
mating and procreating, and are thus “sexually selected” to pass on their genes.
Those individuals that fail to mate do not pass on their genes.
Allen’s observation that the world is an enormous, chaotic restaurant is bang
on. All animals, including humans, survive and evolve by eating plants or other
animals or both. Species evolve defences to keep from getting eaten. Other
species evolve ways to get around those defences, which triggers the evolution
of more elaborate defences, and so on—an evolutionary arms race. “Nature,
red in tooth and claw,” as Tennyson put it.
The Naturalistic Fallacy
The naturalistic fallacy goes like this:
whatever happens in the natural world, well, that’s the way it ought to be.
The problem is, it doesn’t follow logically
that, just because something happens in nature, it’s a Good Thing—that its
moral value is somehow asserted. Belief that “natural = good” is called the naturalistic fallacy. This fallacy led to
Nature is utterly mindless and blindly
indifferent. Heart defects are natural. So is cancer. So is malaria. Nature is
by far the world’s greatest bioterrorist.
We humans have “natural” inclinations to lash
out violently against those we perceive as doing us harm. Fortunately, humans
also have natural propensities for resolving conflict, helping each other, and
overriding impulses that could hurt us in the long run. Our evolved moral sense
enables us to get along with each other (more or less).
Scientists, lawyers, politicians and others spend their days finding
ways to overcome or defeat the horrors of dog-eat-dog nature:
• Scientists try to come up with vaccines and medicines to
counteract the effects of natural pathogens.
• Surgeons try to repair congenital heart problems and any
number of other natural conditions.
• Politicians (in theory) pass laws to help us in our struggle to
survive and to protect us from our natural impulses to harm
or exploit each other; police forces try (in theory) to enforce
• Teachers pass on information that enables us to acquire
what we need to survive.
Humans’ evolved empathy and moral sense are
adaptations that enable most of us to rise above utterly selfish, brutish
behaviour. By behaving humanely, humans defy nature.
Non-human animals such as lions, eagles, and
bears have no ethical sense, and behave with breathtaking selfishness,
callousness, and savagery towards all but their immediate kin. Normal human behaviour is saintly by comparison. Most people behave “humanely” most of the
time, not just towards family and friends, but also towards perfect strangers
If humans had not evolved an ethical sense, Homo sapiens likely
would have died out long ago. Constant warfare, natural
pathogens, predators and other natural phenomena would have
done in the human species by now. (Of course, darker human
impulses of those with access to massive technology-based
power may one day win out and lead to our quick extinction.)
Humans evolved the ultimate weapon in the evolutionary arms
race: intelligence. We have the ability, through language, to share
and pool survival-related information and pass it on to future
generations through culture. This has allowed humans to get around
most defences of most other organisms (although microorganisms
still kill millions of our species). We can kill predators such as lions
and bears that would easily be able to kill us if we did not have the
intelligence to make and use weapons.
For Darwinian evolution by natural selection or sexual selection
to proceed, several conditions must obtain:
1. Selection: Selective pressure must exist. Species evolve to
fit imposed environmental conditions (survival of the fittest).
2. Variation: Genetic variability must exist. Chance mutations
and errors in gene replication cause genetic variability to be
present among the individuals of a population.
3. Heredity: Replication must occur in order to pass on genetic
mutations to future generations.
The replicating entities are genes. Living things do not replicate.
Only their genes replicate through their offspring.
Inherited traits that enhance the ability of future replicating
entities to replicate are the adaptations. For an adaptation such as
music to continue in future generations, it must confer either
naturally-selected survival benefits or sexually-selected reproductive
benefits (or both). Music probably confers survival benefits in infancy
and reproductive benefits later in life.
... the fundamental unit of selection, and therefore of self-interest, is not
the species, nor the group, nor even, strictly, the individual. It is the gene,
the unit of heredity.
E. O. Wilson pointed
out decades ago that evolution is really all about gene preservation and
replication. This “gene’s-eye view” of natural and sexual selection is usually
referred to as “selfish gene” theory, after the book, The Selfish Gene, by the British zoologist,
Richard Dawkins. Selfish gene theory has become the dominant
framework used in explaining adaptations and adaptive behaviour in
evolutionary biology and psychology.
gene” metaphorically explains how genes become successful by behaving in a
pitiless, “selfish” way. Of course genes don’t “think” and “act”—they’re
blind, deaf, mute chemicals that build living organisms. If the organism dies
before the gene it hosts successfully replicates, the gene fails. If the
organism lives long enough to replicate, then the gene it hosts succeeds in
continuing on to another generation. Genes, then—not bodies—are the actual units
of biological selection and replication. The individuals that genes construct
(plants, animals, bacteria, etc.) serve only as vehicles to pass on genes.
create adaptations—units of biological function that have survival or
reproductive benefits for the individual. Adaptations such as music and language
actually benefit the gene, because the gene replicates, not the body. In that
sense, genes behave “selfishly.” But that does not necessarily mean the organisms
the genes create behave utterly selfishly. It’s often to the advantage of genes
to select for unselfishness as a behavioural trait in the organisms they build.
• Parents behave unselfishly
towards their own children, who carry their parents’ genes.
benefit from their parents’ caring, nurturing, unselfish behaviour by surviving
to reproductive age, still carrying their parents' genes.
children pass on their parents’ genes to yet another generation.
eventually die, but the genes they once carried keep replicating. Most humans
and all non-human animals have no idea that genes made them, and that if they
have offspring, they will have successfully served as vehicles for gene
replication. It’s important to keep in mind that genes are not living things.
They are just strands of DNA—a decidedly non-living molecule. Humans are neither
cold, calculating “gene machines” nor “blank slates,” programmed by the social
In the discussions coming up about why music evolved in
humans, keep in mind how adaptations evolve in light of selfish gene
theory. Genes build adaptations of the body and brain that enable
humans to successfully survive, reproduce, and pass on copies of
AS A SIGNALLING
Why did animals evolve the use of sound in the first place?
