Music as cooperation/language enabler

By Howard Rheingold, published at 10 May 2007 - 8:12pm, last updated 11 years 1 week ago.

Post-Gazette.com reports on scientific speculation that "Caveman crooners may have aided early human life," signalling availability for cooperation and perhaps laying down the neural substrates for language. This hypothesis was first elaborated with extensive citation by William Benzon in his book, Beethoven's Anvil.

In Steven Mithen's imagination, the small band of Neanderthals gathered 50,000 years ago around the caves of Le Moustier, in what is now the Dordogne region of France, were butchering carcasses, scraping skins, shaping ax heads -- and singing.

One of the fur-clad men started it, a rhythmic sound with rising and falling pitch, and others picked it up, indicating their willingness to cooperate both in the moment and in the future, when the group would have to hunt or fend off predators. The music promoted "a sense of we-ness, of being together in the same situation facing the same problems," suggests Prof. Mithen, an archaeologist at England's Reading University. Music, he says, creates "a social rather than a merely individual identity." And that may solve a longstanding mystery.

Music gives biologists fits. Its ubiquity in human cultures, and strong evidence that the brain comes preloaded with musical circuits, suggest that music is as much a product of human evolution as, say, thumbs. But that raises the question of what music is for. Back in 1871, Darwin speculated that human music, like bird songs, attracts mates. Or, as he put it, prelinguistic human ancestors tried "to charm each other with musical notes and rhythm."

Some scientists today share that view. "Music was shaped by sexual selection to function mostly as a courtship display," Geoffrey Miller, of the University of New Mexico, argued in a 2001 paper. But like Darwin, he bases that conclusion on the belief that music has "no identifiable survival benefits." If a trait doesn't help creatures survive, then it can persist generation after generation only if it helps them reproduce.

Studies in neuroscience and anthropology, however, suggest that music did help human ancestors survive, particularly before language. In "The Singing Neanderthals," which Harvard University Press is publishing Friday, Prof. Mithen weaves those studies into an intriguing argument that "language may have been built on the neural underpinnings of music."