The title of my book about music, Beethoven’s Anvil, was suggest by my agent, Richard Curtis. I made up the subtitle (I think): Music in Mind and Culture. I am now thinking that the subtitle could have been the phrase I’m using as the title of this post: Notes Toward a Natural Philosophy of Cultural Evolution in the Music Domain. To be sure, I didn’t conceive of it as a study of the cultural evolution of music (“cultural evolution” has only five entries in the index), but in the context of my current efforts to figure out what cultural evolution is about, that’s a good way to think about Beethoven’s Anvil.
For it places the evolutionary aspects of musical phenomena in the context of substantial discussions of psychology and neuroscience, of interpersonal interaction and group processes, of origins and history, and of social context and function broadly considered. In particular, when I discuss the musical equivalents of the biological gene and phenotype, those discussions are embedded in discussions of neuroscience and perceptual, cognitive, and motor psychology that are well-thought out. I’m not just hunting for analogues to the biological notions and attaching terminological handles to them, which is, alas, what all too much discussion of micro-scale cultural evolution has been doing.
In the rest of this post I do two things: 1) justify the talk of natural philosophy, and 2) say a bit more about Beethoven’s Anvil.
The term is of course an old one. But I have a specific contemporary source in mind, Massimo Pigliucci’s recent review of The Singular Universe and the Reality of Time: A Proposal In Natural Philosophy by Lee Smolin (a scientist by trade) and Roberto Unger (a philosopher). Smolin and Unger explain their use of the term and Pigliucci discusses that use, approvingly, quoting this passage from their book:
Today, natural philosophy has not disappeared completely. It lives under disguise. Scientists write popular books, for the general educated public, professing to make their ideas about the science that they practice accessible to non-scientists. They use these books to speculate about the larger meaning of their discoveries for our understanding of the universe and of our place within it. They also have another audience, however: their colleagues in science, addressed under the disguise of popularization. (p. 82)
While I’m a humanist by training, not a scientist, I suppose that I’ve become something of a natural philosopher in the sense of that paragraph and more or less for the same purpose.
Beethoven’s Anvil assumes no particular specialized intellectual background and so is broadly accessible both to “civilians” if you will, but also to a broad range of intellectual specialists in a variety of human sciences (the phrase, “human sciences” is European and encompasses the humanities as well as the social and behavioral sciences). The book also assumes, and I hope rewards, a fair level of intellectual sophistication and adventurousness.
Some Propositions from Beethoven’s Anvil
How then to present the contents of a moderately dense 280 page book (plus notes and references) in a compact form?
In the course of writing the book I composed a handful of short paragraphs to which I gave specific names. These key propositions are not distributed uniformly throughout the book – half of them are in chapters 2 and 3 (out of 11), which I’ve put online HERE – and so don’t represent the full scope of the book. But they indicate enough of it to show why the book would be valuable for students of cultural evolution.
To be embarrassingly blunt, if you want to see cultural evolution discussed in a rich interdisciplinary intellectual context, I know of nothing else quite like Beethoven’s Anvil. If you are thinking of cultural evolution as a vehicle for consilience in the human sciences, Beethoven’s Anvil makes a good complement to e.g. Alex Mesoudi, Cultural Evolution: How Darwinian Theory can Explain Human Cultural and Synthesize the Social Sciences but is itself free of broad claims about intellectual unification of that sort I am making in this post. To be sure, music is not the whole of human culture, not by a long shot. But it is a significant chunk of human culture. I would like to think that a detailed albeit speculative account of it has something to offer those with no particular interest in music, but with some interest in human culture and its evolution. Continue reading