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Chronicle of the NonPop Revolution

Growing A Purpose

by Scott Johnson

The Counterpoint Of Species, 1997

  1. Introduction
  2. A Strobe Light And A Staircase
  3. Splitting The Adam
  4. Ideas And Organisms: What Translates, And What Doesn't
  5. Stir Thoroughly, And Not All At Once
  6. Growing A Purpose
  7. Uses And Niches
  8. The Fools On The Hill Go Down In The Valley
  9. The Urge To Procreate
  10. Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, The In-Laws, And The Kids [Hybrids, Thoroughbreds, and Survival]

     A little corner of human culture like music may exhibit all of the fingerprints of the big evolutionary forces, from mutation and differential selection to speciation, but at first glance there appears to be a missing link in its connection to its relatives. The arts certainly bear structural resemblances to other cultural endeavors. All have gradually assembled core histories and branching subdivisions, and all make similar use of local inventions and conceptual recipes appropriated from related cultural projects. But an undertaking like agriculture answers an obvious and immutable need to eat, while the desire to look at pictures remains mysterious and conditional. Some might be tempted to use this as a waiver, exempting the arts from discussions about the practical uses and origins of things; and might even feel that the utilitarian overtones of such talk deprives art of its sense of wonder. But it is not that difficult to speculate about what the fine arts might be "for", in an evolutionary sense, so long as one accepts that a uniquely human symbolic enterprise will behave in a more circuitous and indirect way than the simple adaptational cause and effect we might expect from life's most basic needs. And as for the fear of emotional deflation, I for one experience a sometimes surreal wonder in imagining the paths by which an animal might come to enjoy daubing mud or blowing into a hollow reed, always finding a place for such artifacts and activities alongside the necessities of life as it goes about the prosaic, sordid, and glorious business of generating its swarming cultures.

     The accidents of history that make us sing and make images and symbols happened a very long time ago, so long ago that they could conceivably have as much to do with the way our brains are wired as with any specific cultural traditions. I suspect that our artistic proclivities are one of Gould and Lewontin's "spandrels":6 a side-effect of the abilities for symbol-making and symbol-understanding which allow us to do more practical things, like remembering how much stuff we have, or expressing contempt for Frog People while among our fellow Fish People. Such side effects are accidentally acquired and opportunistically developed evolutionary "habits" which survive because they turn out to be good for something else, or simply because they don't get in the way. For instance, vocalizing on the part of infants and mothers is a cross-cultural constant which serves a specific purpose: this apparently hard-wired behavior teaches the vowel sounds of a particular language to the child. All that the birth of song requires is that people keep doing it beyond childhood because it's pleasurable, and both copy others and think up rewarding new things to do with the habit.

     Something useful can be repeated for strictly hedonistic reasons, and that act of hedonism can both retain emotional meaning from its source, and be reinvested with new meanings derived from its new use. Song branches into songs of social camaraderie, religious songs, love songs. Accidents and opportunities for play can grow from targeted adaptations, and adaptations can build upon accidents. In a cultural medium, where branches of thought and practice are by nature constantly hybridizing, such multiple origins and causes are the rule. In light of this, it is difficult to imagine any satisfactory conclusion to an argument between a strict adaptationist search for causality, in which making and experiencing the arts would have directly benefited their first practitioners, versus a Gouldian awareness of the incorporation of side-effects into a system. Culture's blending of causes and effects would have quickly muddied up any readable tracks. Music is a particularly tough case, because prior to notation and recording, it left no fossils to study.

     It 's conceivable, but not necessary, that someone with the skills of hand, eye, and mental planning necessary to carve an ornamented version of a tool may also be more likely to come up with a new and better tool, incorporating a subtle improvement in engineering. Basket-weaving and ax-making are matters of importance because something concrete is at stake, but like vocalizing, they also offer opportunities for what can only be called play. For children, play not only involves the sharpening of motor skills, it also involves practice at making mental models of the world and learning how to behave within them: they play house, or play war, and debate the rules amongst themselves. We are not the only species which uses childhood as a period of concentrated experimentation; we just keep it up for an extraordinarily long time, and never completely stop.

     But experimentation is often fruitless, and adults have serious business to take care of. Whether the enjoyment of play is an end in itself, or nature's reward for exercising the imagination, a question still arises: how to get access to that sense of wonder when a child's eagerness is no longer present, when one's standards demand something more carefully constructed, and when there is no time to do it yourself? Hire a professional! Artists are subcontractors of the imagination, hired to produce access to a purposeful and adult version of the emotional pleasures of discovery, wonder, fear, and "make-believe" of all descriptions, and the artistic sub-genres they work in are products of the same branchings and convergences which produce specialized job descriptions in other fields. Today Western artists tend to work with very personalized meanings and associations, but other times and places have seen more attention paid to the making of communal symbols, tools for rituals of membership which strengthened the devotion of members and thus contributed to their collective success as a group. It does have a certain ironic appeal to imagine that all of our cherished individuality and artistic freedom descended from a job as manufacturers of social glue.

     In the end, it is neither necessary nor possible to resolve such dual purposes in the uses of music or any other art, even if they present us with such apparent contradictions. If a genre of art is as much a convergence of bundled influences and uses as a linear inheritance, than it should not surprise us if some of those constituent elements conflict with each other. After all, science has demonstrated that the very cells in our body frequently compete among themselves, to our ultimate benefit. Optimal design is not a guaranteed part of life's package; only adequacy, as defined by having survived the last major threat. If these artistic projects didn't work well for whatever it is that they are doing, some society would have figured out how to stop wasting the effort by now, and thus gained a competitive edge on everybody else.

