Tag Archives: Steven Pinker

Art Everywhere

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Some assert that it is a fallacy to compare cultural elements cross-culturally. Sometimes called the “incommensurability thesis,” this position posits that because objects, concepts and behaviors tend to have very specific meanings for the groups that produce them, they must therefore be utterly unique. Variety negates universality. Basically a version of cultural relativism, this attitude emanates from three circles (or, rather, minorities within three circles): philosophers who attack commonalities in human experience; critics who over-emphasize outlier phenomena in order to challenge conventional assumptions; and ethnographers who argue for the absolute uniqueness of the populations they study, in part to elevate their own stature as privileged experts. Yet, just because human activities take heterogeneous forms does not eliminate the possibility of shared motivations.

Steven Pinker argues this point as it relates to the human capacity for language. He concludes in The Language Instinct: “Knowing about the ubiquity of complex language across individuals and cultures and the single mental design underlying them all, no speech seems foreign to me, even if I cannot understand a word.” This observation seems indisputable: language is a biological characteristic of the human species.

Philosopher of art Denis Dutton expands on Pinker’s claim in The Art Instinct. He asks: “Is it also true that, even though we might not receive a pleasurable, or even immediately intelligible, experience from art of other cultures, still, beneath the vast surface variety, all human beings have essentially the same art?” Dutton contends that, like language, artistic behaviors have spontaneously appeared throughout recorded human history. Almost always, observers across cultures recognize these behaviors as artistic, and there is enough commonality between them that they can be placed within tidy categories: painting, jewelry, dance, sculpture, music, drama, architecture, etc. To Dutton, this suggests that the arts, again like language, possess a general omnipresent structure beneath the varied grammar and vocabulary.

It should be noted that Pinker himself has elsewhere challenged this assumption. Most famously, he dubbed music “auditory cheesecake,” or a non-adaptive by-product (of language, pattern recognition, emotional calls, etc.) that serves no fundamental role in human evolution. It is not my intention here to place that hypothesis under a microscope or investigate the many arguments against it. (Perhaps, being a linguist, Pinker sees language as a sort of holy ground that mustn’t be stepped on by “lesser” human activities.) Wherever the evolutionary debates travel and whatever clues or counter-clues they accumulate, one thing is convincing: art appears rooted in universal human psychology.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.


Necessary Cheesecake

Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.

Literature on the origins of music is dominated by two theories. The first is sexual selection, or the idea that animals develop features that help maximize reproductive success. Charles Darwin introduced the concept in The Descent of Man (1871), writing that the human inclination for music came about in much the same way as ornate peacock feathers, lion manes and the antlers of male deer—that is, as sexual enticement. Musical skill, he theorized, stemmed from the biological compulsion to court a mate. Recent scholarship supports this hypothesis, highlighting the performer’s dexterity, creativity and mental agility as signs of fitness and desirability. Evolutionary biologist Geoffrey Miller published a study demonstrating a correlation between music-making and the reproductive life of jazz musicians, whose musical output tends to rise after puberty, peak during young adulthood and decline with parenthood and/or advancing age.

The second prevalent view involves group solidarity. In modern experience, music is regularly used to foster and enhance cohesion. This effect likely originated when small bands of people struggled for survival in the precarious prehistoric world. Populations lacking strong ties stood little chance of continuance, and music—especially song and dance—helped keep them intact. Robin Dunbar of Oxford University contends that while music eventually expanded into the area of courtship, it was group selection—not sexual selection—that prompted its emergence.

These theories frame music as basic to the endurance of our species. They assert that music was born of the necessities of reproduction and solidarity, and continues to be a means of sexual attraction and communal togetherness. However compelling, these functional explanations are not immune from criticism. Among the most prominent opponents is Harvard language theorist Steven Pinker.

Pinker devotes just ten pages to music in his massive book, How the Mind Works. The quick gloss owes to his assertion that music is not an evolutionary adaptation, but a tangential technology: a human capacity developed and exploited for its own sake. Although musical sounds tickle our requisite capacities for language, auditory scene analysis, emotional calls, habitat selection and motor control, they are, in Pinker’s phrase, “auditory cheesecake.” Like the decadent dessert, which over-stimulates our biological desire for fat- and sugar-rich foods, music supplies us with an oversupply of sound. An article in The Economist likened Pinker’s assessment to calling instrumental playing “auditory pornography” and singing “auditory masturbation,” both of which sate an appetite that is beyond strict biological need. In other words, if music were to vanish from our species, little else would change.

Although widely disseminated, Pinker’s proposition contains at least two faulty assumptions. The first is his argument that music-making is the domain of a small subset of people, and thus not a universal trait essential for survival. This reflects an understanding of music as it exists in the modern West, where professionalization and music as entertainment have done much to inhibit the participation of large segments of the population—a phenomenon unknown for most of human history and in contrast to many places in the world today. The second is his point that music is variable in its complexity from culture to culture, thus indicating an aesthetic rather than fundamental purpose. This may be an accurate comment on the nature of musical diversity, but does not negate the possibility that music production, generally speaking, began as a human need.

Nevertheless, Pinker’s analysis is a worthy challenge to the assumed evolutionary significance of music. It could very well be that music is an enhancement rather than a building block of human life. Yet it takes little effort to harmonize the biological theories with Pinker’s contrarian view. For instance, it is possible that music originated as a sexually selected feature, developed into a group-selected trait, and over time became an attraction in itself. It began as raw material for survival and, in some ways and in some cases, took on the qualities of “audible cheesecake.” Music may no longer be essential for human life, but life’s enjoyment would certainly be diminished without it.

Visit Jonathan’s website to keep up on his latest endeavors, browse his book and article archives, and listen to sample compositions.