The Singing Neanderthal (Bookslut)

Music moves the human body (our feet tap, our bodies sway) and the human heart (our emotions beat in time to a song’s pulse). Every child in every society creates music, defined to include song and dance: it’s a fundamental activity of Homo sapiens.

And it’s a mystery too, full of questions in major and minor keys. Major: Why and when did music evolve? Why is music of all kinds capable of stirring our emotions, transporting us into our past after a few chords? Minor, but not unrelated: Why some days, rifling through my CDs, do I pass Vivaldi, Satie, even Springsteen, in a craving for (wait for it….) Hall and Oates? Yes, some fortunate persons’ memories are triggered by the taste of madeleines, whereas others’ get saddled with Hall and Oates songs. Just one snippet — She’s deadly man, and she could really rip your world apart/ Mind over matter/ The beauty is there but a beast is in the heart — transports me two decades back in time and halfway across the country, ancient feelings bestirred.

Given its emotional power, it’s odd to discover that music’s evolutionary history has been neglected. Theories about the origins of technology and language crowd anthropologists’ shelves, but most evolutionists fall silent about music. In The Singing Neanderthal: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body, British archaeologist Steven Mithen sets out to redress this gap.

On page five, Mithen commands attention by announcing a dual intention to take on academic superstar Steve Pinker’s (The Blank Slate, How the Mind Works, The Language Instinct) views on the evolution of music and to atone for his own “embarrassing” past neglect of music (The Prehistory of the Mind). I was hooked; Pinker-worthy, non-ego-driven scientists don’t grow on trees. Happily, this initial promise of provocation is fulfilled, for Mithen offers a fascinating argument about the evolutionary relationship between music and language. To be precise, it is provocative, fascinating and, I think, quite wrong on multiple points. But how much fun is it, really, to curl up with a book that lulls you into placid agreement? (more…)