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April 25, 2012 8:52 AM   Subscribe

Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson explores The Origins of the Arts.
posted by shakespeherian (38 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
I liked the quote from Picasso, "Art is the lie that helps us see the truth"
posted by Renoroc at 9:07 AM on April 25, 2012


This was my biggest problem with Consilience, his insistence that sociobiology should be the root of all study of the humanities.

Here's a relevant passage from this article:

What exactly, then, are the humanities? An earnest effort to define them is to be found in the U.S. congressional statute of 1965, which established the National Endowment for the Humanities and the National Endowment for the Arts:

The term “humanities” includes, but is not limited to, the study of the following: language, both modern and classical; linguistics; literature; history; jurisprudence; philosophy; archaeology; comparative religion; ethics; the history, criticism, and theory of the arts; those aspects of social sciences which have humanistic content and employ humanistic methods; and the study and application of the humanities to the human environment with particular attention to reflecting our diverse heritage, traditions, and history and to the relevance of the humanities to the current conditions of national life.

Such may be the scope of the humanities, but it makes no allusion to the understanding of the cognitive processes that bind them all together, nor their relation to hereditary human nature, nor their origin in prehistory. Surely we will never see a full maturing of the humanities until these dimensions are added.


Nope. Don't buy it. Anymore than the idea that chemical engineering won't be "fully mature" until any ontological questions of how we know things are settled by semioticians. You don't get to declare your discipline the most primary and make everyone kowtow to your theories first. Sorry.

There is lots of room for study of the cognitive underpinnings of art, and this article makes many good connections. But it doesn't explain why Shakespeare is the best, and Edna St. Vincent Millay is mediocre, any better than Harold Bloom does.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:12 AM on April 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


Such may be the scope of the humanities, but it makes no allusion to the understanding of the cognitive processes that bind them all together, nor their relation to hereditary human nature, nor their origin in prehistory. Surely we will never see a full maturing of the humanities until these dimensions are added.

So, what's the evolutionary basis for my instinctive aversion to reductive sociobiological just-so stories?
posted by R. Schlock at 9:15 AM on April 25, 2012 [6 favorites]


We can take a cue from Marx, who turned Proudhon around by changing "The Philosophy of poverty" into "The Povery of Philosophy." We can turn Wilson around by changing "The Sociobiology of the humanities" into "The Inhumanity of sociobiology."
posted by No Robots at 9:17 AM on April 25, 2012


Potomac Avenue, you're probably just disagreeing on a semantic point, ie what is "a full maturity of the humanities"? I think it's true that humanities, as defined as the things which explore subjective human experience, will necessarily need to understand the more basic concepts of cognition, genetic human nature, and the evolutionary history of it all. It's not anyone trying to subsume anyone else; if you define the humanities, or anything else, as a quest for knowledge, then I don't think it's fair to get mad when someone points out a large gap in the sorts of knowledge you're pursuing.

That said, I pretty much disagree entirely. The whole consilience thing, as well as On Human Nature, isn't particularly falsifiable or particularly good fodder for an evolutionary biologist, and I don't think Wilson's broad sweeps can or will make any difference.
posted by Buckt at 9:27 AM on April 25, 2012


Sometimes common epigrams can't really be beat. When I read scientists seeking to "explain" the humanities, I always really do think they're missing the forest for the trees.
posted by OmieWise at 9:33 AM on April 25, 2012


You don't get to declare your discipline the most primary and make everyone kowtow to your theories first.

But that's the whole point of sociobiology!
posted by happyroach at 9:45 AM on April 25, 2012 [5 favorites]


What exactly, then, are the humanities?

Those imaginative things that the technorati insist other people create for free while working at a Subway to pay the rent?
posted by Thorzdad at 9:46 AM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


Buckt: It's a semantic point that belies his larger belief: that arts are just accidental spandrels of the interaction between the genome and social structures, therefore the only cogent study of them can be through scientists (specifically bio-anthropologists).

Cf: "Was music Darwinian? Did it have survival value for the Paleolithic tribes that practiced it? Examining the customs of contemporary hunter-gatherer cultures from around the world, one can hardly come to any other conclusion."

