Mortal Rituals

How social norms make us human

Song and Dance as Information

The evolutionary origins of song and dance

Earlier this month (October 14th), Chicago Cubs fans marked the ten-year anniversary of the infamous “Bartman” incident. Steve Bartman, along with a handful of other Cubs fans, attempted to catch a foul ball hit down the left field line of Wrigley field and in doing so knocked the ball away from Cubs left fielder Moises Alou. Had Alou caught the ball, which seemed highly likely, the Cubs would have been a mere four outs from going to their first World Series since 1908. (Because Alou was reaching into the stands, the umpire ruled against invoking the fan interference rule). Instead, the missed out commenced one of baseball’s most spectacular – and for Cubs fans – painful, unravelings. A wild pitch, an error, a few walks and hits later, and suddenly the Cubs, who had been up 3-0, were down 8-3 to the Florida Marlins.

 Though the game wasn’t over and a game seven still awaited; it seemed to all present that an inevitable death-spiral had been set into motion by the Bartman-induced missed out. The ensuing heap of insults, threats, and beer hurled Bartman’s way chased him from Wrigley’s “friendly confines,” surrounded by security. Over the next days and years, many theories have been offered to explain why blame was so intensely affixed to this one fan, despite the fact that he was not alone in reaching for the ball, nor was he guilty of throwing any wild pitches, committing any errors or surrendering any hits.

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Here’s my theory – not intended to supersede the others – but to complement and maybe deepen them. What focused ire so squarely on Bartman was not what he did, but what Alou did. Immediately after the ball was deflected from his grasp, Alou slammed his glove to the ground, shouted and glared angrily at fans. He was justifiably upset. But, intended or not, his actions were not just “heat of the moment” venting – they were informative.

 In formal terms, information is any signal that reduces uncertainty. The greater the reduction in uncertainty, the more informative the signal. For example, the missing z in “_en” (consider the possibilities: pen, den, hen, men, Ken, Ben, etc.) is more informative than in “_ebra” (zebra, what else could it be?) because it eliminates many more possibilities. Alou’s tantrum (announcer Thom Brennaman described him as being “livid”) informed Cubs fans about the gravity of the moment. How differently might events have unfolded if Alou had just shaken his head in disgust and jogged back to left field, or if the ball had dropped twenty rows deep? But having been duly informed about the pivotal nature of the moment, both fans and players began to feel fate’s fatal pull.

 Cubs fans are no different from the rest of us. Homo sapiens are and always have been avid information-seekers. We search for any available signs or indicators to help us build expectations and plan future actions. Important members of our group or tribe (such as our all-star left fielder) were often important sources of information. But according to anthropologist Edward Hagen and psychologist Gregory Bryant, rituals, especially those involving synchronized singing and dancing may have been another important informational source in our evolutionary past.

 Imagine two tribes confronting each other over some valuable resource, such as a water source or prime hunting ground. Assessing the strength of one’s foe would undoubtedly involve counting: Do they have more warriors than we do? But numbers aren’t everything. An equally important question would be about how well-organized and disciplined they are. Many animals, such as wolves, coyotes, and chimpanzees, use coordinated vocal calls (howls and pant-hoots) as a means of territorial defense. Our ancestors probably acted similarly. However, over time calls and shouts probably evolved into something more sophisticated and informative – song and dance.

 Rituals involving singing and dancing are universal among traditional societies. Welcoming strangers and preparing for confrontations are two circumstances where singing and dancing are common. In both cases, the rituals are information-bearing: they tell onlookers something about the strength and stability of the tribe as a functioning coalition. If they can master and expertly executed the intricately coordinated vocal and gestural movements necessary for an impressive song and dance performance, then they are probably as equally well-disciplined and well-organized on the battle field. They would make either strong allies or formidable foes.

 Furthermore, the information transmitted in the performance is not just about the group, but about individuals as well. A good singer/dancer may make a good mate; and not only because of his or her individual dance-related qualities (discipline, vigor, skill, etc.) but also because he or she is part of a strong tribe. This might help to explain the ongoing appeal of jiggling-gyrating NFL cheerleaders and slickly-spinning boy bands. While some of us may see all of this as just senseless (and maybe even exploitive) fluff, its origins may have been far more serious and substantive.

Further reading:

Hagen EH and Bryant GA 2003. Music and dance as a coalition signaling system. Human Nature, 14, 21-51

 Hagen EH and Hammerstein P 2009. Did Neanderthals and other early humans sing? Seeking the biological roots of music in the loud calls of primates, lions, hyenas, and wolves. Musicae Scientiae, 291-320.

 

Matthew Rossano, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Southeastern Louisiana University.

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