Why Did We Evolve To Like Music?

Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

Suzanne Sadedin:

Existing theories seem incomplete, so here's another one. I think music is a side effect of the evolution of self-awareness and love.

Music does have a lot of features we associate with sexual competition. It's (historically speaking) an honest display of abilities, it exploits supernormal stimuli, and it's sexy. But if those things were sufficient for its evolution, it would be widespread in other species. Instead, music seems to be nearly unique to humans.

In most species, displays are simply flamboyant exhibitions of individual prowess. Every peacock aims to have the biggest, flashiest tail; there is none of the complexity or diversity we associate with music. Guppies appreciate novel colors in their mates, but they do not evolve increasing complexity.

Closer to human music are the songs of certain birds. While nobody would deny that most bird song is some sort of sexual competitive signal, song complexity isn't consistently linked to sexual selection at all. And relatively complex and varying birdsongs, such as those of the song sparrow, can be generated using simple algorithms. Nothing in the animal world even remotely approaches the complexity and diversity of human music.

It's also often suggested that music contributes to group bonding, which could be advantageous for a species like ours, where inter-tribal competition may have influenced evolution. And since humans are unusual in that sense, it also helps explain the uniqueness of music. There's plenty of evidence that music does play this role. However, group selection is typically a weak force, while music is a costly feature; it's hard to see how the former could be sufficient to account for the latter.

Perhaps music evolved as a sexually selected feature which was co-opted under group selection. But perhaps there's a bigger hole in our thinking.

What neither idea seems to explain at all is why music is, well, musical. Why should group or pair bonding involve the sort of fractal complexity, continual novelty, and specificity of taste that sets music apart from common birdsong?

 

Here's why—maybe.

Hofstadter in Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid argues that consciousness is a recursive computational process. Self-awareness in addition implies that the conscious mind contains a model or representation of the self.

What is this model? Why represent yourself, when you can simply be yourself? The answer, presumably, is that most of the mind is not conscious, nor even accessible to consciousness. So to have insight into your own behavior, you mentally model yourself in much the same way you model other people.

You see the problem. Modeling other conscious, self-aware minds requires an internal conscious, self-aware mind for every mind you model. Each of these models must in turn have its own models of other conscious, self-aware minds … and so on to infinity.

Our brains do not have infinite capacity. So what do we do when we encounter an infinitely recursive process? Curl up in despair? No! We approximate. We gaze as deeply as we can into the fractal, stretching the limits of our cognitive capacity. And then we acknowledge and accept those limits. We marvel at the tininess of the self in the wondrous grandiosity of the universe. We are overcome with spiritual joy.

In other words, we congratulate ourselves on our willingness to face the limits of our comprehension. Why does this make us feel good? It's adaptive.

We are a highly social species. Many researchers believe that human cognition was, for much of our evolutionary history, stuck in a positive feedback cycle of social selection. That is, those of our ancestors who could better understand and predict others had greater evolutionary fitness, which made each succeeding generation harder to understand and predict than its parents.

So: it's advantageous to enjoy peering into the depths of interesting fractals, because that stretching of cognitive ability is precisely what's required to model minds better than our peers. And music is mostly interesting fractals.

I want to take things a little further. Let's talk about love.

We're not just social. Lots of animals are social, and most of them are utter jerks. Humans, along with many birds and a few mammals, have unusually strong, lasting cooperative relationships among unrelated adults. We have love and trust.

 

But how do you evolve trust? I've puzzled over this for years. We understand perfectly well how cooperative relationships can be adaptive; for example, if your partner is likely to punish your defection severely, and hiding defections is too hard. But that doesn't explain trust.

I trust you means, precisely, that I'm not policing your defections. I'm not monitoring the evidence to check if you've betrayed me. I'm not setting in place punishments for all the awful things you might do. I'm not even worrying about them.

And I think we all want trusting relationships. I don't know anybody who would be OK with believing that their partner's honesty was only a consequence of the fear of punishment—let alone their own.

Obviously, trusting saves a lot of effort and conflict in a relationship, which makes it adaptive. But it's also vulnerable to exploitation, hence the evolutionary problem. According to standard theory, the moment you know I trust you, your motivation should change to exploit me. But I should know this, and therefore not trust you in the first place.

A solution to this quandary is emotional commitment. Love in the form of emotional commitment is a self-modification that alters our cognitive payoffs to favor the interests of the other. If I love you, then I literally cannot hurt you without hurting myself. If I love you, then making you happy literally makes me happy. If love is mutual, then our interests become aligned. And that enables trust.

How do we create love? By a process of massive cognitive remodeling. Our brains must learn to respond to the stimuli of the other with extreme, unique pleasure, and they must learn how to likewise uniquely stimulate the other. To do that effectively, we create the most profound representation we can of the other, and imbue that representation with almost as much significance as we attach to our self-representation. And in a two-way relationship, that representation must contain a self-representation, containing an other-representation … and so on down the recursion rabbit-hole.

That, I think, is a big part of what courtship and friendship do in species with long-term relationships. It's an intimate mutual rewiring in which our brains gradually learn to play and be played; we allow the other unique insight into our self-model, so they can learn to uniquely reward us; and vice versa. Love makes us vulnerable and powerful at the same time. In keeping with this idea, pair-bonding, rather than simply social group size, is the most widespread predictor of brain size evolution in other species. Among primates, brain size and sexual competition are negatively correlated.

Our ancestors won their success in part because they were able to create and maintain trust. So they evolved to love, and loving required them to find unparalleled pleasure in the effort to contain an infinite depth that they could never really grasp.

