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Darwinism Can’t Explain the Evolution of Music? Memes to the Rescue!


On another forum I wrote:

It seems to me that the arts, and music in particular, present a real problem for Darwinism. How would such an ability come about in a step-by-tiny-step fashion and what would be the survival value of the transitional intermediates, or even the end product? (Never mind what mutations would be required to rewire the central nervous system for musical ability, and the probability of those mutations occurring.) Of course, for Darwinists, Darwinism must explain everything, so they will invent stories about how ancient jungle drummers got the girls, just like rock stars get the groupies. But everyone enjoys music with absolutely no evidence that it offers any survival or reproductive advantage. It just seems to be programmed into us at a very fundamental level.

It turns out that my comment about jungle drums and rock stars was prophetic.

Over at Meme Central we read about the evolution of music in Meme Update #24:

The Evolution of Music

One of the criticisms being leveled at the budding science of memetics is a valid one: what is it good for? Can memetics explain historical facts any better than existing theories? Can it make better predictions? If not, it can hardly be called a science, let alone a paradigm shift in understanding culture. To the rescue comes philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, deliverer of the first Charles Simonyi Lecture at Oxford last week. What does memetics explain that we otherwise have no clue about?


Traditional evolutionary theory — not taking memes into account — boils down to the idea that in the end, everything is about improving an organism’s chances for reproducing its genes. While there has been ample speculation as to the biological function of music, most people thinking along traditional lines of evolutionary theory have concluded that it’s at best some kind of not-yet-understood social-group bonding mechanism and at worst a mistake that hasn’t been caught yet by Mother Nature. Given enough time, they say, genes for liking music will be out-competed by genes for something more productively related to reproduction.

Dennett proposes that music has less to do with genes, and more to do with much-quicker-evolving memes. Memes may actually be directing the evolution of genes to suit themselves much the way we breed dogs so they look and behave the way we fancy them. When one looks at the sex lives of popular musicians, that’s not so far-fetched a thought, is it? Why is it that rock stars have so many adoring admirers? What possible genetic function could it serve to want to mate with a singer?

Dennett weaves a tale of how it might have happened, beginning with caveman Og pounding with a stick on a log. Some of the rhythms he pounds, for whatever reason, are more catchy than others. The ones that are catchy get picked up by other cavemen. These rhythms are mental information patterns: early memes.

Now this pounding evolves for awhile, and it turns out that some of the rhythms that get pounded out are more pleasing than others, and crowds tend to gather around when someone pounds them out. Since the crowds gather around, the meme spreads faster. As a byproduct of this, the best rhythm-pounders gain in social status and therefore get more chance to spread those genes that give them the knack for rhythm.

You can read more at the link above. Note that the author refers to “the science of memetics” and then talks about how Dennett “weaves a tale.” Weaving a tale is science?

I have a much simpler explanation: we were designed to create and enjoy music.

As some UD readers are aware, I am a pianist. Since I am something of an evangelist for classical music, I’ve included my three piano albums free for downloading at my website, along with program notes.

