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Religion And Music… And Lions

03 Sep

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So this was an interesting post about the role of music in human evolution. The general gist of music is that it is more “primitive” than actual speaking. The book that’s being reviewed, Joseph Jordania’s Why Do People Sing?: Music in Human Evolution, is admittedly only theoretical, but it’s still pretty interesting nonetheless.

The post itself is relatively short and can be read pretty quickly, but some facts the author of the post points out that need a theoretical framework to make sense of are:

  • When our ancestors first moved from the forest to the savannah, we were not yet capable of making tools. But early hominid evolution tended away from a physiology that would have helped us hunt and/or defend ourselves from predators. Our canine teeth receded, we became slower and weaker, and we didn’t develop tough skin (in fact the opposite).
  • Lion evolution and migration seems to have mirrored early hominid patterns, both spatiotemporally and (in some ways) behaviorally and morphologically. Lions, for example, are the only social species of cat.
  • Humans are the only ground-dwelling species that sings. There are over 4000 singing species — mostly birds, but also gibbons, dolphins, whales, and seals. But they all sing from water or the trees. When a bird lands on the ground, it invariably stops singing.
  • Of all singing creatures, humans are the only ones who use rhythm.
  • When we sing, we almost always dance, even if it’s just nodding along or tapping a foot. Both singing and dancing (whether together or separate) are group activities used across the world in tribal bonding rituals. Isolated ethnic groups have remarkably similar styles of song and dance.
  • Rhythmic chanting and dancing induce trance states.
  • Early hominids quite possibly ate their dead, and (some while later) definitely started burying them. The instinct to preserve a dead human body from mutilation, and then to dispose of it, is fairly universal. E.g. we strive to retrieve corpses even from a battlefield.

Jodania’s main thesis is:

My suggestion is that our ancestors turned loud singing into a central element of their defence system against predators. They started using loud, rhythmic singing and shouting accompanied by vigorous, threatening body movements and object throwing to defend themselves from predators.

As I’ve pointed out many times, our brains are optimized for social activity and not intellectual activity. Meaning that things that promote group bonding will be things that feel good, such as singing together, dancing together, supporting your group’s arguments, and so forth; all of these things promote empathy. And empathy is a leading indicator in god-belief.

This might explain why that all came about in the first place. I mean, if you think about it, singing together in harmony seems pretty arbitrary. Why would your brain release Oxycontin when you dance in harmony with a group? Defense from predators seems like one likely explanation. And in that ancient context, isolation was pretty deadly. In the modern world, loneliness is actually physically unhealthy, which probably prompts us to seek out groups which have human-designed methods for increasing group bonding, like church or god.

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Posted by on September 3, 2013 in cognitive science

 

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