And yet:

"Altogether, there is reason to believe that music is a newcomer in human evolution. It might well have arisen as a spin-off of speech. Yet, to assume that much is not also to conclude that music is merely a cultural elaboration of speech. It has at least one feature not shared with speech—beat, which in addition can be synchronized from song to dance."

(though speech of course does have a beat, the natural flow of stresses which is the origin of Poetry, something one might know by studying Poetry instead of ants.)

and finally:

"It is tempting to think that the neural processing of language served a preadaptation to music, and that once music originated it proved sufficiently advantageous to acquire its own genetic predisposition. This is a subject that will greatly reward deeper additional research, including the synthesis of elements from anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology."

But god forbid they ask any musicologists or music theorists about the history of the development of the very subject that they have devoted their lives to.

I sympathize with fact that to most scientists humanities must seem terribly un-rigorous, and a lot of Art Theory is, in fact, nonsense. But unlike ants, one can't directly study the distant past of music, because we can't hear it. As he points out, one can only study what one can access, but shouldn't that also include the whole scope of music development? Doesn't Thelonious Monk or Kraftwerk tell us just as much about what music is as hunter-gatherer chanting? And the same holds true for any other kind of art. We can look at cave paintings and guess based on biology about why they were painted. Or we can ask Jasper Johns why he paints and look at what elements in his childhood made him paint. Ideally we would take both points of data, and make a theory about it. And by WE I mean, someone whose job it is to study art and not a biologist on a consilience bender.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 10:11 AM on April 25, 2012 [3 favorites]


Well, it's at least clear and indisputable that E.O. Wilson's work has very high "survival value" for E.O. Wilson. Though I do wish he'd stop trying to populate niches he's not very well-adapted for, like knowing anything about aesthetics or culture.
posted by RogerB at 10:29 AM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


I misread it and thought it was "Harvard sociobiologist E. O. Wilson explores The Origins of the Ants." Since he's a world expert on ants, I was pretty excited.

I have heard him give a seminar for the public about reaching out to Christians on environmental issues which was really nice. I have also heard him give a talk to biologists about ants, and his goal to genetic barcode the rainforest, which was amazing. But he always, always loses my interest when he starts talking about sociobiology.
posted by hydropsyche at 10:31 AM on April 25, 2012


..the FPP is a reprinted excerpt from The Social Conquest of Earth.
posted by stbalbach at 10:45 AM on April 25, 2012


What matters in literature is the originality and power of the metaphor. [...] Lyrical expression in literature [...] is a device to communicate emotional feeling directly from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader. [...] In fiction the stronger the desire to share emotion, the more lyrical the language must be.

These claims would be, at best, barely passing work in a 101-level class on aesthetics or literature or philosophy of language; it's genuinely astonishing to see this getting published and taken seriously as a challenge to the entire body of the humanities. The cheap appeal to "emotional" content as the only defining feature of "lyrical expression" is both shallow and question-begging, as is the assumption that emotion can be directly communicated (how does that work, exactly?). And "lyrical" is barely defined at all — he seems just to mean it as a handwavey word for metaphorical or figurative or non-literal language. Judging by the dopey door-opening example, he thinks that it's trivially self-evident, rather than one of the defining questions of much of the 20th Century's philosophy of language, that we can draw a distinction between poetic/metaphorical and literal language. Much less has he seemingly ever considered the existence of literature that is neither metaphorical nor emotional!

Basically, these few sentences betray a total lack of familiarity with even the intro-level basics of the subjects he's prattling about; this should've been the moment that an editor raised a serious question about the project's viability. In Wilson's own favorite terminology, these sentences are not simply irrelevant non-coding baggage, but wildly maladaptive traits; they mark an argument about language, literature, culture, or philosophy as an evolutionary dead end.

Anthropologists have paid relatively little attention to contemporary hunter-gatherer music, relegating its study to specialists on music, as they are also prone to do for linguistics and ethnobotany (the study of plants used by the tribes).