So the sense of immersion in fractal depth feels like love, because that's what the experience of loving is. And when we encounter an audible fractal process that happens to stimulate our brains with a culturally attuned interleaving of familiar and foreign, self and other, we willingly immerse ourselves in it. We don't just like music. We love it.

So … music, love, and fractal representations of the other … what all that amounts to is an unprecedented excuse to link this Arcade Fire song:

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

How Does Alberta, Canada, Stay Rat-Free?

Francisco Martins/iStock via Getty Images
Francisco Martins/iStock via Getty Images

David Moe:

Alberta is the only province in Canada that does not have any rats and is, in fact, the largest inhabited area on the planet that is rat-free. Rats had to come from Eastern Canada, and it’s a long walk, so it was not until the 1950s that they finally reached Alberta. When they did, the Alberta government was ready for them: They instituted a very aggressive rat control program that killed every single rat that crossed the Alberta/Saskatchewan border.

The Agricultural Pests Act of Alberta, 1942 authorized the Minister of Agriculture to designate as a pest any animal that was likely to destroy crops or livestock; every person and municipality had to destroy the designated pests. Where their pest control was not adequate, the provincial government could carry it out and charge the costs to the landowner or municipality.

Rats were designated as pests in 1950. An amendment to the act in 1950 further required that every municipality appoint a pest control inspector. In 1951, conferences on rat control were held in eastern Alberta, and 2000 posters and 1500 pamphlets titled "Rat Control in Alberta" were distributed to grain elevators, railway stations, schools, post offices, and private citizens.

Between June 1952 and July 1953, [more than 140,000 pounds] of arsenic trioxide powder were used to treat 8000 buildings on 2700 farms in an area 12 to 31 miles wide and 186 miles long on the eastern border. Some residents were not informed that arsenic was being used and some, allegedly, were told that the tracking powder was only harmful to rodents. Consequently, some poisoning of livestock, poultry, and pets occurred. Fortunately, Warfarin—the first anticoagulant rodent poison—became available in 1953; Warfarin is much safer than arsenic, and in fact is prescribed to some heart patients as a blood thinner.

The number of rat infestations in the border area increased rapidly from one in 1950 to 573 in 1955. However, after 1959, the numbers of infestations dropped dramatically.

The provincial share of rat control expenses increased to 100 percent in 1975. All premises within the control zone from Montana to Cold Lake are now inspected at least annually. Rat infestations are eliminated by bait, gas, or traps. Buildings are occasionally moved or torn down, and in some cases, rats are dug out with a backhoe or bulldozer. In the early days they also used shotguns, incendiaries, and high explosives to control rats. It was something of a war zone.

Hundreds of suspected infestations are reported each year, but most sightings turn out to be muskrats, pocket gophers, ground squirrels, bushy-tailed wood rats, or mice. However, all suspected infestations are investigated.

A few white rats have been brought in by pet stores, biology teachers, and well-meaning individuals who did not know it was unlawful to have rats in Alberta, even white lab rats or pet rats. White rats can only be kept by zoos, universities, colleges, and recognized research institutions in Alberta. Private citizens may not keep white rats, hooded rats, or any of the strains of domesticated Norway rats. Possession of a pet rat can lead to a fine of up to $5000.

In 2004 someone released 38 rats in Calgary. By the time the rat control officers arrived, most of them were dead. The local residents had formed a posse and killed them with brooms, 2x4s, and shovels. If the authorities had caught the culprit, he could have faced a $190,000 fine (38 x $5000)—assuming his neighbors didn’t get to him with brooms, 2x4s, and shovels first. Albertans don’t want rats.

This post originally appeared on Quora. Click here to view.

Why Do Students Get Summers Off?

Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images
Iam Anupong/iStock via Getty Images

It’s commonly believed that school kids started taking summers off in the 19th century so that they’d have time to work on the farm. Nice as that story is, it isn’t true. Summer vacation has little to do with tilling fields and more to do with sweaty, rich city kids playing hooky—and their sweaty, rich parents.

Before the Civil War, farm kids never had summers off. They went to school during the hottest and coldest months and stayed home during the spring and fall, when crops needed to be planted and harvested. Meanwhile, city kids hit the books all year long—summers included. In 1842, Detroit’s academic year lasted 260 days.

But as cities got denser, they got hotter. Endless lanes of brick and concrete transformed urban blocks into kilns, thanks to what was known as the “urban heat island effect.” That’s when America’s swelling middle and upper class families started hightailing it to the cooler countryside. And that caused a problem. School attendance wasn’t mandatory back then, and classrooms were being left half-empty each summer. Something had to give.

Legislators, in one of those if-you-can’t-beat-‘em-join-‘em moments, started arguing that kids should get summers off anyway. It helped that, culturally, leisure time was becoming more important. With the dawn of labor unions and the eight-hour workday, working adults were getting more time to themselves than ever before. Advocates for vacation time also argued (incorrectly) that the brain was a muscle, and like any muscle, it could suffer injuries if overused. From there, they argued that students shouldn’t go to school year-round because it could strain their brains. To top it off, air conditioning was decades away, and city schools during summertime were miserable, half-empty ovens.

So by the turn of the century, urban districts had managed to cut about 60 schooldays from the most sweltering part of the year. Rural schools soon adopted the same pattern so they wouldn’t fall behind. Business folks obviously saw an opportunity here. The summer vacation biz soon ballooned into what is now one of the country’s largest billion-dollar industries.

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