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ONE Why Do Birds Sing? And Other Tales In 1913, Henry Oldys, a biologist working for the US Department of Agriculture, wrote enthusiastically to readers of the nation’s premier journal of bird science, The Auk, “Astonishing and revolutionary as it may seem, there is no escape from the conclusion that the evolution of bird music independently parallels the evolution of human music.”1 Born in 1859, the year Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species, Oldys was part of a generation exposed to controversial new ideas about the role animals played in human social and cultural development. In the foreground of this controversy were the names of Darwin and Herbert Spencer, whose ideas about the animal origins of human song put birdsong on the map of the new science of cultural evolution. Over the course of the next century, thinkers like Oldys increasingly took up the question of how animals, especially birds, were tied to the evolutionary origins of song. As music historian Robert Lach explained, the question “Why do birds sing?” was seen by scholars of culture and science as “the key to the problem of the origin of language and music.”2 At its heart, this was a question that meant rethinking the capacity for music, raising surprisingly complex questions not only about animals, but about human beings and just how special their musical abilities really were. Why do birds sing? By asking this question at all, intellectuals such as Lach and Oldys imagined a capacity for music that held forth the tantalizing promise of connecting song, still imagined today as deeply human, to a totally alien world of nonhuman experience. The evolutionary discourse that developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries around Darwin’s and Spencer’s texts debated the relation of these two worlds, struggling to fill the gap between the music of modern civilized humans and the primal sounds of their animal ances- 18 Animal Musicalities tors. The unknown space of this gap contained the key to a biological science of culture, in an era deeply invested in justifying racial hierarchies through science. As evolutionary historian Peter Bowler has explained, “virtually all evolutionists [at this time] accepted the linear image of human origins and used it to justify prevailing racial prejudice.”3 It is a period in which Darwinian evolution coexisted with diverse theories of saltation, orthogenesis, neo-Lamarckism, eugenics, social Darwinism, and other approaches that invited comparison between biology and culture.4 Against this backdrop, music emerged as one of the “missing links” that promised to fill the gap between biology and culture in evolution’s story with the sounds of animals’ cries and “primitive” human songs. At the center of these debates about music were the works of Charles Darwin and Herbert Spencer. The two men were well known, Darwin for his history of biological evolution in the Origin of Species and Spencer for his studies of human development in works such as The Principles of Sociology. Their theories of music reflected their broader interests: Darwin, the biological historian, argued that music like birdsong affected mate selection and offspring, while Spencer, the social historian, argued that song had to do with the boundary between human reason and emotion.5 For Darwin, birdsong and human song were both legitimate forms of music; for Spencer, only humans made true music. As later authors debated music’s place in evolution, the subtleties of Darwin’s and Spencer ’s arguments were sometimes lost in accounts of Darwin as the defender of animal musicality, and Spencer as his opponent. This discourse took shape across numerous disciplines, sometimes in indirect ways. In this chapter, I reconstruct its main arguments by drawing on voices from a wide range of disciplinary identities and a period spanning several decades, connecting the threads that crossed these disciplinary and temporal divides. The Darwin-Spencer debates about music’s origins mark an initial stage in this discourse, which took place in the late nineteenth century. Its primary contributors were European evolutionists, including the biologists August Weismann and George Romanes, and the British psychologists James Sully and Edmund Gurney. Other voices in these debates, like Lach, were formally trained music scholars from Europe or the United States. They were the first generation of “musicologists,” historians of music who turned away from biographies of great masters like Beethoven and Bach toward a broader-reaching social science inspired by figures such as Spencer.6 A third set of voices in musical evolutionism came from...


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