As a signalling device for warning and for mate-attraction.
To be a successful adaptation, the signal must not only benefit
the individual(s) being signalled; it must also benefit the signaller
(selfish genes at work).
• A signal used as a threat warns a competitor to back off, or
face a potentially injurious (or lethal) fight.
signal use as a warning advises close kin (carrying the signaller’s genes) of a
• A contact signal keeps a group together; safety in numbers.
• A courtship signal in humans takes the form of a display of
musical ability, signalling mental fitness.
Animals use other signalling devices as well: smell and sight. But
sound has several advantages:
• Sound works when the signaller and receiver are far apart,
even though they can see each other.
works when the signaller and receiver cannot see each other because it’s too
dark or because objects such as bushes or rocks stand between them.
can carry messages that vary with the signaller’s call.
Our Homo sapiens ancestors, with incredibly effective sound-based signalling and communication adaptations we call music and
language, out-survived all other hominid species. Evolutionary
biologists, psychologists, anthropologists, and musicologists have
come up with several well-supported hypotheses about selective
pressures that gave rise to the human adaptation for music. These
explanations do not mutually exclude each other. Following are
some of the main ones.
AS AN ADAPTATION
for group living favoured a large brain size (encephalation) and also two-legged
walking and running (bipedalism). In hominid females, bipedalism narrowed the
birth canal substantially. This placed an upper limit on the size of a newborn’s
head that could squeeze through the birth canal.
also place an upper limit on gestation length. In the human species, babies are
actually born significantly prematurely. We’re all “preemies.” As a result, at
birth, human babies are completely helpless, and remain so for a significant
length of time.
Meanwhile, if a pre-linguistic human infant has any hope of
surviving, it needs some way to continually communicate its many
and constant needs with its mother. And the mother needs a way of
knowing for certain that she is meeting those needs successfully.
Since newborns do not have language, meaningful mother-infant
communication must take other forms.
AS AN ADAPTATION
According to the mother-infant communication hypothesis of the
distinguished scholar Ellen Dissanayake, selective pressure gave
rise to music as a vocal and rhythmic communication and
coordination system between mothers and pre-linguistic infants. This
enabled better maternal care over a longer period of time, and better
survival rates of infants into childhood and adulthood.
Pre-linguistic infants have and use musical abilities at birth. So
do handicapped children and adults born without any capacity to
mothers vocalize with their infants in a particular, distinctive style called “motherese.”
Mothers do not learn motherese culturally—they’re born with it, evidence that
selective pressure evolved the brain circuitry to do this.
Motherese has a number of clearly musical characteristics:
• Melodic (variably pitched)
• Grouped in phrases of 3 to 4 seconds, like the phrase
groupings of poetry and music found in every culture.
As well, mothers communicate with infants via rhythmic, rocking
motions, possibly a precursor to dancing. Both vocalization and
rocking, rhythmic motions are hallmarks of music as a temporal art.
Myth of the “Mozart Effect”
“Listening to Mozart makes you smarter,” was the
claim. The “Mozart effect” became a fad.
The governors of a couple of American states requested the
issuing of Mozart CDs to all new mothers. One entrepreneur
cashed in on the craze with a book and series of recordings.
It started in the early 90's when a team of
researchers published findings that indicated spatial and temporal abilities
improved in subjects after passive exposure to music composed by Mozart. Other
researchers could not replicate the findings. Further research found that the
so-called Mozart effect had nothing to do with Mozart’s music, but could be
replicated with any stimulus of the subject’s preference (e.g., a narrated
story, or some other music).
However, if a child begins creating and learning music actively at
a young age, the brain responds by allocating more neural matter
to musical processing than the child would have if he or she did
not actively study and learn music. As well, research indicates
that children from inner-city backgrounds who get ongoing, long-term musical instruction through projects such as MusicLink
(http://www.musiclinkfoundation.org/) do much better than their
disadvantaged circumstances would otherwise predict.
Initially, an infant, being a preemie, has little capacity to respond
to motherese. After a couple of months, the infant begins to vocalize
positively, smile, and respond positively to rhythmic interaction. A
mother-infant feedback loop of emotional communication develops.
Infant-to-mother emotional communication via musical code
sends messages of hunger, frustration, distress. And also positive
communication: contentment, happiness. Mothers know how to
decode the messages, and also how to communicate back to the
infant in the same non-verbal, emotional, musical way. This two-way
non-verbal communication strongly reinforces mother-infant
infant nor mother need to learn how to communicate emotionally with each other
using this “musical” system. It’s inborn in both.
presence of the infant probably changes the mother’s emotional state. Motherese
successfully engages the attention of the infant, which begins to respond after
several weeks and provides the mother with vital feedback on the infant’s
Mothers in every culture communicate to their pre-linguistic
babies in the same specific way: raised pitch level, distinctive pitch
contours, repetitive patterns, rhythmic patterns. These elements
differ markedly from normal adult-to-adult conversation.
In all cultures:
• Mothers communicate with infants using motherese, and,
after a couple of months, infants use the same mechanism to
can mimic their mothers’ singing—pitch and melodic contour—early in life, as
young as two months of age.
• Infants pay more attention to female vocalizing than to male
• Infants respond more attentively when mothers sing than
when mothers speak.
• The lullaby as a mother-to-infant song form takes on the
• Songs for infants and small children constitute a distinct
genre of music.
together, all of these characteristics suggest that maternal singing is
adaptive. The origin of the music-emotion linkage in adult humans could well be
motherese, the music of mother-infant emotional communication of the infant’s
Instinctive Smiling and Laughing
Babies who are born both deaf and blind begin smiling at the
same period of their development as babies born with normal
hearing and sight. A blind infant would not smile (make a facial
signal that communicates happiness or contentment to the
mother) if smiling were not inborn.
Later in life humans continue to communicate happiness to others
by smiling and laughing. Humans laugh 30 times more often in
the company of other people than when alone.
