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We're wired to sing

New science shows an evolutionary reason for our love of Mozart and Carly Rae Jepsen: It binds us together

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David P. Barash
July 7, 2012 11:00PM (UTC)
This article is an adapted excerpt from the new book "Homo Mysterious," from Oxford University Press.

Poor Alfred Russel Wallace! Virtually unknown these days compared to Darwin, Wallace was one of the 19th century’s greatest biologists and perhaps the preeminent field naturalist of all time. Those who have heard of Wallace know him primarily as the codiscoverer, with Darwin, of natural selection. But whereas Darwin had laboriously worked out the details, with copious examples from the living world, over a period of decades, Wallace literally came upon the principle of natural selection in a kind of brainstorm, a moment of epiphany while he lay in a malarial fever at a remote island campsite in what is today Indonesia.

The story has oft been told: Barely recovered from his illness, Wallace sent Darwin a brief manuscript setting out “his” theory, which in turn nudged Darwin to speed up publication of the much lengthier book — "On the Origin of Species" — that Darwin had been perfecting, more or less in private, over many years. Less well known is the fact that Wallace parted intellectual company with Darwin when it came to explaining one particular aspect of one particular species: the mental capacities of Homo sapiens. At issue here were the “loftier” functions, those associated with music, poetry, dance, literature, painting, and sculpture — those activities that we loosely gather together as “higher culture” or, more simply, art.


“The evolution of Homo sapiens in the past million years,” writes philosopher Denis Dutton,

is not just a history of how we came to have acute color vision, a taste for sweets, and an upright gait. It is also a story of how we became a species obsessed with creating artistic experiences with which to amuse, shock, titillate, and enrapture ourselves, from children’s games to the quartets of Beethoven, from firelit caves to the continuous worldwide glow of television screens.

Worldwide, people create, admire, and value things and even concepts (songs, stories, poems, etc.) that are of no immediate practical import. That is to say, they make art. And they started doing so very long ago: The earliest cave art — from Chauvet in France — is believed to date from about 30,000 BC.

“There are good reasons to suspect that we may need biology as well as culture to explain art,” according to Brian Boyd, professor of English at the University of Auckland:

(1) it is universal in human societies; (2) it has persisted over several thousand generations; (3) despite the vast number of actual and possible combinations of behavior in all known human societies, art has the same major forms (music and dance, the manual creation of visual design, story and verse) in all; (4) it often involves high costs in time, energy and resources; (5) it stirs strong emotions, which are evolved indicators that something matters to an organism; (6) it develops reliably in all normal humans without special training, unlike purely cultural products such as reading, writing, or science. The fact that it emerges early in individual development — that young infants respond with special pleasure to lullabies and spontaneously play with colors, shapes, rhythms, sounds, words, and stories — particularly supports evolutionary against nonevolutionary explanations.

At the same time there are good reasons to suspect that the biological explanation for art will not be obvious, or easy. Why is this? Simply put, although it is no mystery that biology underpins art, it is not at all obvious why it does so.

One likely prospect involves the social role of the arts. True, the solitary, struggling artist is something of a cultural icon, but one that is pretty much limited to Western society, and to the last century or so at that. Although it is notoriously difficult to compose, or to write, paint, sculpt, or otherwise spin creative gold out of cerebral straw with an audience literally breathing down one’s neck, the reality is that overwhelmingly, even if art is typically made in solitary splendor, it is performed and experienced with others. But why?

For some intriguing research that speaks to this question, consider work by evolutionary psychologists Sebastian Kirschner and Michael Tomasello. Their report, titled “Joint Music Making Promotes Prosocial Behavior in 4-Year-Old Children,” strongly suggests that music fosters social bonding and group cohesion. Four-year-old children were induced to make music together — dancing and singing — and were then matched with other 4-year-olds who had been given similar levels of physical activity and linguistic interaction, but without the shared music-making. Members of the two groups were then exposed to identical opportunities to help each other in a staged event in which the children had been trying to transfer marbles from one location to another, but in all cases the devices were rigged so that one child literally lost her marbles.

