Sunday, November 22, 2009

The origins of music and language.

Book Review

Steven Mithen
“The Singing Neanderthals” 2005, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, London


I have recently (re)read a fascinating book by one of the scientists featured in the video that we watched last week, Steven Mithen. It is called “The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body”. The author maintains that while some of universal attributes of the human mind such as capacity for language and creative thought have been addressed in the literature, music has been neglected (or underestimated/misunderstood). He is convinced that the evolution of music holds the key to language. In the book, he reviews extensive evidence from anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and sociology to demonstrate that music predated language, and to explain why music is so important to humans. The book consists of two parts. Part I concerns with character of music and language and their relationship. Here, the author attempts to answer such questions as, how music and language are constituted in the brain; how we communicate with prelinguistic infants; and the relationship between music and emotion. Part II explores the communication system of monkeys, apes, Early Humans, Neanderthals and Homo sapiens. The main questions in this part are: how characteristics of music and language are explained by the evolutionary history; how these characteristics relate to the evolution of the human mind, body and society.


It appears that the book originated as a scientific dialogue or rather polemics with such prominent scientist as Dr. Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. It all started when Dr. Pinker in his 1997 book “How the mind works” made his famous statement “music is nothing more than auditory cheesecake”. He maintained that from the evolutionary point of view music could not be compared with such important attributes as language, vision, social reasoning, and physical knowledge. Pinker claimed that music is an evolutionary by-product. In other words, it emerged as a result of the development of other capacities that have direct adaptive value. He attributed the existence of music to the pleasure it provides. In his opinion, “music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged”. While for us as musicians, this assertion might sound outrageous, interestingly, Dr. Pinker is not alone. Professor Dan Sperber from the French National Center for the scientific research in Paris in his 1997 book “Explaining culture” calls music “an evolutionary parasite”. John Barrow, cosmologist, Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge in England maintains that music “has no role in survival of our species”. These people are among the most influential scientists in the world today, and, perhaps, their opinion counts. Besides, this does make sense. Music does not belong to the list of characteristics that are essential for survival. Additionally, I have a large collection of quotes from renowned individuals (from the celebrated artists to distinguished philosophers and writers) which appear to not only support the view that music is biologically superfluous but also question its moral and aesthetic value. Here are just two examples: “Music is essentially useless, as life is”. (George Santayana 1863-1952, a Spanish philosopher, essayist, poet, and novelist). “My loathings are simple: stupidity, oppression, crime, cruelty, music”. (Vladimir Nabokov, 1899-1977, a Russian-born novelist, one of the greatest English prose stylist). However, if music is worthless and biologically unessential, why we still have it? To answer this question, Mithen examines recent anthropological findings on Neanderthals, which appear to endorse the view that Neanderthals had no language. (Just to update, the latest discovery of the FOXP2 gene (which is called “the speech and language gene) in Neanderthals suggests they may have had language skills). Neanderthals had evolved in Europe about 250.000 years ago, survived the ice ages, and become extinct about 30.000 years ago. In other words, they existed for more than 200.000 years! Amazingly, they survived dramatic environmental changes in ice-age Europe. Obviously, in order to survive they needed intelligent decision-making and extensive social collaboration. So, how did they communicate without language? Mithen maintains that they developed music like, complex communication system, which he calls Hmmmmm: holistic, manipulative, multi-modal, musical, and mimetic. He argues that while there were no words, this system consisted of a combination of gestures, dance, vocal replication and large number of holistic utterances, where each utterance functioned as a complete message in itself. I can imagine a group of Neanderthals communicating in this manner-dancing, using a variety of auxiliary tools, gesticulating, and vocalizing while preparing for such complex social activities as, for instance, hunting. This might sound bizarre, but I have witnessed a similar case with my own eyes. When I was a Music Director of the Youth Jerusalem Orchestra, we had an extremely knowledgeable conductor, with exceptional professional skills and qualities. However, there was a problem. As a recent immigrant, he did not speak Hebrew at all. Yet, he managed to communicate with the kids, and they created a great music together! His system of communication consisted of exact the same things that Mithen described in the book. He gesticulated profusely, sang, jumped, used his stand to produce a variety of different noises, vocalized, imitated the instruments with his voice, and even danced. Somehow, the kids managed to catch the meaning of his messages and the orchestra did quite well. Evidently, the Neanderthals’ communication system did not disappear altogether. Mithen maintains that the remnants of this structure can be observed today in the way that mothers communicate with prelinguistic infants. They vocalize, and employ a great variety of facial expressions and their babies seem to understand them perfectly. Mithen argues that both language and music share the same source of origin. In fact, this idea is not altogether new. It could be traced back to Darwin, and it was recently advanced by a Canadian neurologist Steven Brown, who coined a term “musilanguage” to describe this sort of communication method. I found this idea fascinating.