Laughter is involuntary, indicating its
adaptive nature. And, like other expressions of emotion, laughter is contagious.
In adult humans, competently composed music triggers emotion.
Since emotional circuits are essential for survival, people find
themselves drawn to music that evokes strong emotions. (Chapter
9 goes into some detail on music and emotion.)
Most songwriters have no clue how to create
memorable music because musical notes, unlike the words of a
language, have no referential meaning.
Most popular music takes the form of songs with words
instead of purely instrumental music. It’s likely that songwriters, aware to
some extent of their inability (due to lack of knowledge) to create emotionally
powerful instrumental music, rely on lyrics to help deliver some kind of
emotional punch. Songwriters have a better intuitive grasp of the emotional
information words carry than they have of the emotional information musical
elements such as intervals carry.
AS AN ADAPTATION
Music, perhaps, provides a unique mnemonic framework within which
humans can express, by the temporal organization of sound and gesture,
the structure of their knowledge and of social relations. Songs and
rhythmically organized poems and sayings form the major repository of
knowledge in non-literate cultures. This seems to be because such
organized sequences are much easier to remember than the type of prose
which literate societies use in books.
knowledge across generations, you need human societies. But to get to the point of
having human societies, you need group bonding and socialization. That’s why
music, dance, and language had to predate the formation of cohesive societies,
which only emerged in the past few thousand years.
Language and music make it possible for individuals to bond into
large, cooperative groups. Extensive research findings strongly
indicate music promotes and coordinates group bonding,
cooperation, and social cohesion:
a performer. In most hunter-gatherer societies, everyone participates
in music—no one’s an audience member. As well, dancing nearly always accompanies
• Group emotional arousal. Music causes a state of general
emotional arousal in all the members of a group
simultaneously. So music has always served well in situations
involving more than one person and ritual: marriages,
funerals, groups marching, religious ceremonies.
• Solidarity through emotional synchrony. Being able to
keep a steady beat and sing to it would increase evolutionary
fitness by enabling larger and larger social groups to
participate as a single, coordinated entity, increasing
solidarity and camaraderie through emotional synchrony.
Music has the effect of imposing order and structure on time.
At an event featuring music, everyone experiences the same
feeling at the same time. Some examples in various cultures
- Crowd singing at popular music concerts
- Congregational hymn singing
- Singing of solidarity songs on picket lines
- Karaoke singing
Birthday,” sung at social gatherings millions of times a year
- Campfire singing (except by outlaws on the lam)
- National anthem singing
- Crowd singing at sports events such as British football
matches and ice hockey games
The Equestrian Sport of Ice Hockey
Spectators at professional ice hockey games
heartily sing the national anthem at the outset of every game. And throughout
the game, they sing various “fight” songs to encourage the home team.
If you live in a tropical country such as Brazil
or Nigeria, you may not have heard of the sport of ice hockey. It’s a team sport
played in northern countries such as Canada and Sweden. Ice hockey resembles the
game of polo, except that it’s played on a large ice surface called a “hockey
rink.” The players’ horses are fitted with “skates”—long sharp blades welded to
the bottoms of the horses’ iron shoes. The horses are specially trained to skate
rapidly and gracefully around the hockey rink.
Each team has six riders: three forwards, two
defense riders, and one goalkeeper. Instead of a long-handled polo mallet, each
rider carries a long wooden stick with a blade at the end, called a “hockey
stick.” The object of the game is to bat a small rubber disk, called a “puck”
into the other team’s net, scoring a goal.
In ice hockey, riders frequently jostle each
other (called “body checking”), causing players to fall from their horses.
Often, the fall kills the player outright because the ice surface is rock hard.
A player who survives a fall frequently does not make it off the rink fast
enough and falls victim to thousands of pounds of horseflesh skating over him or
The average professional ice hockey player earns
several million dollars a year. But the average playing career doesn’t last more
than a year or two, due to injury or death.
The rock group, the Doors, wrote and recorded a
now-classic song about the equestrian sport of ice hockey, called “Riders on the
music charts also reflect group participation in music. When not listening to
the same hit songs en masse at concerts, people listen to the same songs at the
same time on radio, television, webcasts, etc. Masses of young people purchase
the same songs during the time those songs ride high on the charts. Rather than
listen to a recording, people tend to prefer to go out and get a fix of the same
music performed live—to experience the primal pleasure of identifying with, and
entraining with, the musicians (and dancers). It’s akin to the pleasure of
watching professional athletes.
Our savannah-dwelling hominid ancestors walked on two feet but
did not stand very tall, and had no claws or fangs. Easy meals for
lethal predators. So, to protect themselves against strong, fast
predators, and to successfully hunt game, hominids had to become
sophisticated in group-living and cooperation. Human beings use
each other as tools in the survival game. Naturally-selected traits
arise in response to environmental pressure, which includes
ourselves. Hundreds of thousands of years ago, our fellow humans
were an integral part of our environment, just as they are today. So
we have evolved many brain adaptations that enable us to interact
successfully with each other.
expansion and evolution of human social structure drove the evolution of many
mental tools for social behaviour (such as music and language). The cerebral
cortex and the skull, therefore, kept getting bigger and bigger: encephalation.
Humans have an encephalation factor of 7, meaning our brains are 7 times larger
than would be expected for an animal of our size. Dolphins and porpoises are next,
at 4 to 5, with chimpanzees and gorillas at 2.5. The one thing that animals with
high encephalation factors have in common is that they’re all highly social.
AS AN ADAPTATION
Usually, people make music in groups. Children show a pronounced
drive to repeat sound elements in rhythmic synchrony. This ensures
involvement and belonging with the group. (The same applies to
conversation. One of the major ties that binds humans in groups is
plain, ordinary talking.)
music and language probably have a common origin in long sequences of primate
vocalizations in which individuals tried to repeat or match each other’s calls.
These became formulaic phrases. You can hear echos of this phenomenon in the
song-like patter of auctioneers, or in universal children’s chants such as “Ring
Around The Rosie."
