Simler 2013 Music in Human Evolution
- http://www.meltingasphalt.com/music-in-human-evolution/[blog] Melting AsphaltMusic in Human EvolutionKevin Simler, 30 January 2013
I just finished the strangest, most disconcerting little book. It’s called Why Do People Sing?: Music in Human Evolution by Joseph Jordania.
If the title hasn’t already piqued your interest, its thesis surely will. The thesis is wild, bold, and original, but makes an eerie amount of sense. If true, it would be a revolution — and I don’t use the term lightly — in how we understand the evolution of cooperation, warfare, and religion, not to mention music and maybe even language.
I have my reservations about Jordania’s theory (and his book), but I’ll save them for a later time. As Daniel Dennett once wrote about another remarkable theory:
I think first it is very important to understand [the] project, to see a little bit more about what the whole shape of it is, and delay the barrage of nitpicking objections and criticisms until we have seen what the edifice as a whole is. After all, on the face of it, [the project] is preposterous… [but] I take it very seriously.
These are exactly my feelings about Jordania’s project. Seemingly preposterous, but worth taking very seriously.
0. Stylized facts
I’m going to share Jordania’s theory with you, but first I want to present a set of “stylized facts” — curious, disparate, and nearly inexplicable phenomena that would seem to have little relation to each other. Then I’ll present the theory that (uncannily) links them all together and explains everything.
OK, brace yourself. Here come the facts:
- When our ancestors  first moved from the forest to the savannah, we were not yet capable of making tools. But early hominid evolution tended away from a physiology that would have helped us hunt and/or defend ourselves from predators. Our canine teeth receded, we became slower and weaker, and we didn’t develop tough skin (in fact the opposite).
- Lion evolution and migration seems to have mirrored early hominid patterns, both spatiotemporally and (in some ways) behaviorally and morphologically. Lions, for example, are the only social species of cat.
- Humans are the only ground-dwelling species that sings. There are over 4000 singing species — mostly birds, but also gibbons, dolphins, whales, and seals. But they all sing from water or the trees. When a bird lands on the ground, it invariably stops singing.
- Of all singing creatures, humans are the only ones who use rhythm.
- When we sing, we almost always dance, even if it’s just nodding along or tapping a foot. Both singing and dancing (whether together or separate) are group activities used across the world in tribal bonding rituals. Isolated ethnic groups have remarkably similar styles of song and dance.
- Rhythmic chanting and dancing induce trance states.
- Early hominids quite possibly ate their dead, and (some while later) definitely started burying them. The instinct to preserve a dead human body from mutilation, and then to dispose of it, is fairly universal. E.g. we strive to retrieve corpses even from a battlefield.
I hope you are intrigued. Each of these facts is hard to explain even in isolation. So a theory that can unify and account for all of them will have to be either profound or crazy — or both.
At this point I’m going to present Jordania’s theory as clearly and comprehensively as I can. I’ll interpolate a bit and add my own explanatory flare, but the ideas come straight out of his book. ...
There’s so much more to say about this theory, but I’ll save most of it for another time.
I’d just like to end by showing how some our beliefs and behaviors take on new significance in light of Jordania’s theory, especially those that relate to how we handle the bodies of our dead.
Funerary traditions vary widely around the world, but all have one thing in common: disposal of the body. Mechanisms include burial, entombment, mummification, burial at sea, sky burial , and ritual cannibalism, and even more exotic mechanisms like hanging coffins or tree burial. The common reasons given for disposal practices are all public-health-related, but intentional burial is at least 225,000 years old. Of course our ancestors wouldn’t want a corpse rotting in their camp, but there’s quite a leap from disposal to burial. Why not just drag the corpse away from camp and expose it to the elements?
Jordania’s theory doesn’t predict how exactly we should dispose of our dead, but it predicts that we should care an awful lot about it (i.e. that it should be something sacred), and that we should be especially concerned that the body doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. In Paleolithic times, this ensured that our ancestors retrieved the bodies of their comrades when they were killed by predators. But you can see vestiges of this in historic times — e.g. in our concern for salvaging bodies of the war dead. Mutilating or otherwise desecrating the war dead is an ancient practice, a ghastly way for the victor to show utter dominance over the loser.
And finally, Jordania’s theory helps explain the the religious nature of our funerary practices. Burial has always been a quintessentially religious practice. For example, we date the earliest religious behavior in our ancestors by when they started burying their dead. But religions are fundamentally about the living — a set of beliefs and practices that relate to collective identity and tribal cohesion.
Why do religions care about the disposal of corpses? This has always puzzled me. It’s always seemed like such a mundane concern. When someone dies, that should be the end of what we care about, and removing the body should be no more sacred than taking out the trash. Chimpanzees, for instance, can perceive when another chimp passes away (and mourn), but they soon lose interest in the body.
But if Jordania is right, it’s no coincidence that death rituals are intimately bound up with collective identity, because they’re two parts of the same system.