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No. 134: MAR-APR 2001

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What Sang First?

Not WHO, but WHAT! Sophisticated music predates the advent of modern humans by tens or hundreds of million years. Whales and birds filled the ocean and primeval forest with song long before our hominid branch sprouted on the Tree of Life. As a matter of fact, our closest relatives, the great apes, sing not at all. Somewhere in the hominid genome "music" genes reside, unexpressed in the apes, but somehow triggered into activity in the human line.

We have learned recently that the Neanderthals manufactured bone flutes as far back at 53,000 years. They may not have been able to speak to one another in words, but they had the language of music. Their music, and ours, may have been entrained in genes inherited from nonhominid ancestors that lived 60 million years ago, but which have been suppressed in primates until Neanderthals and modern humans came along. You may wonder where this argument is taking you. It goes back at least 60 million years to when the cetacea (whales and dolphins) split off from the evolutionary track leading to humans. It may even go back farther to when birds split away from the reptilian line. The music of birds and whales incorporate some of the complexity and sophistication of Beethoven's Fifth. The genes that have led to such musical talents may be ancient indeed, as speculated in the Science article under review. The authors go so far as to ask:

Do musical sounds in nature reveal a profound bond between all living things?

Such profundity requires some factual support, and the Science article compares human and whale music in some detail.

The list paraphrased in part above, in which the word "similar" is repeated again and again, is longer ; but the point is adequately made that the genes that lead to whale music may be the same ones we have inherited but which are only now being expressed.

(Gray, Patricia M. , et al; "The Music of Nature and the Nature of Music ," Science, 291:52, 2001.)

Comment. Many questions arise after reading the above article. Two will have to suffice here. First, music is so complex, sophisticated, and packed with information compared to the grunts and squeaks that suffice for many animals that we have to ask : What evolutionary imperatives required its emergence? Second, and equivalently, why and how did humans, whales, and birds evolve the diverse, specialized physiological apparatuses that produce music?

From Science Frontiers #134, MAR-APR 2001. 2001 William R. Corliss

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