Early hominid vocal music would have consisted of chorusing
(and, later, drumming accompaniment). Various animal species
exhibit chorusing and duetting:
• Gibbons do a lot of duetting, mainly in mated pairs. Gibbon
songs show clear coordination.
have distinctive pant-hoot calls, but don’t show much coordinated vocalizing.
When an individual launches into a pant-hoot, another will sometimes respond.
monkeys, like humans, sometimes find themselves in socially stressful situations
that result in conflict. They spend large amounts of time and energy engaging in
friendly vocalizing (“vocal grooming”) in order to cultivate and continue
relationships. This tends to dispel conflict to some degree.
• Birds sing in groups (the dawn chorus, for example), but their
singing is not coordinated or synchronized the way human
group singing is. The exception is duetting. Male and female
songbirds of many species, especially tropical birds, sing in
duets. These monogamous pair-bonded birds sing to
advertise their claim to a territory, and possibly to maintain
their monogamous relationship.
AS AN ADAPTATION
Primates and other
animals often live in groups or “troops” for protection against predators. As
social groupings increase in size and complexity, competitors within the
aggregation turn on each other. So cliques form for intra-group protection.
The hypothesis of British anthropologist and evolutionary
biologist Robin Dunbar is that, in primates other than humans,
alliances hold together because members groom each other. Not
because everybody in the group is bug-infested. Because grooming
feels good. (Same reason humans like massages.)
who groom each other also defend each other when conflicts arise. Grooming takes
a lot of time and energy, so primate troops that physically groom each other
can’t grow beyond a certain size, 50 individuals, tops.
on the other hand, given sufficient social pressure, can track as many as 150
individuals socially (widely known in anthropology as Dunbar’s number, after
Dunbar’s calculations, based on much evidence). So the question is, how come
humans can keep track of so many more fellow humans than, say, chimps can of
to Dunbar, because language evolved as a substitute for physical grooming.
Language enables maintenance of contact and friendships among many more
individuals than would be possible by physical grooming. But it takes a lot of
brain power to keep track of so many social relationships. So natural selection
came up with some sophisticated brain-based adaptations, especially language. In
the grooming-substitute hypothesis, the large human cortex evolved in response
to the selective pressure of ever-increasing “symbolic grooming” (language and
related adaptations). As other researchers have pointed out, this would
especially apply to child rearing in culturally complex environment, and would
include the evolution of music.
Language and music probably have a common origin, as
discussed previously. If selective pressure of ever-increasing social
structure and complexity drove encephalation, then language and
music were probably the main specific adaptations, language for
symbolic (referential) communication, music for emotional
language has its limits with respect to social interaction. Typically, if four
or fewer people are engaged in a conversation, all may participate meaningfully.
However, once the group grows to five or six or more, it splits into separate
smaller conversational sub-groupings—even though all five or six individuals are
physically close together.
This may help explain why popular music groups tend to lose
cohesion (musically and socially) as membership increases beyond
three or four musicians.
AS AN ADAPTATION
produce calls that communicate both referential and emotional meaning. These
calls warn their kin of an approaching predator (emotional meaning—fear). Each
type of call specifies a different type of predator (referential meaning—snake,
eagle, etc.). The vervets react to each type of call with a different escape
pattern, depending on the predator indicated in the call.
humans and in non-human animals, the auditory system connects directly to
regions of the brain that control muscles. If you hear something unusual, your
body can automatically react quickly. When somebody sneaks up behind you and
yells “Boo!”, you jump instantly, without a moment’s thought.
Music and motor control also go together, as evidenced in
dancing, clapping along to a beat, head nodding, and so on. How
might our rhythmic and entrainment skills have arisen?
Possibly through coalition signalling.
selfish gene theory predicts, we humans, like other animals, tend to favour
those who carry our genes or those whose genes we carry—our close kin, in other
words. Especially our progeny. But humans also have the unique ability to form
many friendships and alliances with individuals in whom we have no kinship investment
Music may have evolved as a mechanism to synchronize the
mood of all the members of a coalition, to prepare everybody,
regardless of kinship status, to act as a group. Motor activities that
have a strong rhythmic aspect, such as walking and running, may
have become ritualized in body movements such as group dancing.
biologists Edward Hagan and Gregory Bryant have provided experimental evidence
supporting the hypothesis that music and dancing in groups evolved initially as
a coalition signalling system—a way of communicating to others the competence or
“quality” of a group. Coalition signalling would likely have evolved from
territorial defence signalling, common in other primates.
Coordinated emotional expression of a group amplifies
coordinated action. Groups that can successfully demonstrate
coordinated solidarity show strength and intimidate would-be
attackers. This is why riot police form into coordinated phalanxes,
march rhythmically, and beat their shields in time.
Before language evolved, our increasingly social hominid
ancestors would have needed some mechanism of identifying,
among non-kin, whether all or some of an aggregation of other
individuals actually constituted a group, a clique with a purpose.
Coalition signalling would help explain the origin of human abilities
to identify and evaluate the membership and purpose of a group,
and whether or not it would be mutually beneficial to become a
AS AN ADAPTATION
AND THE INNATE
People looking to justify socially unacceptable behaviour sometimes
cite evolutionary theory on the biological differences between men
“Your honour, my client’s genetic inheritance as a male human compelled him to
get roarin’ drunk and commit armed robberies to get money to buy a guitar so
that he could impress his sweetheart with his original songs about good-hearted
women in love with good-timin’ men. So all charges oughta be dropped.”
Evolutionary theory does not provide justifications or excuses.
Only explanations. Nature has nothing to do with good or evil; it
unfolds with utter indifference. Anyone of either sex has the ability
to override natural propensities, as discussed earlier. Humans have
males and females have music and language capabilities, but this is not the case
for all traits. Arnold Schwarzenegger and all other men carry genes for a
uterus, but these genes don’t express themselves in males.
