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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Evo psycho watch: Music actually raises questions?

Gil Dodgen, who is a concert pianist (as well as a present, former, and possibly late hang glider), offered some useful thoughts on this pop sci amusement by Drake Bennett in the Boston Globe on the alleged origin of music.

The evolutionary benefits of our affinity for food (nutrition) and sex (procreation) are easy enough to explain, but music is trickier. It has become one of the great puzzles in the field of evolutionary psychology, a controversial discipline dedicated to determining the adaptive roots of aspects of modern behavior, from child-rearing to religion.

One thing I want to draw attention to is that this story actually backs away from uncritical acceptance of the claims of evolutionary psychology.

Yes. Evo psycho is described above as "a controversial discipline", rather than as "the latest in scientific understanding of our origins." Hmmmm. (Well, of course, evo psycho should be described as a controversial discipline at best, but whodathunk that the pop sci media would get around to considering the possibility that it is?

The main problem with evo psycho is that its subject, like that of exobiology , has never been observed. Its subject is early humans but we only know modern humans. (Simply living under primitive conditions is not pixie dust and will not turn a modern human into a Pleistocene caveman; it would merely demonstrate that no evolution took place.)

Better still, an actual skeptic was interviewed for the Boston Globe story. That's not usual, so let's enjoy it:

To Steven Pinker, though, none of this adds up to a convincing case for music's evolutionary purpose. Pinker is not shy about seeing the traces of evolution in modern man-in How the Mind Works, he devoted a chapter to arguing that emotions were adaptations-but he stands by his "auditory cheesecake" description.

"They're completely bogus explanations, because they assume what they set out to prove: that hearing plinking sounds brings the group together, or that music relieves tension," he says. "But they don't explain why. They assume as big a mystery as they solve." Music may well be innate, he argues, but that could just as easily mean it evolved as a useless byproduct of language, which he sees as an actual adaptation.

Note that the choices materialism offers here are

(1) music is useful for food, sex, or murder, or

(2) music is a useless distraction.

Take that, Chopin. We always knews youse was a wimp.

The third option is that music is part of the spiritual nature of the human - and therefore neither useful nor useless in the senses above, but is a road to becoming a fully developed human being. But how could a typical pop sci article dare interview anyone who made such an obvious point?

(Note re plinking sounds: Once, long ago, I was a deputy warden at an Anglican church. Anyone who thinks that "hearing plinking sounds brings the group together" can have my old stint in a heartbeat. Pack plenty of Tylenol and remember that when old ladies demurely ask, "One lump or two, sweetheart?," they are trying to determine how many times they should attempt to break a potful of boiling tea over your head because you backed a different faction on worship music. I somehow do not think that this is a new problem in human history.)
If you like this blog, check out my book on the intelligent design controversy, By Design or by Chance?.

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