The Evolutionary Origins of Ritual, Music, and Dance

Evolutionary Psychology posits that many human behaviors are evolved adaptations. In his excellent books The Red Queen, and The Origins of Virtue, Matt Ridley explains the evolutionary origins of human sexuality, reciprocity, and collaboration. It is an easy mistake to assume that all common behaviors are adaptations of some kind, when in fact many are often merely side effects and confer no direct advantage. Despite this problem, the evidence that many behaviors are advantageous is compelling. With this in mind I am always on the look-out for evolutionary explanations of other behaviors, but remain wary that these may not imply adaptation.

My rating:4 of 5 stars. Pascal Boyer‘s book, Religion Explained. The Evolutionary origins of Religious Thought, starts with a fairly heavy description of how human minds use cognitive templates and define concepts, but soon starts to tackle the issue of religion itself. This book does not explain organized religion or any behavior that has arisen since the invention of writing and modern culture. Rather, the book covers deep behaviors that underpin religious thought; belief in spirits and the supernatural, witches and magic, and our fear of death and corpses. Some of the explanations are so simple and elegant that one is left thinking “why didn’t i think of that?”. For example. Our highly evolved, and measurable, ability to detect agency – to spot the signs of a predator stalking us – leads, necessarily, to many false positives. These false positives are obviously beneficial, since we avoid being eaten, but also lead to our belief in spirits and other supernatural agents. We know there was nothing real following us, but we are also convinced that there was something following us. Reflections in pools, and our own shadows, would have been mysterious to our ancestors and yet would have demanded an explanation. These may seem like trivial observations, yet, when combined, they start to re-enforce each other, and the evolutionary argument takes on some weight.

I think Professor Boyer could have strengthened his argument with a more concrete description of reciprocity. Boyer suggests that cooperation cannot be an evolutionary adaptation because it leaves the cooperator open to exploitation by freeloaders. Robert Axelrod‘s superb book The Evolution of Cooperation clearly proves that groups of collaborators can overcome, and force out, freeloaders. These groups are shown to be more successful when the have rules that encourage reciprocity, by both rewarding collaborators, and punishing defectors. These rules can be made more effective by the use of status, reputation and other labels that aid recognition. Such labels are often bestowed during rituals that are personally expensive and thereby prove group loyalty. Boyer touches on these behaviors but never really emphasizes that religious practices can provide the mechanism for strengthening group cooperation. Regardless of these problems Religion Explained is a fascinating book well worth reading.

Since reading Boyer’s book I have begun to wonder about other common human behaviors that may have some evolutionary origin. In particular I am curious about music and dance and the ritual role these play in all societies. As a subscriber to Scientific American I recently had the opportunity to pose a question to Jane Goodall and decided to ask her about this issue.

SA: John R. Harris asked via Facebook whether you have seen any behavior in primates that could shed light on the commonality of ritual music and dance in humans. Do you think these behaviors or some precursors were present in a common ancestor, or are they unique to the human lineage?

JG: Chimpanzees often perform amazing rhythmic displays, almost like dancing, when they come upon a waterfall way up in the mountains [in Gombe] that drops 80 feet onto a stony streambed and makes a roaring sound. The chimpanzees’ hair will stand on end and then they start this rhythmic swaying from side to side. It can last 20 minutes. Then sometimes at the end you will see them sitting and looking at the water, their eyes following it as it falls. If they could just talk with each other about the feelings that trigger these displays—which I believe must be something like wonder or awe—that could easily become a form of religion, the worship of the elements.

Scientific American Interview with Jane Goodall

I found the following video, with a commentary from Dr. Goodall on the Jane Goodall Institute website. The video is accompanied by a description by Bill Wallauer, a Gombe videographer, of the ritualistic behavior he has seen at Gombe.

Waterfall Displays from the Jane Goodall Institute on Vimeo.

This is tantalizing stuff but what I really want is a book entitled. The Evolutionary Origins of Music and Dance, that is written by someone as smart as Ridley or Boyer. I haven’t found it yet. There do seem to be a few people publishing papers on this area of research. Joseph Jordania seems to be fairly prolific and widely referenced, even though some of his ideas have collected some strong criticisms and his writing style seems a little colorful! He has suggested that humming is a contact-call that allows humans in a group to know they are among kin and therefore in no danger. This, he claims, explains why humming and soft musical sounds are relaxing for humans. At the first sign of danger however, the humming stops and members of the group become focused and prepared for action. He also suggests that choral polyphony is an adaptation to predation. Groups of people used loud rhythmic dissonant polyphony to scare potential predators and prepare themselves mentally for a fight.

…This was loud, responsorial singing of a large mixed group, rhythmically very precisely organized (most likely in a duple rhythm), accompanied by rhythmic movements, stomping and body percussions. The tempo rose during the singing/dancing, as well as the pitch, together with the general dynamics. Polyphony was based on ostinato, and possibly on parallelism, there was little or no text (mostly interjections), and the function of a bass was not yet separated…

…Some individual members of the group, as in every society, would be braver,
and others could be more panic-stricken, particularly when facing a predator like a
hungry lion. And here comes another function of the “lion dance”: relentless repetitive
rhythm in a dramatic climax of standing your ground for your life against the lion
must have had some kind of hypnotic effect on the whole group of stomping
primates. This rhythm would unite everyone against the common mortal enemy,
giving every member of the group the feel of communal safety…

…I suggest that the origins of the hypnotic drive of humans to follow the
rhythmic pattern of the music with stomping, finger clicking, singing alone or just a
rhythmic movement of any part of our body comes from these millions of years of
relentless “rehearsals” of our ancestors under the threat of death…

Who Asked
the First Question? The Origins of Human Choral Singing, Intelligence, Language and Speech
by Joseph Jordania

The closest to this still practiced today may be the polyphonic singing of the Aka Pygmies of central africa which has been included in the UNESCO: Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – 2008

All this is highly speculative, however, it starts to address fundamental questions about human nature. Religion, ritual, music, and dance, are human universals. It seems incredible to me that these are merely side effects, or cultural artifacts, that serve no evolutionary purpose. Time will tell if my hunch is correct, but the evidence that there is some evolutionary origin for these universal is starting to mount.

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  • Dr J

    Very interesting site, with plenty of information and interesting videos. Re Joseph Jordania, you are using materials from his 2006 book. In 2011 he published a new book “Who Do People Sing? Music in Human Evolution” where he addresses many topics discussed in this site (function of singing and drumming, origin of religion, culture, etc).