Yet, if males and females have the same musical capabilities,
why are there so many more male musicians than female musicians in every society
globally? How could sex differences be implicated?
For many people, even broaching the subject of sex-based
behavioural propensities constitutes a strict taboo. If tangible,
empirically verifiable evidence indicates something is true and
significant, then declaring the subject off limits for discussion,
instead of dealing with reality, amounts to odious Talibanism.
No place for that taboo here. The next few sections discuss
sexual selection and music.
The Hillary Clinton Philandering Gene Research Foundation
Thanks to common descent, humans share many of
the same genes with numerous other animals. Maybe that’s why some animals
exhibit human-like behaviour.
Such as philandering.
Take the humble vole, a tiny furry mouse-like
critter. In one species, the meadow vole, the male gets around like Screamin’
Jay Hawkins (reported to have fathered some 75 children). But the male of a
closely-related species, the prairie vole, typically settles down with one good
woman for life. Just like in certain wholesome country songs where things turn
out better than they do in certain George Jones songs.
Scientists in Atlanta decided to see what would happen if they
transferred a specific gene, suspected to influence philandering
behaviour, from the prairie vole to the meadow vole. Sure enough,
the investigators found that, by manipulating the expression of a
single gene, they could make promiscuous male meadow voles
behave like faithful prairie voles.
Since humans have the same gene, could a similar injection be
developed to change the philandering behaviour of human
males? Send your donation to the Hillary Clinton Philandering
Gene Research Foundation..
AS AN ADAPTATION
And another thing. Those who would damn any discussion of sex-based behavioural differences also tend to discourage and discredit
such discussion by equating it with advocacy of race-based behavioural
differences—for which no credible evidence exists. The clear implication is
that, if you’re going to give credence to sex-based differences, then you’ll
also give credence to race-based differences. And who knows what else. So you’re
promoting sexism and racism. So goes the smear.
The truth is, sex differences that affect behaviour have been a
fact of life in all mammal species for more than 200 million years. In
humans, strong evidence indicates evolved sex differences apply as
much to the brain and behaviour as to anatomy and functioning from
the neck down.
sex, the concept of “race” has no social value. It poisons social relations. The
races humans identify today do not differ significantly from each other
genetically. Unlike the sexes, not a single race, however defined (which isn’t
clear), is represented in significant numbers in every culture globally.
There is no “race” gene.
and human genome studies indicate all humans are descended from a small group
that left Africa perhaps 100,000 years ago. All of our ancestors had dark skin.
All of today’s so-called races, from blue-eyed blond Scandinavians to Australian
aborigines are descended from that one small group of Africans.
nearly enough time has elapsed for meaningful adaptations to have occurred that
would differentiate one “racial” group from another with respect to mental
functioning. Selective pressure that leads to behaviour-modifying adaptations
has nothing to do with skin color.
some adaptations in humans have occurred in the past 100,000 years in response
to selective pressure. These adaptations show up in traits such as eye color,
skin color, facial features, etc. Superficial features of this nature—variable
characteristics of external body parts—reflect selective pressure to adapt to
conditions of regional physical environments.
the highly visible traits that identify racial differences, which neo-Nazis and
other such loonies try to spin into “scientific proof” of their nonsensical
doctrines, have nothing to do with “superiority” or “inferiority” of human
intelligence or character.
any case, so much intermarriage takes place across racial boundaries that the
concept of “racial purity” has little meaning. For example, research indicates
some 30% of African Americans have at least one “white” ancestor.
For that matter, you only need to go back a little more than 30
generations (about 700 years, at 20 years per generation) before
you discover that the number of your ancestors exceeds today’s global
population. In other words, literally everybody alive today is
related to everybody else.
In the Blood? Not Bloody Likely
The age-old mistaken belief that human blood possesses some
special power beyond its biological function has not faded away,
even in countries with high educational standards.
The concept of “bloodline”—holy bloodline,
ancestral bloodline—has no basis in reality. Heredity has nothing to do with
blood. It’s all about genes.
At the level of DNA, every generation gets
“diluted” by a factor of one-half. You have only 50% of the DNA of each of your
parents, 25% of the DNA of each of your grandparents, and so on. If you could
trace your family roots back, say, 200 years (10 generations), you would find
that the contribution to your genetic make-up by any of your ancestors from only
10 generations back would amount to a less than 1/10th of 1%. So much for claims
about the significance of “royal bloodlines” in the world’s monarchies.
Millions of people in Asia believe that blood type
affects human behaviour. Believers even make important life decisions based on
the “psychology” of blood type, such as deciding whom to befriend, hire, or
date. There is no scientific evidence whatsoever supporting the daft notion of
“blood type personalities.”
In countries such as Japan and South Korea,
blood type believers who consider themselves to have “acceptable” blood types
abuse and discriminate against those who have “unacceptable” blood types. The
irrationality and harm of such discrimination ranks with that of racism, sexism,
homophobia, and xenophobia.
is evidence that fear of people who don’t look like us has an evolutionary
basis. In Palaeolithic times, our hominid ancestors, living in large groups for
survival purposes, perceived outsiders as threatening. They probably were.
Research findings indicate modern humans appear to have retained this
inclination of distrust and fear. The evidence points to a biologically-based
propensity in all humans to discriminate against those “not like us” by virtue
of everything from skin color to sexual orientation to religion. However, as
discussed earlier, humans have the ability to override such instincts, and many
of us do, at least some of the time.
Now, continuing with music and sex differences . . .
AS AN ADAPTATION
Darwin noted that in
many species of birds and mammals, males vocalize (“sing”) and females don’t—or
not nearly as much. Moreover, male vocalization occurs mainly in breeding
season. The best singers have the best mating success. This is a form of sexual
selection. The same sexual selective pressure gave rise to the capacity for
music in humans.
