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Author of "Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man" answers questions posed by Tribune

Published September 13, 2011 3:42 pm

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

What follows is an early draft of an upcoming story about the new book "Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man," written by evolutionary neurobiologist Mark Changizi. His enlightening book is about where language and music comes from in evolutionary terms.

Since I won't have room to present his fascinating answers in full once the story is published in The Tribune, here is the complete interview:

Mark Changizi is an evolutionary neurobiologist whose research seeks to grasp why we think, feel and see as we do. His research focuses on "why" questions, and he has made important discoveries such as why we see in color, why we have forward-facing eyes, why letters are shaped as they are, why the brain is organized as it is, why animals have as many limbs and fingers as they do, and even why our fingers get "pruney" when wet.Changizi's new book, Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man, would fascinate even creationists. He explores where human language came from. Even further, he opines on where music comes from, and why music has stuck with humans, despite the fact that there isn't an obvious survival benefit. Language and music are two of the characteristics that separate ape from man, and he writes that after hundreds of million of years of evolution, sound is our primary sense for detecting the events around us. Just as apes once used sound to detect the movement of predators, humans today use sound to detect when their bosses are coming (in time to stop playing Scrabble on your computer).Changizi answered questions posed by The Salt Lake Tribune about how music and speech evolved to fit our brains — not the other way around.What is the most common misconception the average person has about how language/music developed, and how do you seek in the book to correct those notions?Language and music are at the core of what makes us special, compared to chimpanzees and the other apes. The question is, what explains that specialness? Most of us think that it's because of something special in our brains, something not found in the brains of other apes. Some believe we humans evolved language and music instincts – special programs in our brains for comprehending speech and processing music. Others believe we didn't evolve such instincts, but, instead, evolved super-powerful general-purpose software, the kind of algorithms artificial intelligence researchers would like to find. With these in hand, we could handle inventions like language and music even though we're not designed for them. I think this is all wrong. I don't believe there's anything qualitatively distinguishing us from the other apes: no super-special neuron type or brain region. We're just apes, with "more of the same." The difference is quantitative, not qualitative. What accounts for the qualitative difference, then, in that we have language and music but not them? It's because of culture, and cultural evolution. Once culture got up and running (which was helped by our having quantitatively smarter brains and being so social), culture was the new selection process in town, and it could create "smart things" much more quickly than natural selection ever could. In particular, it could shape writing, speech and music in such a way that our ancient illiterate, non-language and amusical brains could process them. Culture shaped these special powers for us, and its trick was to shape them like aspects of nature that our brains already knew how to brilliantly process. I call it "nature-harnessing."Recent films such as "Project NIM" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" explore the subjects of how well apes are able to understand and communicate with humans. Does the way apes interact with humans give insight into how we were able to develop language and music?I don't see any obvious implications following from the manner in which apes interact with humans, other than reminding us of how social we each are. And sociality at that level was surely one (but not the only) crucial ingredient needed to get cultural evolution up and running. I note that my view on language origins is the only one that can justify the plot of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," where the apes get a quantitative brain boost from a fictional Alzheimer drug. If language is an instinct or comes from humans having specially-designed general-purpose AI-like software, then a Miracle-Grow-like, grow-more-neurons medicine would never suffice. But a grow-more-neurons approach "would" suffice if cultural evolution and nature-harnessing is the culprit, because then only a quantitative brain difference is needed. Give the apes our intelligence, and they may be able to tap into our language, because it may harness their brains equally well. For speech in particular, I make the case in Harnessed that speech has culturally evolved to sound like solid-object events, the most common kind of event that occurs in our terrestrial world. All apes – not just us – have specialized auditory mechanisms for recognizing solid-object events, and so human speech may fit chimpanzee auditory systems just as well as our own. For music, on the other hand, I make the case that it has culturally evolved to sound like humans moving and carrying out behaviors. Some aspects of human movement sounds are found in other apes (regularities concerned with the Doppler shift and loudness due to distance), but some aspects of human behavior sounds are special to humans, especially due to our bipedal gait. Human music may therefore not entirely translate to the ears of other apes.Do you have an inherent passion for music that made you want to investigate the subjects you discuss in the book?I love music. For the last 15 or so years I've delved mostly into classical. I play the piano on most days, as well as guitar and a bit of violin. But "everyone" loves music, which is one of the most amazing things about it, and something any theory of music needs to make sense of. Why are people so willing to listen to music, often at nearly every waking moment? That kind of love of music comes as no surprise, however, if music sounds to your auditory system like a person moving expressively in your midst. Music is an auditory movie, a dynamic portrait of a person evocatively moving around you, and through his or her behavior you can infer a wordless story.Why does some music excite us, and other music soothes us?Much of my research on music that I describe in the book shows that music has the signature sounds of people moving and walking about. I have made only a few inroads in understanding the more specific sounds associated with particular emotions, such as happy, angry and sad gaits. And it is these more fine-grained discoveries that we'll have to make if we're to understand the many different ways music can affect us. But, in light of the music-is-movement theory, a given piece of music excites us because it sounds like a person carrying exciting behavior. And it soothes us when it sounds like a person moving more soothingly in our midst. Simple as that – although characterizing what exactly those exciting or soothing sound signatures are is another matter.If our auditory systems have developed as a way to detect where a threat or predator is coming towards us, how does music fit into the system?We probably have predator-detection mechanisms, but I don't think that's what music primarily harnesses. Music harnesses our human-behavior recognition mechanisms. Humans are the most important creatures in our lives — from the most dangerous to the most comforting – and we have auditory brain regions innately designed to process the sounds of human behavior. Music has culturally evolved to sound like that, and can thereby emote nearly the full range of human emotions, the same range of emotions a real person evincing expressions and behaviors in our midst can emote.Did our evolutionary ancestors — early humans, apes — make music that would entertain us today?Probably not. They may have occasionally created sounds that somewhat harnessed their human-movement-recognition brain mechanisms, as a form of self-stimulation, perhaps. But if cultural evolution had not yet gotten up and running, it is unlikely to have gotten to a stage that it could enthrall us as it now does. The great human composers stood on the shoulders of all the discoveries culture had found before them – a Mozart born in a music-less tribe would surely not hum anything in his actual repertoire.