     It didn't happen that way; in fact, the expenditure of the "wasted" energy of art is one of humanity's favorite symbols of cultural power and success. An uneasy recognition of this lies beneath many a declaration of artistic purity on the part of people who honestly wish to hold to their ideals. Like the extravagant nests of certain birds, art can serve as a social sentence which says "I/We can afford this"; and that motivation accounts for much of the consumption of the arts, and for the existing relics of civilizations past. However, it doesn't account completely: a serious composer could find easier ways of making a living, and a marginally committed audience member or patron could find more brightly glittering toys to impress people with. But artist and patron might not be able to find an activity which so successfully combines their practical or social needs with the same emotional pleasures or sense of meaning. There is no purity of motive to be found here; rather, there is an historically successful habit of interweaving several disparate impulses.

     This use of an art form to bundle several purposes together is not just a cultural strategy; in nature, multiple uses also tend to accumulate around a single action or structure. You could think of this as the Swiss Army Knife principle, and for the composer mentioned above, it's very efficient: in return for making interesting noise, he or she gets self expression, intellectual challenge, emotional gratification, social attention from fellow primates, and lunch. The wings of birds and insects provide us with an example of the same principle of multiple use at work in nature. In addition to providing flight, wings regulate body heat, and can also offer a billboard for colorful sexual advertisements to members of one's own species, or camouflage for the eyes of predator or prey.

     Multiple uses multiply even further when spread out across time as well as space. Wings present a classic evolutionary puzzle: what force could have kept them evolving gradually towards the size necessary for flight, when half a wing isn't enough to get a bug or a bird off the ground?7 This is the problem of the uselessness of intermediate stages, and Darwin himself pointed out the path to a solution, which has been supported by recent research into insects. During their early stages, the little quarter-wings and eighth-wings hadn't really been wings at all. They were developed to control body heat, and when these thermo-regulator flaps got big enough, the creature began to take advantage of their aerodynamic properties. Eventually this new, accidentally acquired and opportunistically developed function of flight gained primary importance (although wings do still work as thermal regulators). Thus our Swiss Army Knife principle takes on the added dimension of time: not every blade is out at once. In fact, it constantly grows new blades, and we don't even know what potentialities are folded into the handle until a new task appears to try it out on.

     This little story tells us as much about our own perception as it does about bug wings. Our conception of exactly what kind of thing any multiple-use structure "really is" depends more on the order in which we discover its different functions than on any intrinsic essence. The first problem that we see it solve becomes, for us, its purpose: wings are for flying. But they weren't always for flying. Despite millennia of fascination with airborne creatures, the human tendency to look for purity of purpose made it difficult to conceptualize this indirect path of adaptation-with-change-of-function, or exaptation,8 and thus to finally find out how and why wings came into being.


1 On this point, see Stephen Jay Gould's essays "Bushes and Ladders in Human Evolution", from Ever Since Darwin, 1977, New York, Norton; or "Life's Little Joke" from Bully For Brontosaurus, 1991, New York, Norton.

2 Antonio Damasio, 1994, Descartes Error. New York, Grosset/Putnam (chapter 10 p. 239). Descartes Error is not specifically about evolution, but about its outcome. Damasio's examination of how the mind/brain/body allows us to imagine the future describes the operating system which gives cultural evolution its unique qualities. Also, his overall point about the crucial role which emotions play in reasoning should be both gratifying and intuitively familiar to most artists.

3 Richard Dawkins, 1976, new edition 1989, The Selfish Gene. Oxford, Oxford University Press (chapter 11). This book is a central text in sociobiology, which sometimes suffers from the long and unhappy history of attempts to derive right wing political implications from knowledge about our place in the natural world. But the idea of memes is not necessarily responsible for the behavior of all of its relatives. For a brief and lucid summary of the concept, see also Daniel Dennett's 1990 Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 48.

4 Daniel Dennett, 1995, Darwin's Dangerous Idea New York, Touchstone, pp. 203-204. This book is a sweeping attempt to make a whole of biological Darwinism and its ethical, cultural, and philosophical implications. The determined attack on Gould as a threat to Darwinism may seem puzzling to outsiders.

5 As I was editing this essay, an article by Richard Taruskin appeared in the New York Times (9/24/97) in which he referred to classical music's concern with artistic pedigree and inherited texts as "vertical", versus the "horizontal" influence of recordings, which reflect a cross-section of what is available in our living culture, regardless of source. As far as I can tell, his "vertical" is essentially identical to my "linear", and his "horizontal" to my "lateral". I hope that this concept enters into common use, under whatever name survives the selection process.

6 Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, 1979, The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the Adaptationist Programme, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, vol. B205, no. 1161.

7 Stephen Jay Gould, "Not Necessarily A Wing", from Bully For Brontosaurus, 1991, New York, Norton.

8 Stephen Jay Gould and Elizabeth Vrba, 1981, Exaptation: A Missing Term in the Science of Form, Paleobiology, vol. 8.

9 Ernst Mayr, 1988, "An Analysis of the Concept of Natural Selection", from Towards A New Philosophy of Biology (p. 99), Cambridge, Harvard University Press.

10 For several days, I thought this visual analogy was of my own imagining, but then I noticed that on p.192 of Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea, which I had read several months earlier, there is a similar visual image in a quote from Manfred Eigen's Steps Towards Life (1992 Oxford University Press). It is populated by genetic mutations, with different meanings attached to the hills and valleys in the terrain, and no miners clomping around its abstract topography in their dirty boots. Well, at least I get a good example of the exaptation of an idea as a consolation prize.