Saturday, March 17, 2012

are you humans meant to have language and music?

Discover | What do ironing and hang-gliding have in common? Not much really, except that we weren’t designed to do either of them. And that goes for a million other modern-civilization things we regularly do but are not “supposed” to do. We’re fish out of water, living in radically unnatural environments and behaving ridiculously for a great ape. So, if one were interested in figuring out which things are fundamentally part of what it is to be human, then those million crazy things we do these days would not be on the list.

But what would be on the list?

At the top of the list of things we do that we’re supposed to be doing, and that are at the core of what it is to be human rather than some other sort of animal, are language and music. Language is the pinnacle of usefulness, and was key to our domination of the Earth (and the Moon). And music is arguably the pinnacle of the arts. Language and music are fantastically complex, and we’re brilliantly capable at absorbing them, and from a young age. That’s how we know we’re meant to be doing them, i.e., how we know we evolved brains for engaging in language and music.

But what if this gets language and music all wrong? What if we’re not, in fact, meant to have language and music? What if our endless yapping and music-filled hours each day are deeply unnatural behaviors for our species? (What if the parents in Footloose* were right?!)

I believe that language and music are, indeed, not part of our core—that we never evolved by natural selection to engage in them. The reason we have such a head for language and music is not that we evolved for them, but, rather, that language and music evolved—culturally evolved over millennia—for us. Our brains aren’t shaped for these pinnacles of humankind. Rather, these pinnacles of humankind are shaped to be good for our brains.

But how on Earth can one argue for such a view? If language and music have shaped themselves to be good for non-linguistic and amusical brains, then what would their shapes have to be?

They’d have to possess the auditory structure of…nature. That is, we have auditory systems which have evolved to be brilliantly capable at processing the sounds from nature, and language and music would need to mimic those sorts of sounds in order to harness—to “nature-harness,” as I call it—our brain.

And language and music do nature-harness, a case I make in my third book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (Benbella, 2011). The two most important classes of auditory stimuli for humans are (i) events among objects (most commonly solid objects), and (ii) events among humans (i.e., human behavior). And, in my research I have shown that the signature sounds in these two auditory domains drive the sounds we humans use in (i) speech and (ii) music, respectively. Fist tap Dale.


Big Don said...

Sounds like a great topic for Brain Awareness Night at the Urban Child Institute in Memphis...(no joke) here it is:

CNu said...

It heartens me to see even baby steps being taken in these directions.  Secret people work has been my core preoccupation for a very long time now.  Hope springs eternal that one of these days somebody else will also "get it".