Sexual Selection of Rock and Roll
Sexual Selection of Rock and Roll
Posted Mar 28, 2011
Your parents warned you: Rock and Roll would lead to sex and other sinful activities. When I was a teenager, I certainly hoped that was true. Your parents might have been right. Sex may be the whole point of music.
But is sex really the point of music? Some people, such as Steven Pinker, have argued that music is evolutionary fluff. In other words, music serves no purpose, at least in terms of evolution. In essence, the cognitive abilities that enable humans to create music originally evolved for some other purpose. Once the abilities existed, we simply borrowed them for music. For Pinker, that original purpose was language. Language had an evolutionary point -- your potential ancestors with language possessed survival and reproductive advantages. Once you have language, poetry and song follow along as a side benefit. According to Pinker, music ability is not the product of natural selection because it created no survival or reproductive advantage. In human evolution, music was worthless.
For people who study music cognition, those were fighting words. Daniel Levitin, for example, directly argued that music is the product of natural selection (check out his brilliant, readable, entertaining, and informative book: This Is Your Brain on Music). Music, he argued, is a product of sexual selection, a type of natural selection. Sexual selection works when animals choose mating partners who display reproductive fitness. The peacock's tail shows that he has plenty of energy. And the peahens love a guy with lots of energy and a big tail display.
Through music and dance, you can display your reproductive fitness (just like a peacock with a big tail). Levitin argued that if you can sing and dance for a long time, then clearly you have abundant energy resources and the stamina to run down that fast food meal (like an antelope, not a burger). If you can remember songs and complex dance steps, then you have the mental capability to handle a complex environment. If you can create new songs, then you may have the creativity to respond to a changing environment. Singing and dancing advertise your fitness to potential reproductive partners.
Once people started using music as an indicator of reproductive fitness, then sexual selection would accentuate the ability. More music equals better fitness. This begets a feedback loop of sexual selection and reproductive advantage. The better you can sing and dance, the more reproductive opportunities will present themselves to you (a fancy way of saying you get more sex).
Levitin argued that there is compelling evidence for music being an evolved capability. First, many other animals use music for sexual selection -- listen to all those birds singing their hearts out for potential mates now that spring is in the air. Levitin also noted that musical ability meets the criteria for inherited traits -- being ubiquitous in humans and having dedicated brain areas, for example. Music ability also develops early in all humans (see my earlier post on Rolling Stones, Babies, and Song Recognition). In addition, he observed that people seem to be particularly interested in music and dance during their prime reproductive years. He wrote "more 19-year-olds are starting bands and trying to get their hands on new music than 40-year-olds, even though the 40-year-olds have had more time to develop their musicianship."
Creativity is sexy - this is the clinching argument in some ways. Men and women are generally attracted to traits in potential mates that indicate reproductive fitness. These traits make someone sexy. Sexiness predicts that the offspring you have with that partner will be sexy as well - a good strategy for passing along your genes. Creativity may be one of these sexy traits. In a clever experiment, Haselton and Miller (2004) asked women to rate men as potential partners for a short-term relationship. The women rated a creative but poor artist as particularly attractive when they were ovulating -- that is, when the women were fertile. Levitin argued from this data that women want creative men to supply the genetic contributions for their offspring. The women may not want the men around for a long-term relationship, but that creative guy might provide good genetic material. Levitin also noted that rock stars already seem to know this. Mick Jagger has had far more reproductive opportunities in his life than the average man. His musical performances make him sexy (indicate he is a good reproductive partner), even though he isn't really that good looking. Of course if you make your rock and roll fitness display and you are cute and have nice hair, imagine the reproductive opportunities (did someone say Justin Bieber?).
Steven Pinker argued that music is evolutionary fluff, something extra riding along on language which did the real work for natural selection. I wonder if that isn't backwards. Perhaps music guided a lot of the basic natural selection of the innate abilities to communicate. Language may then be the fluff that came along for the rock and roll sexual selection show.