Design for Living

A vintage demurral to the old saw that people become musicians primarily to pick up girls/guys:

The voice of man.—The same remark will apply to another peculiarly human character, the wonderful power, range, flexibility, and sweetness, of the musical sounds producible by the human larynx, especially in the female sex. The habits of savages give no indication of how this faculty could have been developed by natural selection; because it is never required or used by them. The singing of savages is more or less monotonous howling, and the females seldom sing at all. Savages certainly never choose their wives for fine voices, but for rude health, and strength, and physical beauty. Sexual selection could not therefore have developed this wonderful power, which only comes into play among civilized people. It seems as if the organ had been prepared in anticipation of the future progress of man, since it contains latent capacities which are useless to him in his earlier condition. The delicate correlations of structure that give it such marvellous powers, could not therefore have been acquired by means of natural selection.

That’s the British naturalist Alfred Russell Wallace in 1870, in an article called “The Limits of Natural Selection as Applied to Man.” Now, obviously Wallace is concerned with bigger game than an evolutionary motivation for groupies. You might not get it from this bit, but Wallace—who independently came up with the idea of natural selection, prompting Charles Darwin to finally get his own 20-year-old theory into print—in a lot of ways tried to out-Darwin Darwin, divining the hand of natural selection where even the father of the idea demurred. Darwin and Wallace were friendly colleagues, but where the former saw useful explanations, the latter saw dogma.

That’s what’s getting Wallace into trouble in this passage, which like the rest of the article, catalogs human traits and abilities that don’t seem to be necessary for survival—and then (to Darwin’s horror) attributes them to the hand of a higher power. All the talk about “savages” results from Wallace’s view, fairly liberal for the time, that “primitive” races around the world weren’t inferior to “higher” races, in terms of ability or brain size. Nonetheless, they weren’t civilized white Europeans of refined culture and manners, which meant that some of that mental potential wasn’t being used. As Stephen Jay Gould put it in The Panda’s Thumb:

Hence, Wallace’s dilemma: all “savages,” from our actual ancestors to modern survivors, had brains fully capable of developing and appreciating all the finest subtleties of European art, morality, and philosophy; yet they used, in the state of nature, only the tiniest fraction of that capacity in constructing their rudimentary cultures….

But natural selection can only fashion a feature for immediate use. The brain is vastly overdesigned for what it accomplished in primitive society; thus, [Wallace reasoned,] natural selection could not have built it.

A few minutes’ thinking is enough to recognize Wallace’s fallacy. I can fry eggs on an engine block—that neither means that a) the engine designer expected me to do so, nor b) because he didn’t, the design process is somehow flawed. Same thing with using a credit card to open a door, or, a favorite from hanging around wind players, using Zig-Zag cigarette papers to blot the spit out of oboe keys. But Wallace couldn’t see the error because he was too wedded to what Gould calls “hyper-selectionism”: the need for natural selection to somehow sign off on every possible use of a physiological feature. Gould again:

Wallace did not abandon natural selection at the human threshold. Rather, it was his peculiarly rigid view of natural selection that led him, quite consistently, to reject it for the human mind…. Wallace’s error on human intellect arose from the inadequacy of his rigid selectionism, not from a failure to apply it.

If you’re still under the assumption that this is a music blog, you might at this point be sensing a distant symmetry between Wallace’s hyper-selectionism and some more deterministic compositional and analytical methods. Certainly total serialism springs to mind—has there ever been a more thorough musical realization of the notion that every event should have its own function, and no other, within an overall structure? But hasn’t that always been the goal of analysis, too—a place for everything, and everything in its place? Even seemingly intuitive works of music fall under the analytical knife, an operation to reveal that intuition is just as organically determined as any schematic process.

But actually, total serialism—and, oddly, its uncharitable reputation among many listeners—shows that music inherently resists turning into a deterministic experience. Listeners are funny: they want the music to give enough of an impression to reassure that the composer is concerned with the way details are integrated into the overall whole, but if it’s too cut-and-dry, they pull back. Take certain kinds of minimalism, where the process behind the piece is laid out on the surface, fully audible. There is still a significant portion of the classical-music audience that hates minimalism, thinks it’s boring, or worse, authoritarian and soulless. On the other hand, there are listeners who think a piece of totally-determined serialism sounds random, arbitrary, ungrammatical. (These are extremes, of course, but I would think we recognize features of the caricatures in most negative reactions: criticisms of minimalism seize on the repetition, serialism, the dissonance.) But the fact that a completely deterministic method of organizing musical events can produce an experience of mercurial unpredictability shows how little is being controlled even by the most controlling composer. That inherent gap between conception and realization, between design and actuality—the kissing cousin of music’s maddeningly near-linguistic status—might be philosophically frustrating, but it’s also what keeps creators and listeners coming back, trying to plumb the depths. Wallace thought that ancient groupies would only be attracted to design—but what if the howling itself is the attraction?


  1. Nature’s big trick was to event the neuron network. H. sapiens’ big trick is to use music for seduction. But these are hardly subjects of the same study. Why should the simple dogma apply without qualification to so different a physical process?Meanwhile the comparison is instructive. With neurons, life cast a wide net and caught humanity. With language and its cousin music, humanity casts a wide net and catches culture. In both cases there’s a predictable flowering of variety, and much waste. (Back in the day I knew some serialist babes ….)Only a small number of compositions become core to this process. Those are like the neurons of culture. The rest are serialisms — trials that don’t endure because their connections are tenuous.

  2. Rick: But, of course, there are those listeners—fewer in number, but there—for whom the connection between a seemingly unselected style and their own cultural experience nevertheless remain more than tenuous. I think the point is that the fundamental nature of music has the tendency, in the listener, to trump even the most explicitly deterministic design.

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