Linnea said...

I am somewhat familiar with Mithen’s book, and remember finding it quite intriguing. The concepts of the origin and purpose of music are interesting as we have relatively little in the way of evidence to support any particular view. I agree that as musicians, it is difficult to accept that music serves no purpose in our lives, when we have “devoted our lives” to it. While many scientists dismiss music, others adamantly attest to its importance in our lives. Likewise while some suggest that it followed as an accidental extension of language, others propose that it predated language… by a long shot. I am reminded of Gray and colleagues’ work with whales and birds suggesting that humans are late joiners to the interspecific game of music.
What I remember most from Mithen’s book were the passages relating to infant directed speech, or “baby talk.” The universality of this phenomenon is remarkable, especially when one considers that in certain pitch-dependent languages, the pitch alterations that occur in baby talk actually interfere with the meaning of the words being spoken. The argument that music is truly our first language certainly has its strengths.

joe schacher said...

“Music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged”. I suppose what Pinker means by this is that if we remove music from humanity, humans would have found another way to get all of the things music provides. First of all, how could he possibly KNOW that? Second, you could make that same statement about any human trait and 'guess' that it is true. Walking upright isn't NECESSARY for survival. We could still have fire, families, strong shelters, language, airplanes, the wheel, etc., all while being on all fours. Does this mean bipedalism is useless too?

Even vision isn't all it seems. Perhaps if humans had no vision they would have found a substitute. Perhaps music would have played a more obvious role in human survival if vision did not exist. Anyhow, bats survive without seeing, why couldn't we?

To call music “an evolutionary parasite”, and state that it “has no role in survival of our species" is a little silly as well. Survival is not the only thing makes a trait evolutionarily strong. The ability to make as many offspring as possible, which in turn survive to make more offspring of their own, is the key to evolutionary prowess. To put it bluntly, more sex appeal makes you more 'fit'. Who has more opportunity to have many, many children (with many different people!) AND also be able to provide for them all (with huge piles of cash) than the rock and roll singer?

Compare this to the bird world, where it is generally accepted by scientists that bright colour is a useful trait for males. The theory goes that the more beautiful a male's colours are, the more likely he is to attract a mate. This does not help him fight off predators, find more food, or survive cold winters. In fact, bright colours might make him more susceptible to predation. But if he is dull-coloured (i.e. unattractive) and never has any offspring, it doesn't matter how long he lives in evolutionary terms. No babies = evolutionary failure.

I have only touched on ONE aspect of music and survival, that being musical makes you attractive. There are other advantages to music:

1) Music and dancing often makes one sexually aroused, especially in a group setting.

2) Music often provides a reason for social gatherings, resulting in more opportunity for interaction (sometimes resulting in baby making).

In short, "survival of the fittest" does not mean "strongest is best". It means "more proliferation of your DNA is best". If music helps ANYONE have more children, then it is evolutionarily useful. Perhaps Pinker should stick to his chosen field of study as he obviously has a limp understanding of Darwin's theory.