In fact, Wilson seems to have a problem with the existence of specialist researchers at all. What kind of attention would he like anthropologists to pay to music, if not making a specialty of studying it? It's like the only kind of humanities "scholarship" he even recognizes is this kind of fatuous, overgeneralizing handwaving.
posted by RogerB at 11:17 AM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


I agree with what you're saying, Potomac. And I must admit - I am one of those people! I study insects, and I don't particularly respect a lot of humanities scholarship. I think the majority of it is valid, but I stay away because I personally can't grok which parts are valid. I think Wilson is probably wasting his time; some will say he's full of it, some won't, and the debate will stop there.

At the same time, this whole debate is probably counter-productive. In my opinion, it's not unrealistic to think that hard science and the social science may converge. It happened with molecular biology and evolutionary biology in Wilson's lifetime, so it's reasonable to see why he might think so.

To me, it's a silly turf war. I really don't think that Wilson's saying the work of musicologists in unimportant in understanding music. I think he's saying that it's not sufficient, and that new information needs to be incorporated. That is always the case with any field! Genetics is on the rise now, and, in addition to doing its own work, it is also bleeding into taxonomy. Many old-school taxonomists think that taxonomy as it is doesn't need genetics. Those people are wrong: taxonomy will advance from genetic information. It's a new method and it's useful.

I don't know that it's the case with the humanities, but I suspect it is. No one said that taxonomy is worthless and no one is saying that musicology is worthless. But new methods are coming along and they may provide new information to advance the field. Why the resistance, then?
posted by Buckt at 12:16 PM on April 25, 2012


"(though speech of course does have a beat, the natural flow of stresses which is the origin of Poetry, something one might know by studying Poetry instead of ants.)"

Sorry, but Wilson's actually done his homework: speech has a rhythm, i.e. hierarchical patterns of longer and shorter segments, but not a beat, i.e. relatively isochronously spaced syllables or stresses. Which is to say, you can dance to music, but you can't dance to speech, or even Poetry.

(Yes, it's true that most music is not strictly isochronous either, but it's much, much closer to isochrony than speech; music can be viewed as deviations from a metronomic beat, either due to error or expressive intention, but speech cannot.)
posted by IjonTichy at 12:42 PM on April 25, 2012


Harvard has a chair endowed by mineral water?
posted by Bromius at 12:52 PM on April 25, 2012


Buckt: "Why the resistance, then?"

Because the humanities are simply unscientific. The culture and oral traditions are completely different. And this should be the case, because they have totally different ends.

For example, mainstream music education is rife with what a reasonable scientist familiar with the pertinent research would consider blatant falsehoods. Claims that were disproved over 100 years ago are taught as if they are uncontroversial. The personal opinions and speculations of authority figures holds more weight than empirical study. This is the case at every level, from preschool to the graduate level.

I know more about the situation with music, but I am sure this state of seeming dysfunction applies to the rest of the humanities. And despite the seeming flaws, it works perfectly because it still leads to music people want to hear - because given the mature state of music tradition and our comparatively sparse knowledge of the science behind it, the pleasure we take in music has more to do with familiarity and the ability to reproduce past results than the physical facts underlying it.
posted by idiopath at 12:53 PM on April 25, 2012


The resistance happens because, while there may be insights that can be shared between disciplines, and one can inform the other as a metaphor, they are fundamentally different studies with different methods, goals, and results. And while one may be more rigorous, and has rigor, falsification, and reproduction as it's watchwords, the other is not a science, but a creative act that yields a truth not only about art, but about culture and human nature.

Check out this Harold Bloom interview:

"Western culture has been founded upon literary study ever since the Greeks made Homer into their first textbook. So willy-nilly, we study literature whether we study it overtly or not. It has become the canonical basis for our society. It is not possible to study any other so-called subject without in some sense studying literature. We are a literary culture. We are certainly no longer a religious culture. Those who dream of our becoming a scientific culture have largely learned that they were mistaken. We have become a technological society, but the notion of technological culture is, I think, an oxymoron. We are willy-nilly a literary culture. Philosophy, science, religion have in different ways been dimmed, and as they dim further and further – and this is a process which has been remarked on for centuries – increasingly imaginative literature takes their place. I don’t say that this is a good thing, I don’t know that it is necessarily a bad thing. I only know that it is a process which is constantly increasing in intensity and appears to be inescapable."


