The recent evolution of musical talent


Jason Collins


April 22, 2012

From a debate between Gary Marcus and Geoffrey Miller on the biological basis for musical talent:

Miller: Music’s got some key features of an evolved adaptation: It’s universal across cultures, it’s ancient in prehistory, and kids learn it early and spontaneously. …

Marcus: “Ancient” seems like a bit of stretch to me. The oldest known musical artifacts are some bone flutes that are only 35,000 years old, a blink in an evolutionary time. …

Miller: The bone flutes are at least 35,000 years old, but vocal music might be a lot older, given the fossil evidence on humans and Neanderthal vocal tracts. Thirty-five-thousand years sounds short in evolutionary terms, but it’s still more than a thousand human generations, which is plenty of time for selection to shape a hard-to-learn cultural skill into a talent for music in some people, even if music did originate as a purely cultural invention. Maybe that’s not enough time to make music into a finely tuned mental ability like language, but nobody knows yet how long these things take.

The remainder of the debate is worth a read.

HT: Rob Brooks