A musician I know, who shall remain nameless (you know who you are) said recently that “a well sounded chord by a chorus of voices is better than really great sex.” The point was made to emphasize where music fits into his hierarchy of priorities and no doubt pleasure.
It is a sentiment that probably few would agree with (great sex, after all, is so elusive) but really we should not be surprised to hear it. Those who have a strong reaction to music, body movement or color may well find themselves becoming musicians, dancers or artists respectively. Those of us with more common sensitivities naturally pursue our artistic interests with less passion.
Yet since it was uttered, I can’t let the quip go. Not because of what was meant, but because it so perfectly illustrates an idea that underlies my beliefs about the forces that shaped human evolution â€“ a topic I’m rather enamored with.
For the moment, let us leave aside all thoughts of divinity. Let’s simply say that spiritual influences on man are part of the Polar system of mapping and for now we shall dwell on the Cartesian.
When we think about evolution, we tend to think about physical characteristics: why, say, I have blond hair, you have black hair and why we aren’t all covered in fish scales. However the expression of genes extends beyond the boundaries of our bodies. The songs of birds, the nests they build, the architecture of beaver dams and the mating dances of spiders are all extensions of genetic code into physical space. They are what Richard Dawkins calls “the extended phenotype.” (Our genetic code is our “genotype” ; the expression of genes as physical traits are the “phenotype”; their interaction with the world the “extended phenotype”).
There is a grave misconception that evolution is a process that simply hones survival traits. It thus follows that all behaviour which cannot be attributed to enhancing one’s chances of survival are either an accidental byproduct of nature or, in absence of any suitable scientific explanation, a gift from God (for time eternal, God has been the caretaker of mysteries â€“ however dwindling that treasure trove has become).
The error in this thinking is elusively obvious. A peacock’s tail does nothing for its chances of survival. In fact it makes him much easier prey to any creature with a taste for fowl. But it does make the peacock rather popular with the peahens and therein lies the answer. Survival doesn’t matter much in the evolutionary sense if you are unable to pass your genes on to the next generation. If, however, you succeeded in prodigious copulation before the end of a short life, you will have qualified as a fit survivor in so far as the gene pool is concerned.
The whims of sexual preference thus have a huge impact on evolution. A characteristic that is attractive to the opposite sex may be as valuable as one that keeps you out of the clutches of predators.
What is the survival value of a head of thick, shiny hair? We are the only primates which sport such a display. You can spend all day long hypothesizing about its value as a protector from cold and sun… but none of these theories explain why an individual will spend $200 on an intensive conditioning treatment and a dye job. Once sex becomes part of the equation, the significance is obvious. Our ancestors liked a full head of hair and we continue to do so in the present. Monitoring your likes and dislikes over the course of a day is as good a study in evolution as any.
But back to music. Am I suggesting that music is the result of a sexual manifestation â€“ a bubbling over of sexual energy perhaps? Not at all.
Let us look for a more objective example. Humans are not the only artists in the animal kingdom. The male bowerbirds of Australasia have fairly well developed artistic abilities in the area of installation art. They create brightly coloured nests up to 9 feet high â€“ a significant feet for a bird of only 6 ounces. But are the nests simply a means to an end? Are they built simply to lure female bower birds? Is this the epitomized love nest?
The desire to build such nests appear to be complex adaptations in their own right. Bowerbird are bent on building these nests whether or not the females show up.
Geoffrey Miller illustrates the point brilliantly in his book “The Mating Mind”:
“Males of many bowerbird species spend virtually all day, every day, building and maintaining their bowers. If you could interview a male Satin Bowerbird for Artforum magazine, he might say something like
“I find this implacable urge for self-expression, for playing with color and form for their own sake, quite inexplicable. I cannot remember when I first developed this raging thirst to present richly saturated color- fields within a monumental yet minimalist stage-set, but I feel connected to something beyond myself when I indulge these passions. When I see a beautiful orchid high in a tree, I simply must have it for my own. When I see a single shell out of place in my creation, I must put it right. Birds-of-paradise may grow lovely feathers, but there is no aesthetic mind at work there, only a body’s brute instinct. It is a happy coincidence that females sometimes come to my gallery openings and appreciate my work, but it would be an insult to suggest that I create in order to procreate. We live in a post-Freudian, post-modernist era in which crude sexual meta-narratives are no longer credible as explanations of our artistic impulses.”
Fortunately, bowerbirds cannot talk, so we are free to use sexual selection to explain their work, without them begging to differ.”
The bowerbirds do not build their nests to get laid, but it just so happens that those who are best at it, happen to get laid the most.
Would Mick Jagger be a musician if it didn’t come with the fringe benefit of female groupies? We can debate it. Would Mozart?
Being a good musician is certainly an attractive quality. Whether or not a person is pursuing musical interests for the badge of sex appeal or for pure love of the art doesn’t matter much. Sometime, long ago, those with musical ability were rewarded with a slight edge in their ability to get genes into the next generation. The genes propagated enough that today, all humans have basic music abilities (to appreciate if not to create) and generations of sexual preference for the best musical talent has resulted, in some individuals, what we recognise as musical brilliance.
If you have any doubt that as modern, rational creatures we have evolved beyond a primal reaction to musical talent, I have a group of sopranos to introduce to you not to mention an alto or two. I have previously reported a slight mass hysteria with regards to one of our conductors and given the behaviour of a few others, I’d have to speculate that even our “weird” (his own description â€“ I would have been kinder) resident conductor has a few of the ladies going soft on him. Then again, that also might be due to our genetic predisposition for great hair.
I wish I could get orgasmic over really great music but I cannot. I am certainly carried away by brilliant sound and would not be without music in my life, but I’m obviously not predisposed to this extreme reaction.
I will, however, trade a great idea for an hour of great sex – trade the musician for theories about his existence. If an idea captures my imagination, I can live off the rush for days. I trust, therefore, that having a restless mind once carried more sex appeal than it does today.
If not, God has a lot to answer for.art music science features genetics music science