It sounds like the chicken and the egg again for Darwinism. Man created music himself then an emotion to it ? Or had the emotion for it and then invented it ? A B C D E F G 7 notes a a# b c c# d d# e f f# g g# 12 notes No matter what music you like it has certain rules or it doesn't sound right Logical thinking has rules too. Darwinists thinking doesn't harmonise. Gods fingerprints are all over music. Big Dog
"Actually, music does have survival value, and I can see how it might have evolved." Everything has survival value Karen. As long as people have imaginations they can conceive of how it might have evolved. pk4_paul
Don't you see? Humans do not exist to survive, or even as carriers of genes. Rather, they exist for the sole purpose of being meme carriers. When a meme is in your brain it direct and controls your actions an in so doing the evolution of your species. As a result, humans have been adapated over time to be better and better meme carriers whether the meme is a tune, an idea, or whatever. As a matter of fact, our entire mental capacity is a direct result of meme's adapting us to be better able to carry ideas in our idea. The same naturally applies to music and almost anything you do. Nobody honestly thinks humans are in pursuit of their own surival. Just look at them and everything they do the detriment of their own survival! The only reasonable explanation is that humans exist not the propagate themselves but to propagate memes. WinstonEwert
Ah, the "budding science of memetics"--which, as we all know, is a REAL science, as opposed to the pseudoscience of Intelligent Design, and we know this... uh... BECAUSE. Funny how memetics is "scientific" when there is absolutely no evidence that memes even exist--other than as handy Darwinian tools to explain any phenomenon. So: 1) There is no evidence for memes; 2) We believe in them anyway. Aaaaaaaaaand, all together now: What do we define as "the evidence of things not seen?" Dat's right: FAITH. Which, of course, is the central characterstic of any religion. So, the correct phrase is: "the budding religion of memetics." TerryL
What's the evolutionary advantage of being attracted to musicians? Musicians and artists don't have anymore children than the rest of us. The most creative people in the world are often the most obscure tragic people. Why didn't the cave-women evolve to avoid musicians and artists and go for the "normal" types with steady jobs! Rowan
Music has always existed. Before the universe was created. Thus all "scientific" origin theories come in too late in the game. I thought that would be obvious to any theists. Borne
Gil, Thanks for those links, fantastic!! Check out just a couple of choice snippets: "The canyon wren’s call, for instance, sounds similar to Chopin’s “Revolutionary” etude." and "roots of music lie closer to our ancient lizard brain than to our more recent reasoning cortex". So, Chopin fans, what do you think? Are we on to something? Yep, I always had a sense that lizards could keep a beat. Why don't we suggest that the GEICO gecko sing a jig, and do an accompanying tap dance. All in line with evangelizing the Darwinist line. Gotta do something to stop the funamentalists from establishing a theocracy. If I had known that it would be this fun, or I would have gone into evolutionary biology myself. Ekstasis
[...] Darwinism Can’t Explain the Evolution of Music? Memes to the Rescue!. UD reiterates an issue that has arisen several times on this blog: the complete lack of any explanation in Darwinism for aesthetic issues. But to concluse, I have a much simpler explanation: we were designed to create and enjoy music. [...] Darwiniana » Music and Darwinism
A colleague sends these links concerning Darwinism and music: Music is Glorified Birdsong Monkeys Have No Ear for Music Why Does Music Move Us? GilDodgen
To quote Ken Miller "A theory that explains everything explains nothing" Evolutionary theory simply has to explain everything because nothing else is allowed into the room. ID is free to allow Evolution to show what it can do, and to allow for intelligent agency if that can be shown to be involved. idnet.com.au
There are a alot of reasonable sounding evolutionary explanations for music... demonstrating them is another thing... The number is theories that explain a phenomenon is normally inversely proportional to the actual knowledge we have about the phenomenon. Why else do we have so many origin of life theories? Because none of them has ever been proven superior to the others - or all of them just don't work anyway. WinglesS
Gil your playing is brilliant. Thanks for the wonderful music to blog by. It is like having a fellow UDer in the room! It may be easy to see why mates would select for musical brilliance. It is harder to explain how musical and artistic brilliance arises in small steps and is selected for along the way. In Bach's family musical ability seems to have had a strong genetic component. In my family my wife has passed her abilities on. I did not really know I selected her for her musical prowess though, as she didn't play music at all during our courship. idnet.com.au
There are two things I loathe about this debate. 1) Any explanation will do for music. For example the more elaborate the mating call the more babies ah ha! Music is selected for. It really rubbed me the wrong way after Dr. Behe's IC argument with the flagella that the whole Darwinist community was satisfied with any fanciful story as long as it somehow made a flagellum. 2) Why can't they just say "I have no idea?" Is that so hard? @ a5b01zerobone How did the Cambrian explosion come about? Special creation. Just like our appreciation for music ie from God. jpark320
If survival value is defined as that which improves an organism's chances of passing on their genes to future generations then clothing would appear to have a survival value for us - but what of each years changing fashions? We use sound to communicate complex information, which presumably has some survival value, but does that mean that Britney Spears's latest musical offering must also have survival value for us? Although, unfortunately, it seems to improve her chances of passing on her genes. 1of63
