What If Music and Language Are Neither Instinct nor Invention?

By Mark Changizi | April 19, 2012 8:42 am

Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist and director of human cognition at 2AI Labs. He is the author of The Brain from 25000 FeetThe Vision Revolution, and his newest book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man.”


Earlier this week there was a debate on the origins of music at the Atlantic between two well-known psychologists. Geoffrey Miller (author of The Mating Mind) thinks music is an instinct, one due to sexual selection. On the other side is Gary Marcus (author of Guitar Zero), who believes music is a cultural invention. Given my recent book on the issue, Harnessed, many have asked me where I fall on the question, Is music an instinct or an invention?

My answer is that music is neither instinct nor invention—or, from another perspective, music is both—and this debate provides an opportunity to remind ourselves that there is a third option for the origins of music, an option that I have argued may also underlie our writing and language capabilities.

What if music only has the illusion of instinct? Might there be processes that could lead to music that is exquisitely shaped for our brains, even though music wasn’t something we ever evolved by natural seletion to process? Music in this case wouldn’t be merely an invention, one of the countless things we do that we’re not “supposed” to be doing and that we’re not particularly good at—like logic or rock-climbing. Instead, music would fit our brain like a glove, tightly inter-weaved amongst our instincts…but yet not be an instinct itself.

There is such a process that can give the gleamy shine of instinct to capabilities we never evolved to possess. It’s cultural evolution.

Once humans were sufficiently smart and social that cultural evolution could pick up steam, a new blind watchmaker was let loose on the world, one that could muster designs worthy of natural selection, and in a fraction of the time. Cultural selection could shape our artifacts to co-opt our innate capabilities.

Cultural evolution is an old idea, but there has been a resurgence of interest in it thanks to researchers like Stanislas Dehaene and Laurent Cohen, who have studied how writing neuronally recycles parts of our visual object-recognition hardware (see Reading in the Brain). And in my research I have tried to get down to brass tacks on how culture manages to harness our brain hardware.

I started with the shapes of writing, providing evidence that stroke conglomerations found in writing systems here on Earth tend to match the sorts of contour conglomerations found in nature, specifically among opaque objects (the main furniture of our terrestrial world). This was the topic of the last part of my previous book, The Vision Revolution. We can read with the efficiency of an instinct because writing got shaped like nature, thereby harnessing—or “nature-harnessing”—our visual system (see also the recent reading-baboons story).

I then wondered whether culture may have used the same trick for spoken language. Just as writing looks like opaque objects strewn about, might speech sound like the fundamental auditory furniture of our terrestrial world? If cultural evolution could do this, then no specialized auditory speech-processing instincts would be needed for language. For terrestrial animals the principal source of event sounds comes from solid objects—they hit, they slide, they vibrate—and so I spent a couple years trying to work out the “grammar” of sounds found among solid-object events. In Harnessed I walk through these signature sounds of solid objects, and show that these signatures are found in a wide variety of spoken languages. Processing the sounds of speech thereby comes easy, and one wonders to what extent syntax and semantics harness our earlier hardware as well. (I have argued in my research that the large-scale organization of our language lexicon might be shaped well for our brain.) If language harnesses us, then the fact that language appears to be dripping with instinct is exactly what we’d expect, even though there would be no language instinct.

Which brings us back to music. Like speech, music processing is an auditory talent. But it differs in that it is deeply evocative. My own theoretical inclinations are that emotionally steeped stimuli tend to mimic in some respect human emotional stimuli (e.g., colors are evocative because they’re found on  human skin), and so I wondered, What sort of human sound might music somehow have culturally evolved to mimic? The idea has been floating around since the Greeks that music might sound in some sense like movement, and so I pushed forward for a couple years on the idea, working out dozens of regularities found in the sounds people make when moving about. And in Harnessed I provide evidence that music tends to possess these regularities: music is a fictional story of someone moving evocatively in your midst. (By the way, I’d characterize my theory as an “auditory cheesecake” variant—music is a treat for our ears and minds, but not important for survival or evolution.) Music gets into our heads because our heads evolved to be especially tuned to the sounds of human behavior.

If the origins of music comes from nature-harnessing as I argue, then it will have many or all the signature signs of instinct. But it won’t be an instinct. Instead, it will be a product of cultural evolution, of nature-harnessing. And it won’t be a mere invention that we must learn. In a sense, the brain doesn’t have anything to learn—cultural evolution did all the learning instead, figuring out just the right stimulus shapes that would flow right into our emotional centers and get us hooked.

Not instinct. Not invention. And, in my view, the same is true for writing and language, all via culture’s strategy of nature-harnessing.


For some related discussion between Gary Marcus and myself, see this link at G+.

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  • Simon

    With you all the way up to language.

    In my experience, children learn to speak an order of magnitude more easily than they learn rhythm, tune, writing or reading. Young children (say, 2 years old) can learn a new word with one repetition:

    child: what’s that?
    adult: that’s an aardvark.
    child: aardvark.
    adult: that’s right.

    whereas a 4 year old might take days of tuition to learn the shape of the letter ‘A’, or the particular tune and rhythm of a song.

    Perhaps originally language co-opted non-language functions of the brain, but I would say that biological evolution took over, and now it is merely the explicit language(s) you speak that uses the generic language functions of the brain.

  • Yacko

    Drums and x/4 time may have started with heartbeat. We are the only species capable of noticing the rhythm of our heartbeat. After that it is but a short evolutionary trip to Surfin’ Bird.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/ Uncle Al

    Prodigies are born. They encounter the modality of that at which they are prodigious, or not. When Mozart sat before a keyboard, he saw music. A music prodigy before music hears birds singing, water flowing on stones giving tinkles… and the prodigy has his drug. In a world spare of purposeful pleasure 1) he becomes a hero, and trains others, or 2) he is killed by priests for siphoning their influence and income, who afterward adopt the sales pitch for themselves. Evolution then selects toward vendors, as Chinese speakers have a remarkable incidence of perfect pitch selected by their multi-tonal language.