Aside from repeated uses of the phrase Willy-Nilly, this sounds exactly like what Wilson is suggesting, but from the opposite perspective! "Why don't geneticists study King Lear? It would inform their understanding of heredity." And maybe it would, but obviously I wouldn't personally march into a convention of Scientists and declare that they are missing out. The world of art is not the natural world, though they coincide like Venn diagrams, and it has its own rules and logic and language to be discovered, or fashioned, within which certain things are true in their way, under their own power.

Not that there is no middle ground, or that science isn't really really important for people who study art to understand--it is, and insights gained from combining disciplines are very exciting and valid and cool (when they aren't bullshit)...but science is not primary, and it's not fundamental, and it's not necessary for gaining insights about what art is and how it works.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 12:56 PM on April 25, 2012 [2 favorites]


IjonTichy: Actually there are some pretty sweet theories I ascribe to that say that greek poetry, for one, was specifically designed for dancing, and that individual poets as well as actors in 'dramas', danced to the meter of the words. All language has a rhythm, and poetry is the codification of it through meter. Add tones, and you've got music. Not to say that's where music came from necessarily, there are other theories out there. I was just objecting to the idea that poetry and music are intrinsically different, when in fact some archaic poetry (and modern poetry when it's called hip hop) was indistinguishable from music.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:04 PM on April 25, 2012


Potomac Avenue: "speech of course does have a beat, the natural flow of stresses which is the origin of Poetry"

Beat and rhythm are not the same thing, much of music historically doesn't have a beat though most all of it has rhythm. Yes speech *can* have a rhythm, or in rare cases even a beat, but to simply say that speech has a beat misunderstands speech (or beat) pretty drastically.
posted by idiopath at 1:21 PM on April 25, 2012


OK, can you explain the difference as you understand it between Meter and Beat. I know there is one, but it's not like they're unrelated.

It's like saying spoken language doesn't have tones--when in fact there are significant tonal elements to speech, such that some actual notes mean things in certain languages. Say a word as a C# instead of a Db and it means X instead of Y. The elements of art are present in language. Again, not to say they came from it, as Wilson correctly points out music is quite fundamental to culture and develops differently in individual human lives, but they're related.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:26 PM on April 25, 2012


Rhythm = relative patterns of shorter and longer elements
Beat = metronomic (occurring at regular intervals) pulse underlying music

Don't get me wrong, I think that the relationships between rhythm in speech and music are fascinating, and in fact that's related to what I'm working on now--all I'm saying is that Wilson's statement about beat being a musical and not a linguistic phenomenon was accurate.

Of course, there are hybrid phenomena like rapping and, if you're correct, greek poetry in which beat is incorporated into language, without the other characteristics of music like tones pulled from sets of discrete notes. These are special cases, though; across cultures everyday speech doesn't follow a beat.
posted by IjonTichy at 1:34 PM on April 25, 2012


Potomac Avenue: "Say a word as a C# instead of a Db and it means X instead of Y"

Yet again, not quite - natural language uses relative tone but is not "tonal" in the sense we use musically, for example when we differentiate tonal and non-tonal music. This is true even for a "tonal language". It is normal for three people in one conversation to each have their own neutral tone, from which we hear their separate upward and downward variations. This is pretty rare in music. Using a notation like C# and Db is misleading regarding speech, because even in a tonal language we simply don't use tone that way (and how much should I read into your selection of those particular tones - are you aware that in common practice music those are exactly the same pitch - are you alluding to just intonation the pythagorean comma, or maybe Turkish tuning?).

