Did musical memes change our minds?

Evolutionary Musicology Conference,

Durham, June 2007

“As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless.” says Steven Pinker. Nonetheless, most theories attempting to explain the origins of music seek biological explanations, or assume that music is an adaptation. Others, such as Geoffrey Miller’s, argue that music and art are adaptive displays evolved by sexual selection. By contrast, memetics suggests that music could be useless from a biological point of view. It might even be worse than useless; it might be a positive burden, like a parasite.

Memetic theory implies that the turning point in human evolution was the advent of imitation because this created a new replicator (memes) which then evolved using humans as replication machinery. Among these memes were the sounds, and patterns of sounds, that people could make and imitate. These competed to be replicated, with some succeeding for biological reasons, while others succeeded for quite different reasons, even while imposing a cost on the organism. Regardless of the reasons for success, the winning memes would change the environment for biological selection. Arguably those people who were best at copying the currently successful memes would have an advantage and therefore spread genes facilitating the copying of those kinds of memes. This process of memetic drive entails an arms race in which the direction taken by memetic evolution influences that taken by biological evolution. If this is right it means that human brains were designed to be musical by the pressure of the music itself. In that way musical memes really did change our minds.