Did Humans Invent Music?
Did Neanderthals sing? Is there a “music gene”? Two scientists debate whether our capacity to make and enjoy songs comes from biological evolution or from the advent of civilization.
What’s new in arts and entertainment. See full coverage Music is everywhere, but it remains an evolutionary enigma. In recent years, archaeologists have dug up prehistoric instruments, neuroscientists have uncovered brain areas that are involved in improvisation, and geneticists have identified genes that might help in the learning of music. Yet basic questions persist: Is music a deep biological adaptation in its own right, or is it a cultural invention based mostly on our other capacities for language, learning, and emotion? And if music is an adaptation, did it really evolve to promote mating success as Darwin thought, or other for benefits such as group cooperation or mother-infant bonding?
Here, scientists Gary Marcus and Geoffrey Miller debate these issues. Marcus, a professor of psychology at New York University and the author of Guitar Zero: The New Musician and The Science of Learning and Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of The Human Mind, argues that music is best seen as a cultural invention. Miller, a professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico and the author of The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature and Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior, makes the case that music is the product of sexual selection and an adaptation that’s been with humans for millennia.
Gary Marcus: We both love music and think it’s important in modern human life, but we have different views about how music came to be. In Guitar Zero, I argued that music is a cultural technology, something that human beings have crafted over the millennia, rather than something directly wired into our genomes. Why do you think music is a biological adaptation?
Geoffrey Miller: Music’s got some key features of an evolved adaptation: It’s universal across cultures, it’s ancient in prehistory, and kids learn it early and spontaneously.
Marcus: “Ancient” seems like a bit of stretch to me. The oldest known musical artifacts are some bone flutes that are only 35,000 years old, a blink in an evolutionary time. And although kids are drawn to music early, they still prefer language when given a choice, and it takes years before children learn something as basic as the fact that minor chords are sad. Of course, music is universal now, but so are mobile phones, and we know that mobile phones aren’t evolved adaptations. When we think about music, it’s important to remember that an awful lot of features that we take for granted in Western music—like harmony and 12-bar blues structure, to say nothing of pianos or synthesizers, simply didn’t exist 1,000 years ago.