IjonTichy: "rapping and, if you're correct, greek poetry in which beat is incorporated into language, without the other characteristics of music like tones pulled from sets of discrete notes"

Rapping usually uses discrete sets of tones -sticking to one set of tones is one of the things that differentiates a good rapper from a poseur, it's just that we don't expect two rappers to share the same set, and they are usually not derived from a harmonic series the way a sung melody would be. Hiphop uses tones like any other music, it just doesn't do what we traditionally call "tonal" things with the tones in the rap part of the music.
posted by idiopath at 2:40 PM on April 25, 2012


Hunh--thanks idiopath, I did not know that, that's interesting. Do you know if there's any work out there looking at how rappers choose which set of tones they pull from?
posted by IjonTichy at 2:47 PM on April 25, 2012


Idiopath: re: C#/Db...Hahha, oh man, don't read anything into that I was in a hurry and chose tones at random. OR DID I? *ouroborosing out the door*
posted by Potomac Avenue at 2:53 PM on April 25, 2012


IjonTichy: "Do you know if there's any work out there looking at how rappers choose which set of tones they pull from?"

I don't know of any specifically no. I find, personally, as a musician that has worked extensively with non-tonal music and is in the process of learning common practice tonality, it is pretty easy to hear that a good rapper has a more consistent / stylized tone without usually being "tonal", but I admit there could be more or less going on than what I think I hear. Hiphop is definitely not my expertise. Most literature about hiphop is about the sociopolitical rather than sonic aspects, and most information about the musical aspects is vernacular and pragmatic rather than music-theoretical ("use these tools in this process to get a good result" as opposed to "these are the formal characteristics that differentiate hiphop").
posted by idiopath at 3:13 PM on April 25, 2012


I hope this derail isn't annoying for anyone, I love talking about poetry is all!

Rhythm = relative patterns of shorter and longer elements
Beat = metronomic (occurring at regular intervals) pulse underlying music


These definitions sound pretty identical to me. By this formulation, isn't a beat a kind of rhythm? Also I was looking for the difference between Meter and Beat. Are they not both ways to measure sound over time? One uses the naturally occurring stresses in language and the other uses pure sounds, but disentangling the two seems much much more difficult to me than Wilson's statement seemed to indicate both historically and in actual practice. Read a rigidly metered poem, say this one by Liz Bishop:

There is a magic made by melody:
A spell of rest, and quiet breath, and cool
Heart, that sinks through fading colors deep
To the subaqueous stillness of the sea,
And floats forever in a moon-green pool,
Held in the arms of rhythm and of sleep.


And tell me it the meter doesn't inspire, in your feet, a beat! Then look at any song lyrics and show me how they don't use the natural meter of the words to create rhythm.

It's all jumbled up, is what I'm saying.

Natural language uses relative tone but is not "tonal" in the sense we use musically for example when we differentiate tonal and non-tonal music.

Same question here: aren't western music's "tones" just a certain useful set of relative sounds that we somewhat arbitrarily decided were "tones" and all other sounds on the spectrum were not? Speech is sound, and has frequency, therefore it also follows certain relative patterns to demonstrate meaning. Sometimes those patterns are literally musical (Like how a crowd yelling "aiiiiirballll" always uses F and D) but most other times it just partakes of music-like elements. It employs tone to convey meaning in a way related to music, but not as music. Therefore you could theorize that music comes from speech--babies go gaga goo goo, the mother responds imitating and calming, and soon she's singing to him to put him to sleep. I dunno, I could be wrong, but I know it's not as simple as saying "Music is in your genes, that is all, goodnight." Not that anyone here is saying that, but Wilson was, kinda.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:19 PM on April 25, 2012


Also, idiopath: when you say non-tonal music, are you talking about atonal music? I mean, music always has tones, all sound has a tone in as much as all speech has a stress, or visual images have a shape, but atonal music doesn't recognize a relative center or a key. Like Shoenberg said himself (in this wikipedia article i just googled up to make sure I remembered my terms correctly) "To call any relation of tones atonal is just as farfetched as it would be to designate a relation of colors aspectral or acomplementary." It is a free association of tones, which is in fact also what language is, see what I mean?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 3:26 PM on April 25, 2012


No, I would call atonal music "post-tonal", it is a natural and logical extension of common practice western tonality.

