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  • Evolution and Musical Origins: A Review Essay
  • Mark Germer
The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body. By Steven Mithen. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005. [ix, 374 p. ISBN 0-297-64317-7. £20.00.] Illustrations, bibliography, index.
Nature’s Music: The Science of Birdsong. Edited by Peter Marler and Hans Slabbekoorn. Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic, 2004. [xviii, 513 p. ISBN 0-12-473070-1. $75.00.] Plates, illustrations, bibliography, index, 2 compact discs.
The Singing Life of Birds: The Art and Science of Listening to Birdsong. By Donald Kroodsma. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005. [xii, 482 p. ISBN 0618-40568-2. $28.00.] Plates, illustrations, index, compact disc.

A brief but haunting passage in Karel Cápek's utopian satire Válka s mloky (War with the Newts, 1936)—in which the industrialized world, through a series of "economically viable" steps, colludes in the devastation of its own environment—conjures the image of giant salamanders emerging from the waters of a South Sea lagoon and commencing to sway together in the moonlight. Observers record impressions that the behavior seems ritualistic; others claim that it must be a collective dance. What makes the moment memorable—a writer's cognitive ploy—is Cápek's confidence in his readers's certainty that amphibians simply do no such thing. Human beings may convene to twirl or undulate in rhythmic communion, from great throngs in stadiums executing sophomoric semaphore to the temporally disciplined couplings of joust and pas de deux. (The benchmark study here is William McNeill's Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History [Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press, 1995]; but on the "musical geometry" employed in pursuit "of virtues both bellicose and pacific" [p. 67] see now Kate van Orden's Music, Discipline and Arms in Early Modern France [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005]) Synchronized sensorimotor alignment, requiring cognitive feats of somaesthetic and kinaesthetic processing as well as anticipatory precision, occurs rarely in the vertebrate clades. Nothing resembling it exists among nonhuman primates in the wild (except possibly the coordinated chorusing and duetting of several species of gibbon—an exception, if allowed, of the rule-proving variety). Here the parallel with human language seems unavoidable, and so it is that much of the literature on the evolutionary origins of music-making flows from investigations into the neurobiology of communication (see, e.g., Marc Hauser et al., "The Faculty of Language: What is it, Who has it, and How did it Evolve?," Science 298, no. 5598 [22 November 2002]: 1569–79).

Nor is there evidence for interactive synchronizing of nervous systems in the palaeontological record of early hominids, including the phylogenetic branch ending in Homo neanderthalensis, the focus of Steven Mithen's new contribution to the nascent field of cognitive archaeology. In The Singing Neanderthals, Mithen undertakes to survey recent developments in evolutionary psychology, anthropology, and neuroscience, in an elaborate exposition of Charles Darwin's hypothesis that human [End Page 944] musical behaviors—from liturgical choreography to the "impassioned" intonations of oratory—derive from a protolinguistic phase of hominid prehistory (The Descent of Man [London: Murray, 1871], 880). Following Darwin and many successors besides, an account of the vocal and neural substrates for language necessarily plays a framing role. Mithen not only marshals evidence for music's origins in a kind of affective, nonreferential protolanguage, he also proposes a matrix of conditions for the subsequent (i.e., post-Neanderthal) emergence of the language capacity itself. But it is fair to say that a clear grasp of the relationship between the language and music functions remains elusive and controversial, and caution is called for. One of the chief difficulties has to do with the modularity of mental functions. Like consciousness itself, language and music do not seem confined to specific modularities within the brain, but rather involve integration across multiple subsystems through the establishment of neural networks. In fact conclusive data appear to be accumulating (with the aid of functional magnetic resonance imaging [FMRI]) that networks comprising all the brain structures activated in language processing and once thought to be domain-specific for language also become activated during the processing of musical information (see, e.g., the results in...


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