2 roots or 2 lenses &

a heartwarming confluence of ideas

So keen readers of this blog will have realized that I think our humanity stems from 2 roots of our evolution, empathy developing deeply and robustly within our mammalian ancestry and symbolization developing more recently from somewhere within our ancestry, some current still mysterious despite the power of our science to understand such things. I think that is changing as I write. I read (think and write) with those two lenses to help me focus on empathy and symbolization in order to understand what I consider of paramount importance, our humanity, and I am glad I do, because the confluence of findings is, to say it simply, simply beautiful.

For the past 18 months or so I have been reading books about music and the brain (& periodically posting about it here—see posts on  6/17/14, 6/15/14, 11/12/14, 12/17/14, 5/19/15). Most recently I have started reading Origins of Music, a collection of articles presented as the initial text of evolutionary biomusicology. Wow, a third into the book and it is already worth every penny and second spent reading it.   Peter Marler, one of the preeminent early researchers into bird song if you did not know, writes that he believes the creativity evidenced in certain species’ songs may well represent an evolutionary stream contributing to the thoughtful varied expression of human music and language.   Thomas Geissmann, whom I do not know much about, writes that a primate relatively close to hominids, the gibbon, sings duets that may also represent an important contribution to our musical (and linguistic?) abilities.


Mozart the mockingbird, a great singer

Let us look at these through my two lenses, empathy and symbolization.  Marler provides a cogent analysis of the different bird songs such as the acoustic shape of the song, its context and presumed communicative function, e.g., territorial, mating, warning, spacing, etc. He finds that the birds with the most varied songs could perhaps be incipient to human music. The link is the creativity shown in vocal performance along with social communication. (One key difference is the regularity of the beat in human music). These birds, including the mocking bird and the brown thrasher, have, as it were, a creative sense of melody; does this reflect some significant difference in neural processing? Is this difference also manifest in relationships or is bird song, even at its most creative, so constrained by a brain quite limited to some immediate present, i.e., limited by the lack of power to displace information evident in mammalian evolution, heightened in primate and then, especially, hominid minds. These questions are based upon the idea that bird song became music, i.e., became a symbolic form as do all symbols, through the control of displacement from and abstraction of current information. To be plain about it, this is a primary root of symbolization.

Thomas Geissmann likewise provides a cogent analysis of gibbon song, and it turns out to be even more incredible than I previously suspected (see post 6/15/2014 on bird and gibbon songs. My next post will discuss some of these issues further). He focuses on the duets sung by male and female pairs. One most interesting finding is that the occurrence of duets correlates with the social interaction of bonding, e.g., grooming, sharing favored food source, behavioral synchronization, etc. Further, these gibbons are monogamous and they perform their duets, which are not that variable in form, with their partner. Geissmann reports that all primates that sing and not just call and hoot and such like have a monogamous social structure. Ah, song arising from intimacy. The male and female contributions are stereotyped in sequence and acoustical characteristics. Geissmann reports that a pair broken up and forced to bond with a new mate will each develop a new duet specific to that relationship. They do not, as my wife reacted when she heard this study, stop singing forever. I do not know the specifics of the experimental manipulation of forced bonding but I will say that my heart palpitates anxiously at what these scientific ethics entail.


A silver gibbon parent–they sing with their mates

So the main point here is that we have vocal communication serving the empathic relationship. Another feature of gibbon communication figures as an incipient homology to human music. When gibbons sing their duets and communicate vocally with the wider tribe, e.g., “Hey, look at the unfamiliar conspecific”, a stranger as it were, in our domain, they, or at least the females, always move not so much as for practical functions as for expressive engagement, termed more scientifically, a stereotypical locomotor display. Now compare this to what many who have studied the matter think, that music and dance evolved together. The gibbon songs are not so much creative statements of conceptual activity as social attunement. Ah, empathy.

So we have now looked through the dual lenses of empathy and symbolization at what these studies might mean. One of my contentions is that symbolization grew (grows) from the empathic awareness of another’s mind, their hidden subjective domain, in contrast with one’s own, and the subsequent call and challenge to communicate otherwise hidden contents. While birdsong creativity is important, generally only males sing. While primate song is generally stereotypical and not learned from parents, both sexes participate in vocal communication. An early confluence would seem to be between the creative novelty found in bird song and the empathic communication found in gibbons, but how could these different evolutionary streams merge? As I said at the beginning, our understanding of this question is changing as I write.


Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river?

Much more can and will be said about this. For now, Happy New Year, and travel on.