Sunday, July 05, 2009

Dancing Cockatoos and Ice Age Flutes

Music is sometimes said to be a uniquely human activity that cannot be explained through Darwinian evolution from ancestral species. But the YouTube video of Snowball the cockatoo dancing to the music of the Back Street Boys suggests that music has deep roots in the animal world. With birds like this, we shouldn't miss Michael Jackson.

Recently, Nature published an online article reporting the discovery of a flute that is estimated to be over 35,000 years old. The flute has five finger holes, and it was made from the wing bone of a vulture. It was found in Hohle Fels Cave in Germany, where other such flutes have been found.

The Wall Street Journal has a a good article on this discovery and the scientific debate over the evolutionary origins of music. The video accompanying the article includes a recording of what the flute might have sounded like.

It is surprising, however, that the Nature article makes no reference to Darwin; and the article in the Wall Street Journal claims that Darwin was "baffled" by music, because he could not explain how it could have evolved.

In fact, in The Descent of Man, Darwin has a long section on music. He reported the discovery of "two flutes, made out of the bones and horns of the reindeer, found in caves together with flint tools and the remains of extinct animals." So here, as in so many other cases of supposed new discoveries in evolutionary science, we should see that Darwin was there first!

Some of the scientists studying the evolution of music believe that music evolved among ancient humans before speech, and that speech might actually depend upon abilities shaped originally by music. But, again, Darwin was there first with his claim that "musical sounds afforded one of the bases for the development of language."

And yet one can also see progress beyond Darwin in some critical respects. For example, the use of radiocarbon dating allows for a reasonably precise dating of human archaeology, which was not available to Darwin. Another example of progress would be advances in neuroscience that are now being applied to reasoning about human evolution, so that, in this case, we can infer evolutionary changes in the human brain corresponding to the archaeological evidence for music.

But even as they go beyond Darwin, these new advances in evolutionary science fit within, and deepen, Darwin's evolutionary framework--in this case, Darwin's explanation for how even the highest artistic activities of the human mind might have emerged from human evolutionary history.

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