August 26, 2012 @ 12:52 pm
Sunday morning on NPR is the closest I get to a ritual. I do the dishes; I clean the kitchen floor; I start a crockpot dish (if I’m being really efficient); I listen to the radio.
This morning was one of the best I’ve heard recently. Morning edition had a great little piece on “where did music come from?”
As in, when did music evolve? And what is music for? They conclude that it is a social bonding technique, a way of defusing tensions and boosting our feel-good oxytocin levels. I don’t disagree with that, but they left out the equally important competitive aspects of music. Music is a really good way to compete for the attentions of the opposite sex non-violently. Check out this graph – pretty old now, and other work has been done since, but it’s still striking – on male vs. female art production.
Notice that these are pop albums, for public display. Not that women don’t sing or play instruments, but that women don’t need to sing or play publicly to compete with other women. Notice also that the peak doesn’t come until age 30, well after the peak of physical and sexual performance. So it may also be a way for slightly older, out-of-shape, broke dudes to compete with both the young muscle-heads and the rich old men.
I’m so sad that Bob Edwards has stopped podcasting his weekend shows, because now I can’t just link out to them. I have to remember what was said, and for a fantastic interview like today’s with journalist and magician Alex Stone, that’s too much. The interview was essentially a plug for his book, but it ranged over the history of magic, modern magical subculture, the neuroscience of magic – lots of fascinating stuff. For instance, the first sleight-of-hand manual was written to protect magicians from being burned at the stake during witch trials (as in "Look, it's a trick! I'll show you how I did it. I'm not in league with the Devil!"). Uri Geller has never admitted to being a magician rather than an actual psionic mutant like Charles Xavier, but Stone witnessed him accepting an award from a stage-magician society, at which point he said something like, I’m not a magician; but thank you. I’ll have more on the neuroscience part later.
For the moment, Stone talked about psychologist Paul Ekman’s concept of the “duper’s delight.”
According to what I remember from Stone, the amount of delight is supposed to be based on three things: how effective the fooling is, how hard the person is to fool, and how much appreciation we get for it. Seeing a trend there? Magic as cultural performance? That rings less true, as I don't meet a lot of magic groupies (one student who was obsessed with Criss Angel being the exception who proves the rule). Stone talked about how magic is focused on secrecy, so that it’s difficult to tell how good a magician is compared to other magicians. That makes it a little different from music, where the competition is on things that are out in the open, although even there, real virtuosos rely on their reputations among other musicians for a lot of their prestige. As we discussed in episode 28, I personally can’t tell if my old buddy Tom has messed up a little bit during a choral performance. I can barely spell Bach. I have to rely on him to tell me that he messed up. So, culturally, through thousands of hours of practice, we’ve pushed our biology beyond what it normally does. Tom may be a bit over-optimized for the original purpose of mating competition, in the sense that only a trained female musician could even tell how good he is.
Hour two on Bob Edwards, Hybrid Reality, was equally good in a different way, focusing on the coevolution of culture and technology. The authors are part of a community of people who call themselves futurists. They’re basically science fiction authors without the personal, social, storytelling focus. They tell stories at the level of societal trends -- sort of a technological mythology of the future. They often work as consultants for businesses, or start businesses themselves. I've always been a little suspicious of them. I prefer the SF model, where authors explicitly celebrate the fact that they are making shit up. Futurists want you to believe them and take their predictions seriously. I’ll have to save any discussion of their book for another day, although here’s their website.
Miller, Geoffrey F. Sexual selection for cultural display. The Evolution of Culture. 1999.