There are more than 9,000 species of birds, of which about
4,000 sing. In birds, songs evolved to attract mates or to repel rivals
for mates. Sexual selection in birds results in females choosing
males with the most elaborate and varied repertoires of songs. Once
the female and male have set up house, the male stops singing
(sadly). Unless, for some reason, the male loses his mate. Then he
goes nuts with singing again (hurrah!).
humpback whales sing competitively to attract females. Humpback whales even seem
to improvise, like jazz musicians. They sing extended pieces lasting up to half
an hour, anytime female humpbacks are in the neighbourhood—not only during
be a sexually selected adaptation, music would have to confer reproductive
benefits. According to the sexual selection hypothesis, music arose as a
courtship display, evident in birdsong, for example. Most animals only ever
produce calls during breeding season: birds, frogs, toads, insects, and many
other species. And it’s almost always males vocalizing to attract females.
chorusing (which is not the same as entrainment) in non-human animals may have
been the precursor to human entrainment ability. Male synchronous chorusing
during mating season is found in some species of frogs and insects. It’s
automatic and requires no cooperation among individuals. Human synchronous
music-making, by contrast, is deliberate and requires true cooperation.
time-keeping and entrainment may have evolved for the same reason as
music-making evolved in other species—to attract mates. Rhythmic singing and
dancing would facilitate sexual selection: males display and females choose. The most co-ordinated
and talented vocalists and dancers would become targets of female
The capacity to do music originated with primitive calls in early
hominids and evolved to the point where, today, people in all
cultures create extraordinarily sophisticated music. This mode of
evolutionary adaptation indicates a sexually selected arms race between,
as the evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller puts it, “unfulfillable sexual
demands and irresistible sexual displays.” The
great British geneticist and statistician, R. A. Fisher, developed the theory of
“runaway sexual selection” to describe how this happens. He cited the peacock’s
fan as a classic example. It’s a flashy trait that signals a high-functioning
display big showy tails and peahens select the peacock with the biggest,
showiest tail to mate with. The peacock’s tail indicates the male’s
more-than-adequate survival resources, and, therefore, reproductive fitness.
• Their offspring have genes that ensure continuance of the
process, creating a positive-feedback loop. (NOTE: Both
sexes carry the “big showy tail” trait, but the trait is only expressed in
the peacock’s tail becomes a handicap instead of a benefit, and the loop gets
humans, musicianship requires a large, highly-functioning brain. Males who
display musical skills signal to females that the signaller would make a high
quality mate, a mate with a comparatively creative, high-functioning brain. A
mate who could make life creative and interesting year after year. Experimental
evidence on music preferences indicates that women prefer men who have the
ability to surprise them with new songs—to keep them from getting bored with the
same old tune. Homo sapiens is a
neophilic species: we just love novelty. It’s what fuels the
in humans, the most common theme of songs is romantic love. Geoffrey Miller, one
of today’s leading champions of Darwin’s sexual selection theory as the primary
driver of the evolution of music in humans, notes that:
As a tool for activating specific conceptual thoughts in other people’s heads,
music is very bad and language is very good. As a tool for activating certain
emotional states, however, music is much better than language. Combining the two
in lyrical music such as love songs is best of all as a courtship display.
Musical productivity in males drops off significantly after
about 3% of mammals are monogamous (compared with 90% of birds). In mammal
species that are monogamous, empirical evidence indicates that vocal duetting
serves to strengthen pair-bonds. Female gibbons, for example, produce “great
calls,” to which male gibbons then respond. Male and female bonobos also sing,
and are monogamous.
the various monogamous primate species that duet are not closely related
biologically, which means duetting and monogamy evolved several times,
independently (convergence). This indicates that male-female duetting and
monogamy go hand and hand. Isn’t that sweet? If you want to keep your spouse
around, all you have to do is duet with him or her. Like Johnny Cash and June
Carter Cash. Or Tammy Wynette and George Jones (oops!).
“Goodbye to Love”: The Bonobo’s Song
In the evolutionary arms race, the human brain has become the
ultimate weapon. Humans can and do use cognitive powers to
smash the defences of practically all species, which cannot evolve
counter-defences against humans fast enough. Consequently,
wherever humans show up, species become extinct.
So it is, alas, with the peace-loving bonobo,
also known as the pygmy chimp, or jungle hippie. Wild bonobos live only in the
Congo. When conflict arises within a group of bonobos, they react by having sex.
Lots and lots of sex, including non-vanilla sex. They’re famous for it. Unlike
chimpanzees, bonobos almost never fight or kill. All they seek is peace, love
(i.e., sex), and happiness.
Humans routinely hunt bonobos and eat them. Bushmeat.
Today, the bonobo population has dwindled to a mere few
thousand in the wild (from perhaps 100,000 in 1980). If humans
succeed in wiping out the bonobo, the jungle hippie will have the
distinction of being the first great ape to suffer the fate of the
AS AN ADAPTATION
Over millions of years of evolution, male and female hominids have
experienced different selective pressures, resulting in sex
differences in behaviour, interests, and preferences.
Although men and women are equally intelligent, male and
female brains are wired differently. Males and females are also on
different drugs, males on androgens and females on estrogens.
evidence of male-female cognitive differences contradicts the dogma that
cultural and social influences account for all differences in behaviour, skills,
and predispositions by sex. Contrary to wishful thinking and political
correctness, differences in male-female preferences are hardwired from day one
of life. For example, the stereotype that small boys prefer to play with trucks
and mechanical objects whereas small girls prefer to play with dolls happens to
be true. The great majority of female children, given the choice, select dolls
over trucks; male children select trucks—long
before they even know what sex they are.
also occurs in our close primate relatives. For example, young vervet monkeys
have no concept of “boy-appropriate” or “girl-appropriate” toys. Yet, given a
selection of toys, they show the same stereotypical differences in preferred toy
choice by sex as human children show.