  • Roy Hanney

    Facinating study and one that I found resonated with lots of ideas about how our cognative world is intrinsically linked to the natural world. However I have to take issue with the comment: I’d characterize my theory as an “auditory cheesecake” variant—music is a treat for our ears and minds, but not important for survival or evolution…

    Really!!! I could think of any number of ways that music/dance would have served importantly in cultural selection and survival. If it was as suggested just cheescake would we have really developed such a deep affective connection cognatively and culturally?

    I am afraid that the study feels as though it lacks a truely anthropological dimension :0)

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  • Peter R

    While I may not have a degree or any experience in psychology,I would like to say that I think music evolved as a way of passing information. Well, partially evolved that way, and what I say is obvious, music is pretty much always a story. Whether with lyrics where you can tell it’s some sort of story, or just instruments where it can seem like a story, or at least describing something.

    I also agree with your saying music sounds like movement. Perhaps if music evolved in primitive humans that lived in tribes, music evolved to tell stories of hunts, or creation myths. For example, low drums equaling a creator’s rage, or an animal’s roar, or something like that.

    Nowadays, Im not sure what a guitar is supposed to represent or sound like, other than sound good.

    So that’s my theory, music, even if starting from something else, evolved to tell or acompany stories and convey information.

  • Peter R

    Oh, I’d like to add one more thing (yes I need a life). Perhaps the beat of music evolved to be a stimulant too. I know for myself I find listening to music, the beat helps me keep pace with whatever it is that Im doing. perhaps beat evolved to stimulate the part of the brain involved in keeping time.

    But Im just speculating.

  • http://www.squidoo.com/xbox-troubleshooting-red-ring-of-death-fix Marc

    Extreme Dissonance tends to grate on the ear of many people. Even those who have a taste for extremely dissonant music probably listen to it for its energizing effects only. They’re not going to use it to go to sleep or to set a romantic mood. Dissonance is used in lesser amounts in most of the popular music today but its use is like that of adding spice to food. No one enjoys eating spice in it’s pure form straight from the jar.

    Dissonance is made up of lots of scrunched up wave forms. Scrunched up wave forms also occur naturally in many dangerous situations. A clap of thunder, the screech of a mountain lion, the crash of a falling boulder nearby. Our dislike for dissonance could be the result of evolution.

    The opposite of dissonance, sounds that are harmonized, don’t accompany dangerous situations and perhaps lull the mind into feeling that all is well. Perhaps that is the reason for the universal appeal of music.

  • MusicMan

    Music always felt like an abstract metaphor for the structure of thought.

    I guessed it may have something to so with occupying idle brain processing methods on a new auditory signal source… but I guess that story was motivated by my way of idly listening to music.

    Interesting article! Definitely one which would inspire un-researched contributions from all!

    :)

  • http://climatechangepsychology.blogspot.com Tenney Naumer

    Music is everywhere in the natural world. Dried seed pods rattle. Hollowed logs make a different sound than solid wood. Pebbles on the beach clatter. Waves pound. Leaves and grasses rustle. Rain patters. Then of course there are the animals singing all around. Even whales sing. Music stirs the deepest and most ancient part of the brain. It stirs the emotions. My infant daughter sang herself awake in the morning and sang herself asleep at night. I sure didn’t teach her.

  • http://none Del McKenna

    Music is the next best thing to silence in expressing the inexpressible.
    The first Men lived in inexpressible Bliss, consciously and constantly aware of the presence of the Creator within them. Heavenly music was filling their ears and hearts with joy and inspiration. This is how Manknd was meant to be. Experiencing the physical life in Bliss. Hostile forces in the form of Satan and his angels took human form and began seducing the women knowing full well that they would lose contact with the Creator within them. So began the story of Man’s decline which continues to this day. Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms composed beautiful music, but it is not like heavenly music – the music of the spheres – for once you have heard it, it is never to be forgotten.

  • http://ht9paradox.tumblr.com Miles

    Interesting article and comments. Though my first thought was art imitating nature. It seems logical to me that our early ancestors were far more concerned with staying alive than creating a culture, or in this case an aspect of culture. The theory of music in cultivating potential mates is interesting but not necessarily the founding of music itself.

    In a pre-agrarian society, I wouldn’t put it past our ancestors to take note of mating rituals of their prey. In doing so they may have noted the mating call. While not necessarily “music” it was a primordial form of song.

    While I’ve no proper education in these ideas I would imagine the first instance of music would have been through mimicry. Our early ancestors may have (as I am not an anthropologist) been the first exploiters of mating calls to lure their prey out from hiding. Their first tools may have been their voices, creating tones foreign to their own dialects. It was teaching their offspring these calls that may have been the founding of what we know as music.

    Later generations within these surviving societies adapted to their surroundings and began making tools to suit their needs. As such, a tool meant for hunting could have easily been used to make what we know as music. It is my hunch, that like many world changing inventions, it was happened upon by accident. Perhaps two hunters waiting for their prey came upon harmony as they practiced their calls?

    Everything else came in time.

  • Matt B.

    In the third paragraph, that should be “interwoven”, not “inter-weaved”. And in the second-to-last paragraph it should be either “the origin of music comes” or “the origins of music come”.

    I was wondering recently if it’s possible to have sound that would seem more like language than human speech, in the same way that oil looks more like water than water to certain insects.

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About Mark Changizi

Mark Changizi is the director of human cognition at 2AI Labs and the author of several books, including Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and The Vision Revolution.

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