The results were clear: Children who had previously made music together were significantly more likely to spontaneously help each other. Even in those rare cases when assistance was not forthcoming, the music makers were more likely to spontaneously explain why they weren’t helping, implying that they felt a greater obligation or inclination to do so. The researchers suggest that the key is shared involvement in a coordinated task:

We propose that music making, including joint singing and dancing, encourages the participants to keep a constant audiovisual representation of the collective intention and shared goal of vocalizing and moving together in time — thereby effectively satisfying the intrinsic human desire to share emotions, experiences and activities with others.

Music goes far back in human antiquity, including the recent discovery, in southwestern Germany, of ancient flutes from at least 40,000 years ago. No one can doubt that music has powerful effects on mood and emotion. It is important to distinguish between music as an innate and universal human penchant — what anthropologists identify as a “cross-cultural universal” — and the societally generated specificity of musical forms, from Gregorian chants to rap, from simple lullabies to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. Music, in short, is everywhere, although its details vary greatly.


The same is true of the arts generally, and although a group-focusing, coordination-generating function may well be especially intense when it comes to music, it is at least possible that a similar adaptive payoff is associated, to varying degrees, with all of the arts. If cooperation is good for society, then maybe music in particular and the arts in general have been selected for as a way of achieving it.

Another cluster of hypotheses looks at music and the other arts as having evolved as a means of achieving coordination and collaboration within that most intimate social “group,” consisting of mother and infant. The prime mover in this interpretive enterprise is Ellen Dissanayake, who makes a compelling case that the key driving force has been the mother-infant bond, which in turn facilitates early learning, as well as basic coordination between young child and its primary caretaker, enabling this biologically crucial dyad to maintain “contact” even when not literally touching.

Although the mutual rituals of mother and infant do not occur with the conscious intention of generating cohesion, this universal dyadic dance could be the source — both developmental and evolutionary — of much human artistry. Dissanayake points out that we use a simple word, “ceremony," to encompass much that is complex and artistic, but as she sees it, this is actually “a one-word term for what is really a collection or assembly of elaborations of words, voices, actions, movements, bodies, surroundings, and paraphernalia” that ultimately ramifies into songs, chants, dance, drama, mime, and so forth. Dissanayake’s important ideas in this regard are cogently presented in her book, Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began.

When it comes to mother-infant interaction, the details of what is communicated are probably less important than the fact of communication itself — more accurately, maintaining lines of communication. To be sure, not only are lullabies universal, but there is a predictable pulse, rhythm, and pitch employed by adults worldwide when interacting with infants. Perhaps, as one researcher has put it, “the melody is the message.” Once established in the mother-infant dyad, it could have ramified to the rest of society.


For Kirschner and Tomasello, the most important proximate mechanism promoting the evolution of music is what they call “shared intentionality,” which operates via a collective sense of having moved and created together. Note that the resulting “creation” need not be a physical object; making music together can do quite nicely. Kirschner and Tomasello argue that music-making children “made the intuitive decision to help the other child because they felt immediate empathic concern with the peer’s misfortune” when she began to lose her marbles. Absent the “shared intentionality” of singing and dancing, such empathic concern was diminished.

Music has long been highly functional in work situations, where it enables greater coordination among the participants, hence the proliferation of songs in which people aren’t just subtly encouraged to cooperate — the kind of unconscious motivated altruism revealed among children by Kirschner and Tomasello — but also encouraged to be directly functional in adult work situations. Chain-gang songs from the American South motivate participants to pull, push, pound with a hammer, and so forth, and ethnomusicologists have documented similar coordinative singing around the globe when it comes to threshing wheat, pounding cassava, grinding corn, etc. Any doubters might want to listen (on YouTube, for example) to a Russian classic, "The Song of the Volga Boatmen" (“Yo-ho, heave-ho; Yo-ho, heave-ho . . .”). It is almost impossible to refrain from pulling an imaginary rope at the powerful intonation of “heave.”

