Quibbles, clouds and stars

I have realized that my quibbles are not so much critical of what I have read or seen (like the Cosmos post 3/23/14) as an excuse to talk about broader issues.  So, take Daniel Levitin’s book, This is Your Brain on Music, a good and interesting read.  My first quibble is that you read 3/4 of the book before music is referred to as art, and then it is by quoting someone else.  Prior to that he talked about musical gestalts and communicating emotion in a manner reminiscent of a monkey’s cry about a hawk or tiger evoking the appropriate defensive action.  Art is the epitome of presentational symbolic forms as articulated by Susanne Langer and it is not limited to an emotionally evocative event.  Yes, I understand and appreciate that for science to move forward empirically, some reductionism is required, but Ms. Langer has provided us with a  generous basis for understanding art as a biological act.  I wish more people were acquainted with her opus.  My suggestion: Robert Innes’s excellent book, Susanne Langer in Focus.  To understand our humanity we seek greater or deeper understanding and perspective, like knowing where we are in the galaxy.


My second quibble is also related to the reductionistic bias.  In the orthodox view, for music to be deemed a successful evolutionary development, it must enhance our reproductive success.  Music attracts mates or music provides social cohesion.  However many mutations have contributed to our musical abilities, none were presciently successful or adaptive.  Even now perhaps one of those mutations will contribute to our extinction.  Yes, musical ability, at least virtuoso performing, matures early on and contributes to mating (or so every young guitar or drum player claims, but talk with the accordionists sometime) but much music goes on after mating and child rearing.  We are not salmon expiring having spawned.  Is our extended old age an unintended consequence of some mutations (well, yes actually, all such consequences are unintended), a cultural manipulation for sentimental or historical purposes, a serious adaptation that ensures our species’ survival?  Sure, the gold standard of the biological sciences is evolutionary success but as powerful as that measuring stick is, it does not adequately capture the full range of biological phenomena nor our thinking about it.  Consider the question, “By what do you measure?”  If you want to understand the motions of the stars, watching the clouds flow in the wind, as beautiful as they are, is not that helpful.  We sell our biological understanding too short.


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