Some well-documented evolved human female predispositions,
skills, and interests include:
• Verbal communication
• Non-verbal communication (e. g., facial expression)
• People-reading and social interaction
• Identification of objects
• Interest in habitat
• Mathematical calculation
• Indirect, relational aggression
Evolved human male predispositions, skills, and interests
• Tracking moving objects
• Spatial cognition
• Competitiveness and status-seeking
• Figuring out how objects and events work
• Mathematical reasoning
• Con games and theft
• Direct, physical aggression
This does not
mean, “All men are more competitive than all women.” It does not mean,
“All women are better at verbal communication than all men.”
It means that:
you were to select one of the above traits, such as, say, “risk-taking,” and
you were to find a quantifiable variable that would provide evidence about
risk-taking by sex, such as, say, “number of race car drivers,” and collect the
• Then the theory would predict you would likely find a
difference in the number of race car drivers by sex, namely,
significantly more males than females; and
theory would also predict that, because of the sex-specific, genetic basis for
risk-taking behaviour, you would find the same pattern when measuring “number of
race car drivers,” everywhere in the world, regardless of country or
culture. In other words, evidence that males have evolved
brain circuitry that inclines them towards risk-taking
theory would predict similar findings on measures of any of the above-listed
sex-based traits (and many more). For example, to measure the trait,
“aggression,” by sex, you could compare proportions of male and female prisoners
incarcerated for violent crimes. If the theory has predictive value, you would
find a much higher proportion of males doing prison time for violent crime (and,
as it turns out, males in their late teens and twenties), again,
regardless of nation or culture. (Interestingly, once pair-bonded,
male criminal activity drops sharply.)
”Make Me Feel Like a Natural Man”
Here are some personal ads (found floating around on the
Internet), supposedly from the Dublin News. Each ad has the
potential to inspire at least one good country song lyric.
♥ Heavy drinker, 35, Cork Area. Seeks gorgeous sex addict
interested in a man who loves his pints, cigarettes,
Glasgow Celtic Football Club and has been known to start
fights on Patrick Street at three o'clock in the morning.
♥ Bitter, disillusioned Dublin man, lately rejected by longtime
fiancee, seeks decent, honest, reliable woman, if such a
thing still exists in this cruel world of hatchet-faced bitches.
♥ Ginger haired Galway man, a troublemaker, gets slit-eyed
and shitty after a few scoops, seeks attractive, wealthy lady
for bail purposes, maybe more.
♥ Bad tempered, foul-mouthed old bastard, living in a damp
cottage in the ass end of Roscommon, seeks attractive 21
year old blonde lady, with a lovely chest.
♥ Limerick man, 27, medium build, brown hair, blue eyes,
seeks alibi for the night of February 27 between 8 PM and
♥ Optimistic Mayo man, 35, seeks a blonde 20 year old
double-jointed super model, who owns her own brewery,
and has an open-minded twin sister.
A couple of sex-based inborn traits may partly explain the
overwhelming male preoccupation with music (discussed in the next
• Males have a particular interest in, and propensity for,
tracking moving things. Music is the “moving art.” It’s largely about
tracking beats—“moving objects”—as they sequence through time.
• Males have a natural aptitude for spatial cognition
(which, by the way, is associated with the hormone testosterone). As discussed
in the section on brain lateralization, the right hemisphere of the brain is the
location of both spatial cognition and the processing of harmony and pitch. This
indicates the modules responsible for spatial cognition may handle harmony and
pitch as “spatial” elements of sound.
The Moralistic Fallacy
When you turn the naturalistic fallacy on its head, you get the
moralistic fallacy, sometimes called wishful thinking or political
correctness. In the moralistic fallacy, “ought” = “is.” That is, you believe
that what ought to be true actually is true—even though there’s no
logical connection between “ought” and “is.”
A familiar example: human males and females ought to have the
same brain structure and psychological constitution at birth. So
(magically) ... they do! Believing otherwise means condoning sexism. And,
therefore, all of the empirical evidence showing that human males and females
are in fact psychologically significantly different from each other at birth,
shaped in the course of evolution by sex-based differences in adaptive
pressures—all that evidence must somehow be wrong (shoot the messenger).
People believe all sorts of things about
wonderful human nature—people aren’t greedy, people don’t lie, people don’t
cheat— merely because they ought to be true, despite evidence to the contrary.
As in many other species, human females have evolved as mate
choosers. Human females have to make enormous investments of
time, energy, and sacrifice in raising offspring. In North America, for
example, women with children earn about 75 cents to men’s dollar.
However, childless career women earn just as much as men.
While females have evolved as mate choosers, males have
evolved to display. Human males tend to become status-and-power
competitors. Where opportunities arise, females tend to choose
(except in cultures where parents arrange marriages) high-achieving
(i.e., displaying) male mates.
Palaeolithic times, men used physical power, aggressiveness, and competitive
instincts to achieve status and power, and impress women. Today, men use the
same inborn aggressiveness and competitiveness to achieve status and power in
business, religion, politics, and justice—and impress women. As listed in
Brown’s Human Universals, human males dominate the institutions of power in
every culture, a fact that will not likely change any time soon, despite wishful
thinking. This is a trifle unsettling for the future of H.
sapiens as a species, considering human males exclusively build
and control all the nuclear weapons in all the nations that have
AS AN ADAPTATION
Darwin’s sexual selection theory, males write and perform songs to impress
females, ultimately for purposes of acquiring women to mate with. Musicianship
in males tends to skyrocket after puberty, crests in young adulthood, and
declines after marriage.
A male musician is not usually aware that his love of music-making probably stems from an inherently male competitive
inclination to impress choosy females with a flashy display, like a
peacock, that indicates survival and reproductive fitness. If runaway
sexual selection began to shape the evolution of music one or two
million years ago, the positive feedback loop would take the form of
increasing demands for more impressive displays of musical talent,
triggering ever greater cognitive functions, resulting in ever-swelling
brain size. The theory would predict that, by now, a lopsided sex
imbalance favouring male musicians would exist, regardless of
musical genre, regardless of nation, regardless of culture.
that’s precisely what’s observed.
