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.

Who Has Jurisdiction for Crimes Committed in Space?

iStock/nedelcupaul
iStock/nedelcupaul

It's 2050. Humans have mastered commercial space travel. Hundreds of people pay thousands of dollars to be sent into orbit in a spaceship. Maybe some decide to help colonize Mars.

Then, trouble. A jilted spouse. A smuggled firearm. Perhaps a struggle followed by suffocation. A space traveler is found dead on board a ship or on the Red Planet. Who has jurisdiction over such crimes? Is there such a thing as a cosmic Hercule Poirot? Could someone fall through the cracks and get away with space murder?

To date, no one has been victim of a space crime. But because no one nation can lay claim to ownership of space, the idea of a criminal offense committed outside of our atmosphere is something people have already given some thought to.

According to NASA engineer and instructor Robert Frost, the language of law for galactic felonies would be the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. In Article VIII of the treaty, nations engaging in space exploration agree that they will bear responsibility for the actions of personnel aboard their craft. In other words, if a privatized shuttle from China sees a fight break out among crew members, leaving one injured, China would be the entity responsible for handling legal repercussions.

That varies slightly with the International Space Station, or ISS, which is home to a number of personnel from different nations. In the case of the ISS, an intergovernmental agreement signed in 1998 mandates that the home country of the offender will handle any investigation or prosecution. If the victim is a national of another country, that country will have the right to inquire as to the criminal status of the offender and seek to have jurisdiction over the matter if they feel justice isn't being meted out.

In most cases, space crime sprees would be treated the same as if an offender was traveling in a foreign country or in international waters. If you're a U.S. citizen and decide to bludgeon someone at sea or on the Moon, the various international agreements and national laws would determine how you get prosecuted. (Assuming, of course, you returned to Earth to answer the charges.)

Space crimes pose another intriguing wrinkle. In terra firma investigations, authorities can secure crime scenes, question witnesses, and preserve evidence. Aboard a spaceship or on a distant planet, these procedures would be difficult to perform, and almost impossible to do in a timely fashion. Even if a criminal investigator is on Mars, low gravity will affect blood spatter and bodies may even decay at a different rate than they do on Earth. While an American may be found liable for murder, proving it was malicious and not the result of the dangerous environment would give any prosecutor a headache. A defense attorney, on the other hand, would have a field day questioning defective spacesuits or toxic exposure to strange space chemicals.

Then again, prosecutors may not have to concern themselves with evidence. Thanks to airlocks and restrictive suits, the movement of space travelers is highly monitored. It would be hard to make any plausible deniability about one's whereabouts.

The closest thing to space crime that law enforcement has yet encountered may be crimes committed in Antarctica, the frigid and isolated continent that's unaffiliated with any country but operates under the Antarctic Treaty signed by 54 nations. The agreement declares that the suspect is likely under their home country's jurisdiction. In some cases, the country owning the research station where the alleged crime took place steps in. In 2018, a Russian researcher at Bellingshausen Station on King George Island went after his victim with a knife in the station's dining room. He was charged in Russia, though reports indicate the case has since been dropped. And in 2000, an Australian astrophysicist suspected of being fatally poisoned had an autopsy performed in New Zealand. The exam showed he had ingested methanol, but it remains unknown whether he did so accidentally or whether someone gave it to him. New Zealand police were unable to determine the source.

A person committing murder in space would certainly be held responsible. But whether they'd ever be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt remains very much up in—and beyond—the air.

Why Do Dogs Eat Grass?

iStock/K_Thalhofer
iStock/K_Thalhofer

If something is edible (or even if it's not), many dogs will gladly make a meal of it. But if you see your pet grazing on your front lawn like cattle, it may be driven by something more than its undiscerning appetite. Eating grass frantically can be a sign that a dog is sick.

It's not unusual to see a dog vomit after consuming grass, prompting some pet owners to wonder if their dog ate the grass to soothe its own upset stomach or if the grass is what caused its symptoms in the first place. According Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club, this behavior is sometimes a response to symptoms that were already present. "When dogs go outside and gobble grass really quickly, there's usually a reason, an instinctual behavior to try to induce some kind of gastrointestinal reaction," he tells Mental Floss. "When they realize they're nauseous or something else, the only thing they know how to do is to force themselves to vomit. Some dogs that eat grass chomp it down without really chewing it, and often times may vomit something up and that's how they treat themselves."

Despite it being a common issue for pet owners, little research has been done into why dogs eat grass. It's likely that stomach problems only explain this behavior part of the time. In other situations, a dog may eat grass for the same reason it eats your shoes or the groceries you left on the kitchen counter: Because it's hungry, anxious, or bored.

So how can you tell when your dog is munching grass for pleasure and when it's trying to induce itself to vomit? Pay attention to the way it eats. Dogs are omnivorous, meaning they eat both plants and animals, so just eating grass alone normally won't be enough to make it sick. But if a dog is gorging on grass faster than it can chew it, that may be an indication that something is wrong. Whole blades of grass can irritate a dog's throat and stomach lining, potentially causing them to throw up if they swallow a lot of them in a short amount of time.

No matter the reason for your dog's grass-eating habits, Klein says that they aren't a major issue. The behavior shouldn't be encouraged, as grass in public places can potentially carry harmful chemicals like pesticides, so stop your dog if you see it grazing. But if it shows no signs of illness or discomfort afterward, there's no need to rush it to the vet. "If I see a dog eating grass, I'm not going to panic. I would try to stop it and then monitor it to see how it acts in the next 15 to 20 minutes. Look at how the dog's acting, its body shape and movement, and the feeling you get from the dog."

One condition related to vomiting that would warrant a trip to the vet is something called bloat. This happens when a dog's stomach fills with air, causing it to retch without actually throwing anything up. This is a medical emergency and can be deadly if left untreated.

A dog who vomits after eating grass and looks happy afterward, on the other hand, is probably not a cause for concern—though you may argue otherwise when you're steam-cleaning your carpet.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, send it to bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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