Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Can we know the evolution of human cognition?

According to Dick Lewontin (evolutionary biologist, geneticist and social commentator) there is no way to know the evolution of cognition. He argued that we should ‘give up the childish notion that everything that is interesting about nature can be understood. [..] It might be interesting to know how cognition (whatever that is) arose and spread and changed, but we cannot know. Tough luck.’ (Lewontin, 1998:130)

In the study of the evolution of music cognition, we will have to take into account this critique. So, do we better stop right now, or is there a way to deal with this criticism? (See also Bolhuis & Wynne, 2009.)

While it became quite popular to address music cognition from an evolutionary perspective, there is still little agreement on the idea that music is in fact an adaptation, that it influenced our survival or that it made us sexually more attractive. Music appears to be of little use. It doesn’t quell our hunger, nor do we live a day longer because of it, so why arguing that music is an adaptation?

Are there indeed no arguments to show that music has played a more direct and shaping role in man’s evolutionary development? Or should music be considered as a sexually selected trait, a trait that evolved to attract partners rather than to improve survival chances? Or is music, as Pinker suggested, no more than a pleasant side effect of more important functions, such as speech and language?

Recently a number of interesting papers appeared (see references below) on the possibilities and impossibilities (Heyes, 2012; part of a special issue by The Royal Society dedicated to this topic) and the prospects and pitfalls of studying the evolution of cognition, music cognition being no exception (Honing & Ploeger, 2012; Marcus, 2012).

See also the Science Daily. Heyes, C. (2012). New thinking: the evolution of human cognition. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367 (1599), 2091-2096 DOI: 10.1098/rstb.2012.0111

ResearchBlogging.orgHoning, H., & Ploeger, A. (2012). Cognition and the Evolution of Music: Pitfalls and Prospects Topics in Cognitive Science, 4 (4), 513-524 DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01210.x Marcus, G. (2012). Musicality: Instinct or Acquired Skill? Topics in Cognitive Science, 4 (4), 498-512 DOI: 10.1111/j.1756-8765.2012.01220.x

1 comment:

  1. I'm not sure, because I didn't read those papers, whether music has been looked at as a means to pass on information rather than something pretty to be heard. There are several cultures that use song as means to tell their history. Music could have easily evolved as a means to pass on information in a way that could be easily remembered and readily recalled. I would imagine that a hunter gather singing a song that gives details of a common hazard or predator will do better off in the long run and by long run I mean pass on one's genes of course, than a hunter gather that is not able to recall this readily. The challenge of course is how did this initially evolve in the first place? It could of easily been a byproduct of language development that eventually became adaptive. However, that is very speculative and in fact this entire comment has been highly speculative and I would ask that you pardon my ignorance on the matter.