Huron, Pinker, and Western Lenses on Evolution of Music

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Music psychology is a tricky field to work in. While human cultures the world ’round have what western musicologists would refer to as music, there’s a fair amount of variation in what music “means” to each culture. This has lead many astray to the endless void of relativism: if the meaning and role of music is at least somewhat different from culture to culture, then it’s impossible to identify universals in music or even suggest that music is an evolved ability. Not only is this an intellectual dead-end, it lacks any explanatory power. (Isn’t the notion that cultures are relative an inherently Western view in and of itself? The mind doth boggle.)

As relativists attempt to peck away at music, so do some empiricists. Steven Pinker gained quite a bit of notoriety when he remarked that music was were “evolutionary cheesecake.” Huron puts this a bit nicer and suggests that music might be a function of NAPS, or NonAdaptive Pleasure Seeking. Roughly speaking, the idea is that music is not an evolved trait, per se, but it emerges from other abilities and stimulates existing pleasure systems. Huron cites heroin and alcohol as other examples of NAPS. Goodness! I’m not convinced music is in the same category, but I think I get the idea.

Both Pinker and Huron point out that music doesn’t seem to directly aid in physical survival activities such as eating, sex, or seeking seeking shelter. I think there’s plenty of logical arguments to counter such a claim, but the point is that they’re just that: logical arguments. Post hoc reasoning, at that. There is a lot of face validity to saying music aids in mate selection or food gathering activities, but these arguments are not falsifiable in any reasonable way. I will gladly concede this point to them: I’ve never sang a sandwich into existence.

But now I’d like to go back to the relativists that I was kicking around at the beginning of this post. Pinker and Huron seem to be thinking about survival in physical terms only, and this is a very Western view. Humans have physical and emotional needs, and those emotional needs shouldn’t be discounted so quickly.

Here’s a simple example: music can help treat depression. And people that suffer from depression are much more likely to die than people without it. This doesn’t require the logical juggling of other arguments about mate selection or food gathering. Music directly benefits emotional and mental health, and that helps keep people alive. It’s just harder to see it when we use our Western lenses, which devalues mental and emotional health.

Obviously, this is the briefest of overviews, but I hope it illustrates the point that just because music may/not help in basic physical survival needs, it can help keep people alive. And to me, that’s a strong case for music having evolutionary value.

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