In music theory "tonal" means a very specific thing - common practice tonality. When I say non-tonal, I mean music that does not use harmony in the ways common practice tonality does. Yes these terms get fuzzy, the problem is that a bunch of universalizing westerners wrote about their tonal system in their characteristic generalizing way, and if we want to talk about various kinds of tonal systems or ways of using tones, we bump up against the very narrow definitions from European music theory, which are standard terms of the art if we want to talk about these subjects in any detail.

For a concrete and well documented example of what I mean by non-tonal, the traditional music of Indonesia is considered non-tonal because their scales (with very few exceptions) do not have an approximation of the western fourth or fifth, so their music does not typically in the strictest sense of the term, have "chords" (to get technical, they use various approximations of 9 tone equal temperament, the three notes shared between 9tet and 12tet (what we use) are the root (of course), the 12tet major third (four halfsteps in 12tet, three steps in 9tet), the 12tet augmented fifth (8 halfsteps in 12tet, 6 steps in 9tet), and the octave). Traditional Indonesian music definitely uses tones, but it uses them in a way that is not "tonal" - all the important chords and most of the important intervals from which tonality is built are explicitly missing from their scale, and impossible to play on their fixed-pitch instruments.

All the sounds in the spectrum are tones. Any set of them can be used as a scale. But most sounds and most combinations of sound are not "tonal". I could try to reclaim the term, but I have no clout in the music theory world and it would just lead to people who know music theory having no idea what I am talking about (or presuming I am just dumb).
posted by idiopath at 3:52 PM on April 25, 2012


Also, the difference between rhythm and beat is the difference between speech and rap. A beat is a specific and very stylized rhythm. It allows fewer individual differences in performance and demands much more discipline from a performer. On the other end of the spectrum we have pulse.

All events in time have a pulse (just as all moving objects above the subatomic scale have a speed), sometimes the pulse is regular enough that a group of events also have a rhythm, sometimes the rhythm is regular enough that it becomes a beat.
posted by idiopath at 4:01 PM on April 25, 2012


Regarding the actual article:

"In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story. There is an imagined denouement, and perhaps a start, and a selection of bits and pieces that might fit in between."

This is not the only way to make good art. More often, in my experience, the starting point is exposing yourself to the right influences, honing your skills with exercises, finding methods that shake you up and force you to find new approaches, and finally the time to concentrate and follow a thought through to its conclusion. Iannis Xenakis, for example, would often start with an experiment or question, not knowing what the final musical result would sound like. And the results were usually excellent. I have a hunch that sometimes science may similarly more formal and less narrative / intuitive.

"Lyrical expression in literature, on the other hand, is a device to communicate emotional feeling directly from the mind of the writer to the mind of the reader."

This claim is shortsighted. Many great writers work with no such expectation.

Where I do agree is the emphasis on music as ritual and communal practice, as something that defines defines a group and excludes others (this is something you can't get through an American highschool without knowing viscerally). Too much of music theory and scholarship gets lost in technical details and minutiae that have very little to do with the primary function of music in forming social bonds, as something that human beings do and experience together.
posted by idiopath at 4:54 PM on April 25, 2012


I am a fan of E.O. (who once said: "If you don't like Religion, it isn't going away...") but I was a bit disappointed that he went into The Dutton Fallacy, that human beings have evolved to like Savannah landscape paintings. I like landscape paintings fine, but my appreciation of visual arts allows for somewhat more.

I really liked his first novel:

"What the hell do you want?" snarled Frogman at Raff Cody, as the boy stepped innocently onto the reputed murderer's property. Fifteen years old, Raff, along with his older cousin, Junior, had only wanted to catch a glimpse of Frogman’s 1000-pound alligator...
posted by ovvl at 5:52 PM on April 25, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well I know the conversation has moved on, but it's a bit perplexing and discouraging to hear such starkly dismissive opinions. I guess the best I can put it is this way: imagine an alternative world, in which sociobiology or whatever other scientific field actually is capable of making meaningful contributions to and melding with the humanities. Given the arguments you're putting forward now, I'm not convinced you'd know whether you live in that world or in the world where science can't make meaningful contributions. I don't know this and I'm not going to spend any substantial portion of my time trying to figure it out, so I'm not making a very impassioned point right now. It simply stands to reason that new [scientific] information could come to light which would alter the humanities fundamentally. The "your science can't test my art" idea is just.. discouraging.
posted by Buckt at 10:49 PM on April 25, 2012