For example, one analysis of samples from more than 7,000
albums (rock, jazz, classical) revealed that the overwhelming
majority of the principal music makers (more than 90%) were male,
regardless of musical genre.
fact of pan-cultural male dominance of music gets little media attention. Yet
flip through any magazine devoted to music, and you’ll find that the great
majority of composers, songwriters, and performers are male. It’s like flipping
though the sports pages of any newspaper, and for similar reasons that have
roots in the evolutionary history of hominids.
out your own collection of recordings. Count the musicians by sex—not just the
act’s headliner, but all the musicians who play on each recording. (More
often than not, a female star will have an all-male or mostly-male backing band,
and will co-write her songs with male songwriters.) You’ll likely find that the
overwhelming majority of songwriters, vocalists, and instrumentalists in your
own music collection are male, unless you make a point of deliberately searching
out and collecting music composed and performed by women only.
Apart from your own collection, another sample worth checking
out for male-female proportions is the Gold Standard Song List which lists 5,000 songs written over a
100-year period, spanning 14 genres (see Appendix 1).
All of the above notwithstanding ... just because far fewer women
than men become career musicians, that does not mean women
ought not to have a career in music. If you’re a woman, and you write
and/or perform music, you may well have heard some variant of the naturalistic fallacy
with respect to women and music: if it’s found in nature (i.e., more men than
women make a living in music), then that’s the way it ought to be.
Rubbish. There’s no logical connection between “is” and “ought,” which is why
it’s called the naturalistic fallacy. Sadly, in some cultures, adherence to the
naturalistic fallacy prevents women who want a music career from
Although the evidence clearly indicates males have a stronger
drive than females to become musicians, males do not become
better musicians than females who become musicians. Musical
ambition does not equate with inherent musical ability.
OF THE ABOVE”
When the smoke
clears, why the heck did music evolve in humans— music that’s so unlike the
vocalizing of any other species?
Summary of three of the leading suspects:
1. Mother-infant Communication
No denying the reality of motherese, nor the universality of it, nor the
survival value of it. Much evidence supports Ellen Dissanayake’s hypothesis that
motherese is, at its core, musical
communication. Newborns and adults share many of the same
musical preferences and skills.
The music-emotion connection originates with motherese and is
linked directly with survival. In adults, this would help explain why
humans have a high regard for intensely emotional music. Music
competently composed and performed evokes survival-linked
emotions in listeners. That’s why audiences highly value performers and
composers who can actually achieve such a feat. (Not many can.)
2. Social Bonding
Skinny little hominids would not have survived on the African
savannah had they not clumped together in larger and larger
groups. By what mechanism did they achieve and maintain
group cohesion in the absence of language? Music certainly
looks like a good candidate.
Plenty of evidence indicates music and group dancing serve as
bonding mechanisms, ways of intensifying group solidarity and
coordinating emotional arousal.
For tens or hundreds of thousands of years, since humans
acquired the music adaptation, the only way to listen to music
was in a group of a minimum of two—usually more than two. The ability to
listen to music in solitude did not become possible until the advent of
recording technology in the late 19th Century.
Everywhere in the world, most music-making takes place in
group contexts. Groups such as bands, choirs, orchestras, and
sports crowds perform for audiences who not only listen but often
3. Sexual Selection
Darwin observed musical courtship displays in many species of animals, notably
monogamous bird species, mostly during mating season. Conspicuously by males.
According to Darwin’s theory of sexual selection, the capacity for music in
humans evolved as a sexually selected male courtship display, just as in other
In every society, far more males than females have the urge to
make music. Young males, predominantly. They say it’s for art’s sake, but
they do it to get girls. It works. It’s what would be expected in a
Fisher’s runaway sexual selection hypothesis, an elaboration of one aspect of
Darwin’s theory, would help explain the huge discrepancy in male vs female
participation in human music making. While males and females are equally
competent at creating and performing music, males tend to become obsessive about
it after puberty. Male fascination with music continues until pair-bonding,
after which it tends to drop off.
no reason to suppose that the various hypotheses about why music evolved in humans
mutually exclude each other. It is a fact that the capacity for music, like the
capacity for language, is in the brain at birth. After the motherese phase of
life, the brain circuitry for music does not go away. Music remains a powerful means of
emotional communication throughout life.
Mother-infant musical communication is inherently social,
so it’s reasonable that the social nature of music would continue to resonate in
adulthood. This would help explain the group bonding properties of music in
adults, even if music originally evolved for infant survival.
It would also help account for the use of music in courtship, as
both emotional and social communication. As Dissanayake points
In humans, love songs and courtship speech use childish words and refer to
childish things to create and display intimacy, for example, ... popular songs
that express the [sentiment] ... “Baby, I love you.”
a guy sings lyrics using words such as “baby,” and “mama,” he doesn’t realize
how literal the lyrics are—an adult version of motherese, the musical
mother-infant communication system.
the way, this has nothing to do with Freud’s weird, unsupported hypotheses.
While on the mark about each person having an active unconscious mind, Freud’s
bizarre theory of child psychosexual development, complete with Oedipus complex,
Electra complex, phallic stage, and so on, amounts to fanciful hokum.)
theory of runaway sexual selection may best explain encephalation in humans.
Females select the smartest, most capable males to mate with. Their progeny, both male and female,
become smarter and more capable over time. Women make ever-escalating demands for smart, capable mates. Men adapt by
becoming even smarter and more capable (actually a courtship
display). A feedback loop. Over a couple of million years, the cortex
gets larger in both sexes.
this explains encephalation in humans, then the human brain is the human
equivalent of the peacock’s tail, with human males responding to human females’
obsession with brilliance by evolving more ways to display mental prowess, one
of those ways—a major one—being music.
* * * * *
final word on the “what-who-where-when-why” of music, from one of the greatest
investigator-songwriters of all time ...
In search of love and music, my whole life has been
Illumination, corruption, and diving, diving, diving, diving
Diving down to pick up on
Every shiny thing
Just like that black crow flying
In a blue sky
—JONI MITCHELL (“Black Crow” from Hejira)