Music as Technology, Innovation & Part of Human Evolution

by on July 3, 2009 · 5 comments

Check out “Magic Flute: Primal Find Sings of Music’s Mystery” in yesterday’s WSJ. The article describes the development of music as a central part of what Jacob Bronowski called the “Ascent of Man“:

“I believe that before we evolved language, our communication was more musical than it is now,” says cognitive archaeologist Steven Mithen at the University of Reading in England, author of “The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body.” Unlike Darwin, Dr. Mithen is convinced that music was crucial to human survival. “Using music to express emotion or build a sense of group belonging would have been essential to the function of human society, especially before language evolved prior to modern humans.”

The discovery of the world’s oldest musical instrument—a 35,000-year-old flute made from a wing bone—highlights a prehistoric moment when the mind learned to soar on flights of melody and rhythm.

Researchers announced last week in Nature that they had unearthed the flute from the Ice Age rubbish of cave bear bones, reindeer horn and stone tools discarded in a cavern called Hohle Fels near Ulm, Germany. No one knows the melodies that were played in this primordial concert hall, which sheltered the humans who first settled Europe. The delicate wind instrument, though, offers evidence of how music pervaded daily life eons before iTunes, satellite radio and Muzak.

…the ability to create musical instruments reflects a profound mental awakening that gave these early humans a crucial edge over the more primitive Neanderthal people who lived in the same epoch. “The expansion of modern humans hinged in part on new ways of storing symbolic information that seemed to confer an advantage on these people in competition with Neanderthals,” Dr. Conard says.

To Dr. Patel, music-making was a conscious innovation, like the invention of writing or the control of fire. “It is something that we humans invented that then transformed human life,” he says. “It has a profound impact on how individual humans experience the world, by connecting us through space and time to other minds.”

If even something as central to our daily lives as music is, in fact the result of technological innovation over time and if technology can, as with music, change the way we think, communicate and build communities, I can’t help but wonder:  What will our descendants think thousands of years from now as they look back on the rise of today’s web and social networking technologies? If nothing else, this sense of perspective should make us better appreciate how important the development of communications media really is to the future of the human species.

Impossible as it is to predict how that staggeringly complex process will unfold—e.g., will Google make us smarter or stupider?—I’ll just humbly suggest that, rather than try to tinker with the future course of the species by trying to fine-tune public policy today to produce the “right” outcome, we would do better to follow the same principle that has guided the medical profession for 24 centuriesFirst, Do No Harm. In other words, if we don’t know what the effects of regulatory intervention in new media will be in the long-term, we’d be better off to leave well enough alone.

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