Music: Evolutionary Adaptation?
Evolutionary psychology is an emerging field, challenging the idea that, ‘Evolution is often thought of in purely physiological rather than psychological terms,’ (David Huron, 2003). It is irrefutable that when evolution is mentioned, we typically think of the Fight or Flight response, or some other largely physical response; we rarely tend to associate it with the development of our brain, despite the fact that, ‘Evolution has also shaped our attitudes, dispositions, emotions, perceptions and cognitive functions,’ (Huron, 2003).
Darwin’s ‘Theory of Evolution,’ suggests that evolution’s primary purpose is to promote the survival of a species. This occurs through the process of ‘natural selection,’ wherein small genetic mutations occur, and the those that survive because of advantages due to these mutations will pass on these genes to their offspring, whereas the ‘weaker’ of the species will perish. As a result, the ‘successful’ mutations will gradually be continued through the species as the successful pass them on, thereby promoting the survival of the species. As Huron succinctly puts it; ‘ Evolution proceeds by selecting traits that are adaptive to an organism’s environment.’ Thus, if there is evidence that music is a part of our very evolution, it stands to reason that it must have beneficial effects for our health and survival; could this lie in a role of musical therapy?
Now, many evolutionary scientists have contested the idea that music has any part of evolution. Steven Pinker (a prominent cognitive psychologist) declared in his 1997 book ‘How the Mind Works,’ that ‘Music could vanish from our species and the rest of our lifestyle would be virtually unchanged.’ He went further still to claim, Music appears to be a pure pleasure technology, a cocktail of recreational drugs that we ingest through the ear to stimulate a mass of pleasure circuits at once.’ If this view were correct, then it would be inherently suggesting that music fundamentally serves no value to humanity. If that were the case, how indeed could music possess any level of therapeutic value?
Others have jumped to Pinker’s aid, such as esthetic philosophers, supporting his bold statement, in maintaining that, ‘An essential, defining characteristic of the arts is that they serve no practical function,’ (Dissanayake, 1988). I would challenge this by demonstrating that there is a large, ever-increasing body of evidence to suggest that music is an undeniable part of our evolution, and therefore, has a more significant role to play within our ‘survival.’
Clearly, our survival needs are different today from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, so rather than needing a protective response to ensure we can run from danger, we predominantly have the need to preserve our brains. Due to technological advancements, environmental changes, and a whole host of other factors, we have gradually developed larger brains. We no longer fear for our survival in the same way, and can devote much of our time to ‘thinking,’ which subsequently leads to more and more advancements. As such, it is arguably one of the most important things to promote cognitive and neurological health. I firmly believe that music may well be integral to this preservation.