Buckt, I hope it's not me you're addressing...I didn't mean to be dismissive. I actually like some sociobiology, and I like Wilson a lot. Amazing scientific breakthroughs change everything, including the creation and study of art! They just have to be actually amazing, and mostly what Sociobiology has been saying about art isn't amazing, or even particularly scientific. I hope to one day live in that world you're describing, where science and humanities have mutual understanding of each other and neither tries to undermine the other. ScienceHi5s!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 4:58 AM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


In the case of music, physics, then later information theory, totally and radically transformed the tools and methods available. The fact that "live music" and "acoustic music" are marked terms, and the unqualified term "music" implies a digitally compressed sound file for electronic reproduction is telling.

Psychoacoustics has led to insights regarding the process of hearing and making sense of sound, and informs technologies used to spice up or thicken sound, or to maximise percieved intensity. This is the root the destinctive sound of modern radio-friendly music, from pop to metal.

People have applied mathematical tools and analysis to the process of composition. Xenakis, a mathematician before he was a composer, pioneered the use of clusters of sound that bridge the uncanny valley between pitch and texture (what matured into modern granulation, and even things like paulstretch or autotune, but started as experiments with acoustic instruments). Hiller was able to use Markov chains, and derived methods, to replicate folk music, serial music, and formal counterpoint (his work led to the modern program "band in a box", give it a genre and a few parameters and it spits out a piece of music). Cope used a variety of software methods to make a software based composer, which with assistance from an expert user generates a score for symphonic music (these scores have been well recieved by human audiences when performed by human performers).

But sociobiology has not and likely will not change music. Furthermore, sociobiology, and Wilson in particular, are famous for a science that is often more about fabulous just-so-stories than prediction and experiment.
posted by idiopath at 5:44 AM on April 26, 2012


But sociobiology has not and likely will not change music. Furthermore, sociobiology, and Wilson in particular, are famous for a science that is often more about fabulous just-so-stories than prediction and experiment.

Um, sociobiology is not designed to change music..

E.O. is an insect scientist with a passion for human philosophy. He teases the Humanities. He is interested in more interdisciplinary exploration.

Final words: "This is a subject that will greatly reward deeper additional research, including the synthesis of elements from anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, and evolutionary biology.
posted by ovvl at 5:31 PM on April 26, 2012


ovvl, this is what I was responding to:

Buckt: "The "your science can't test my art" idea is just.. discouraging."

furthermore,
ovvl: "Um, sociobiology is not designed to change music.. "

some quotes from the article
"RICH AND SEEMINGLY BOUNDLESS as the creative arts seem to be, each is filtered through the narrow biological channels of human cognition."

"By using this power in addition to examine human history, we can gain insights into the origin and nature of aesthetic judgment."

"If ever there was a reason for bringing the humanities and science closer together, it is the need to understand the true nature of the human sensory world"

"Such may be the scope of the humanities, but it makes no allusion to the understanding of the cognitive processes that bind them all together, nor their relation to hereditary human nature, nor their origin in prehistory. Surely we will never see a full maturing of the humanities until these dimensions are added."

"Innovators in both of two domains are basically dreamers and storytellers. In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story."
As far as Wilson is concerned, Sociobiology, the discipline he invented, has everything to teach artists, but nothing to learn from them. The whole essay is a plea for people in the humanities to take his ideas, and his field, seriously.

So yes, he did design sociobiology to change music. And everything else too. And politics. I don't know if his megalomania is warranted or not, but it is definitely there for all to see.
posted by idiopath at 7:13 PM on April 26, 2012 [1 favorite]


Well, E.O. is kinda like a megalomaniac, and just like any popular media scientist, he makes bold and sometimes awkward forays into philosophy, which will be eventually judged by history..

But we all know that only musicians can change music.
posted by ovvl at 6:28 PM on May 1, 2012


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