A similar process may well have helped coordinate and motivate our ancestors preparing for a hunt or for combat. Think about marching songs and chants and of the little-known Dutchman, Maurice of Nassau, prince of Orange (1567–1625). Maurice, one of the most important innovators in military science, originated the close-order drill. More than 400 years after he introduced this technique, it still permeates basic training worldwide. The sight of soldiers marching — and sometimes singing and chanting — in unison may seem an almost comical anachronism given today’s high-tech military technology, but as Maurice first codified it (and before him, as innumerable tribal war leaders may well have intuited), shared rhythmic sound and movement generates the kind of de-individuated coordination that evidently pays dividends. “When a group of men move their arm and leg muscles in unison for prolonged periods of time,” writes the noted historian William McNeill,

a primitive and very powerful social bond wells up among them. This probably results from the fact that movement of the big muscles in unison rouses echoes of the most primitive level of sociality known to humankind . . . Military drill, as developed by Maurice of Nassau and thousands of European drillmasters after him, tapped into this primitive reservoir of sociality directly. Drill, dull and repetitious though it may seem, readily welded a miscellaneous collection of men, recruited often from the dregs of civil society, into a coherent community, obedient to orders even in extreme situations when life and limb were in obvious and immediate jeopardy.

In a subsequent treatise, "Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History," McNeill expanded on this theme, albeit without explicitly noting its evolutionary dimension. McNeill pointed out as well how “dance and drill” help to achieve and emphasize group identity, a phenomenon that also predominates as much in nonmilitary contexts. Consider the extent to which teenagers and young adults in particular identify themselves by their particular musical preferences.

It probably isn’t coincidental that on September 12, 2001, the politically diverse and ideologically disunited membership of the US Congress — wishing to show solidarity in the face of a national tragedy — gathered on the steps of the US Capitol and sang "God Bless America." Together.


Interestingly, there is considerable evidence from research in social psychology that music making itself may be less important than cooperation in any shared enterprise. Eating together, for example, also creates a bond, which is one reason why “breaking bread” with a stranger is often considered an especially important ritual among many cultures. We might expect a similar effect from digging a ditch, building a wall, and so forth. One of the most renowned demonstrations in social psychology, the so-called robber’s cave experiment, artificially generated an alarmingly high degree of animosity among 12-year-old boys at a summer camp by designating them as members of different, competing groups, the “Eagles” and the “Rattlers.” At one point, mutual antagonism became so great that it was nearly decided to terminate the experiment prematurely.

The researchers found, however, that they could essentially eliminate the between-group conflict by introducing a superordinate goal that could only be achieved by Eagles and Rattlers working together: specifically, pushing a tanker truck up a hill (without which, it was claimed, the camp would have no water). The social atmosphere was so changed after this intervention that the boys unanimously voted to return home in the same bus.

There have been other, related suggestions, such as the possibility that music in particular emerged as a display signal, by which individuals chorused together and thereby advertised the strength of their coalition, indicating not only their numbers but also the degree of their commitment. Another hypothesis, similar although not identical, is that music making was less important as a means of achieving internal cohesion within a group than as a way of displaying their unity to competing groups.

Among other potential proximate contributors to the appeal of the arts in general — and perhaps of music in particular — a notable one is the so-called chameleon effect, based on the widespread power of unconscious mimicry. Consider, for example, how often people find themselves unintentionally mimicking each other’s physical postures while talking.

These hypotheses, with their various versions of cohesion/coordination/commitment, all imply a degree of group benefit, and therefore, each is subject to the same concerns with regard to possible group-beneficial aspects of religion. For example, group benefits are vulnerable to cheating (e.g., someone might sing lustily, but not actually participate in dangerous intergroup competition if push came to shove). If so, then the signal itself wouldn’t be entirely reliable and might not be taken seriously by the intended audience: “Sure, these guys can sing up a storm, but maybe their bark is worse than their bite.” Nonetheless, it is hard—even downright foolish—to deny the role of art in generating social solidarity. Whatever the reasons human beings create and enjoy art – and given the diversity of the arts, there are probably many such reasons – it seems clear that Wallace was wrong: Like sex, hunger and religion, art emerges, somehow, from our biology.


Reprinted from Homo Mysterious: Evolutionary Puzzles of Human Nature by David P. Barash with permission from Oxford University Press, Inc.  Copyright © 2012 by Oxford University Press, Inc.

David P. Barash

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. He has specialized in the ecology and evolution of animal and human social behavior, has written more than 250 peer-reviewed articles and 38 books, plus numerous op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, as well as regular pieces in aeon, Nautilus, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among others.

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