Some things catch on – and some don’t. This basic idea is, to some extent, the underlying concept of evolution. With organic evolution, some qualities of organisms are “selected” (as they facilitate reproductive success and/or survival) and some aren’t. With cultural evolution, some ideas, books, songs, and singers, etc., “catch on” – and some don’t.
Bob Dylan hit the world by storm in the early 1960s – and for whatever reason, this dude and his idiosyncratic musical style and songwriting caught on. His voice is not exactly Frank Sinatra – his guitar playing includes a sour note and an off beat here or there – and his writing can be so esoteric, that it’s hard to know at times who he’s trying to reach. Despite this, he’s pretty much been a living legend for about 6 decades now – and still going strong.
As I’ll argue in this series of blogs, Dylan’s success – which is in many ways unique and unprecedented – owes to the fact that he’s, for whatever reason, perhaps the world’s most intuitive evolutionary psychologist. His understanding of human motives, politics, love, relationships, grief, emotions, and social life is simply extraordinary – and this special understanding he has tells the story of someone who truly gets – and can translate – the elusive beast that we often call human nature.
Historically, Dylan started as a “protest singer” – writing songs about what’s wrong with the world and with large-scale social structures (such as segregation and aggressive warfare between nations). In fact, he was so effective at writing and singing these songs, that he all but created the genre and opened it to an entirely new generation of people.
But then something happened – and this is part of the Dylan legacy. In about 1965, he decided to stop writing songs that were all about protest – and to get an electric guitar and a band – and to start writing songs about all kinds of other things. There was a push-back from his fan base. “How could he do this to us?” “He’s betraying us!” “Judas!!!” etc.
History tells it differently (and it tells it so well). Dylan realized at some point that his unparalleled vision of what it means to be human transcends considerably beyond issues of social injustice. Sure, social injustice matters – and it’s bad. But being a human includes so much more.
Toward this end, in “My Back Pages,” in 1964, Dylan sings, knowingly, “… but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.”
Pretty much, he’s saying that when he was just a young punk in his early 20s, he was going around singing about all the large-scale problems in the world – as if he knew it all and knew so much more than all the 40, 50, 60, and 70+ year old folks who were running the world. At some point, he got humbled. And at about this same point, he seemed to realize that the human animal is much more interesting and complex than can be explicated by protest song alone.
This series of blogs will provide many examples of Dylan-as-Evolutionary-Psychologist. As a teaser, here’s one:
In his classic, Like a Rolling Stone, Dylan is feeling burned by some woman. She apparently didn’t want his companionship. His response? Visceral and mercurial. Angry and annoyed. And he does what he can to bring her down.
“You’ve gone to all the finest schools, alright, Miss Lonely, but you know you only got juiced in it …”
“When you got nothing, you got … nothing to lose …”
“Once upon a time you dressed so fine – threw the bums a dime – in your prime – didn’t you?!?”
... and so forth - bottom line - she's a pretentious knucklehead and Bob really should have never been with someone like her anwway!
As evolutionary psychologists, we know that getting burned in a mateship hurts – and it has dramatic potential fitness-related implications. It could ultimately reduce one's ability to reproduce. And not only does this reduce your probability of mating with some particular partner, but it has potential status implications – bringing you down in your local social ecosystem. How do people respond? Often defensively – vilifying the ex – as a way to bring oneself up – an effort to remain viable in a local mating market. This stuff is Evolutionary Psychology 101 (see Geher, 2014)! And that’s, to me, the magic of Bob Dylan. He may well be the world’s most intuitive evolutionary psychologist.
Dylan, B. (1964). Another Side of Bob Dylan. New York: Columbia Records.
Dylan, B. (1965). Highway 61 Revisted. New York: Columbia Records.