Music a meme? Such classless, uncouth, unadulterated tripe! Darwinism - without soul, without feeling, without beauty and without sense. Let all the true musicians of the heart in the world now weep in sorrow if the life giving strains do not mean more than a irrational genetic bug. Music fills the cosmos and gives life, healing and beauty. The Singer sings His divine song and creates worlds within the majestic refrains. The song of creation was joy and bliss in the explosion of light and life. Echoed by "all the sons of God" in shouts of joy. The sounds of heaven reverberated throughout the vast heavens long before the birth of men and their foolish, lifeless thoughts. http://www.space.com/scienceastronomy/070116_gravity_ripples.html Men know music as they know life. Music is light. It travels in light. Even the world of wildlife heeds the sound and sings along in lesser harmonies. "Music is the bottleneck of the silence of God" - Robert Fripp (King Crimson) Darwinians: Lifeless, mindless and vain fools who cannot see anything beyond mere reproduction and survival. Borne
"Dennett weaves a tale of how it might have happened, beginning with caveman Og pounding with a stick on a log. Some of the rhythms he pounds, for whatever reason, are more catchy than others. The ones that are catchy get picked up by other cavemen. These rhythms are mental information patterns: early memes." So why were the rhythms catchy? For whatever reason. Thank you, memeticists, for clearing this one up! ...Really, this strikes me as trying force a square peg (music, and likely culture and other aspects) into a round hole (utterly-by-chance evolution, 'design'-less existence.) Why do we like music? Well, some caveman accidentally thumped out music once, and people liked it. Why did the people like what was thumped out? Eh! Who knows. nullasalus
sorry [If you go completely off topic again on a thread, you are out of here. --WmAD] a5b01zerobone
"Now this pounding evolves for awhile, and it turns out that some of the rhythms that get pounded out are more pleasing than others, and crowds tend to gather around when someone pounds them out." So, why are some poundings perceived as more pleasing than others? Did the perception of what was pleasing evolve first, or the pounding? And, once music was "invented", it just happened that it fell in line, unknownst to its originators, with mathematical principles. How very handy!! Oh, you say it fell in line with mathematics because that is what gives it rhythm? And rhythm is a perception, is it not? So our perception was in accord with mathematics. Oh, you say that music reflects how the brain works -- our mental processes reflect a rhythm, and therefore sound with rhythm is pleasing. And all this started with banging a stick, or a mother humming to a baby, or a mother tapping a stick while humming. Yep, makes all the sense in the world. Explains the genius of Mozart and BB King without even breaking a sweat, does it not?? This should segue quite naturally into a topic of how humor evolved. P.S. Sure, the superstar musician gets the mates, and music talent was naturally spread throughout the population. So, memes fans, please remind me of how that monogamy meme got spread?? And how did those traits that are considered the least sexy by the population as a whole spread, e.g,the talent to make an accountant or actuary?? Ekstasis
With all due respect, I would really appreciate it if those commenting here addressed the topic at hand. If the topic of the evolution of music and memes is not of interest to you, please comment elsewhere. GilDodgen
Hi bFast and apollo230. How do most Design theorists see the Cambrian explosion? From what I have read it was the mass proliferation of almost every phyla in the animal kingdom and according to current research, this period of extreme diversification occurred within a 5-10 million year span. A very short period of time in the overall history of the universe and life. I have read that the Cambrian explosion was a worldwide phenomenon too and not an isolated event. Thank You a5b01zerobone
Actually, music does have survival value, and I can see how it might have evolved...
Very fanciful and imaginative storytelling indeed. I like clever stories as much as the next fellow, but we need some hard evidence that random mutations can reengineer the minds of primitive simian ancestors for music before the fanciful stories are worthy of consideration. GilDodgen
I suspect that there has been periodic loading of CSI along the way by a designer that has been a steward of the evolutionary process all along. Best regards, apollo230 apollo230
a5b01zerobone, "Now would the computer program analogy be what you guys call front-loaded evolution?" Well, not exactly. As you mentioned the Big Bang, this would be the "law" model, also known as the strong anthropic principle. To read more on this theory as it relates to biology, consider Denton's "Nature's destiny". This model suggests that nature was obligated to unfold life very much like us from the moment of the bang, that no intervention from that point was required. The front-loading hypothesis is sligthly different. This hypothesis suggests that the first life forms were placed on earth complete. The suggestion is that these were equivilant to seeds, which, though small, know how to become trees. The front-loading hypothesis does not seem determined to see only one event of seeding. There is a suggestion that the eukaryotes were a separate seeding from the prokaryotes. Further, front-loaders have toyed with the possibility that the cambrian explosion was an introduction of front-loaded organisms. In any case, with front-loading it is normally seen that a limited number (at least one) of acts of agency occurred. If my understanding is wrong, I am sure there will be volunteers willing to correct me. bFast
Forgive me, this is a bit off topic. In the Aug. 07, 2005 edition of Time Magazine the cover story was Intelligent Design. Dr. Michael J. Behe writes in that "some people believe that God is guiding the process from moment to moment. Others think he set up the universe from the Big Bang to unfold like a computer program". Now would the computer program analogy be what you guys call front-loaded evolution? Best. a5b01zerobone
Actually, music does have survival value, and I can see how it might have evolved. Here's link to a great article on the evolution of music from Natural History Magazine, called Face the Music: http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/1201/1201_feature.html Also, you might be interested to know that the lovely Saint Thomas Church on 5th Avenue is now webcasting their choral services (both live and on-demand). Here's the link to the main page-- you'll see the link to the webcasts (and the link to the Sunday leaflet, should you want to follow along): http://www.saintthomaschurch.org Enjoy! Karen

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