Anthropologist Suzman challenges the Darwin’s theory, so were that leaves music?

The idea for this post comes from a YouTube video, as is often the case on my blog. In the video a social anthropologist James Suzman offers quite different view on the crucial theory of the human development, originally presented by Charles Darwin some 160 year ago. Darwin’s claim that the human evolution is a result of the natural selection, where those who survive and who are able to keep their genes in the global gene pool, are those the strongest, the most attractive, the best prepared for the harsh reality of life. 

Suzman doesn’t agree with this theory and offers a different perspective, based on his almost 30 years of research among the African hunters and gatherers tribes. 

This is exactly what caught my interest. Suzman explains, that based on his experience working with African tribes living life similar to our ancestors maybe 100,000 years ago, these humans don’t differentiate between work and leisure. He wrote about this topic is his book Work: A Deep History, from the Stone Age to the Age of Robots

Suzman claims, that evolutionary history just isn’t a constant competition. Actually, most animals spend as much time as they can relaxing, taking it easy, or playing and enjoying themselves. Humans are no different, therefore work, or helping others, expresses goodwill and, like a dance or a song, it creates a communion of a purpose and a harmony of experience.

Here is my point – previously I had been in the impression, that our ancestors lived under almost constant stress, protecting themselves from wild animals’ attacks, searching for food, shelter, security, fighting with other tribes … Simply, that their lives were only fighting for survival. That was my impression I got from reading books on this topic. 

In such scenario, there would be hardly any time left for seemingly such a ‘useless’ activity, as singing or playing music. Only mothers with small children would have probably some time to spend singing to make their offspring fall asleep – motherese as Elene Dissanayake’s explanation of a possible beginning of musicking. The other opportunities to make music and dance would be for special occasions, celebrations, or religious purposes. And that would possibly be very rare – that was my thinking.

With Suzman’s explanation, music may had been a much more common activity our ancestors would indulge in, for various reasons and at different times. It is interesting that he has music as a separate activity, but similar to a work regarding the outcome and the purpose. What is important for us is how he understand the function of music – its social aspect!

And here we are, I believe, at the most important point of this theory. Suzman focuses on work and he describes it as … the simple act of helping someone perform a job will often break down barriers far quicker than any clumsy utterances. It expresses goodwill and, like a dance or a song, it creates a communion of purpose and a harmony of experience.

This is exactly it! This is what music (possibly) had been used for, and sometimes still is. It creates communion of purpose and a harmony of experience. If our ancestors had much more time on their hands than we previously thought, than they probably had spent way more of that time musicking, singing, and dancing. That may be the reason, why music is so deeply ingrained in human brains, what shows for example on elderly Alzheimer patients with a lost ability to talk, but who are still able to sing. 

It may be, that music has played much more important role in prehistoric humans’ lives, than we could imagine or accept. If they wouldn’t differentiate between work and entertainment, maybe musicking was a constant part of their everyday activities. 

I don’t want to get political and compare the ancestors’ lives with currently often mentioned way of life some entities seem to be preparing for the humanity, when we will “own nothing and be happy”. But this picture of our ancestors’ life seems to be quite similar to that. Suzman observed that the surviving hunters-gatherers don’t understand a concept of ownership, their society is very egalitarian, and they don’t have a long term planning. But they seem to be working well together – and they make music, sing and dance together. 

Is that only a pure coincidence, or is their musicking directly related and tied to the way how their society functions? And here I would like to extrapolate this situation to our current times. Doesn’t the fact that as a majority of population in the developed countries has lost their willingness and opportunities to actively participate in music making, directly connect to a growing number of various psychological and sociological issues? 

I understand that every living organism is evolving and changing – possibly for its advantage. We cannot stop or reverse evolution of the human specie. My point is, that maybe we have just accepted one direction in our human evolution where musicking seems to be slowly pushed aside as an unnecessary waste of time, an unpleasant exposure of our perceived imperfection, as a commodity we purchase, consume, even discard. 

If this direction into commoditized music consumption doesn’t bring those benefits our ancestors enjoyed, maybe we should try to find a different direction. 

Obviously, the music industry wouldn’t like another dangerous change, as many musicians have struggled after music has moved to the internet. It started with Napster more than 20 years ago and showed that many people want to listen to music. But this abundance  of music only causes that less people are willing and able to play music themselves. I don’t expect the music industry to start changing music consumer habits as it profits from them handsomely. But I believe that if more people changed their habits and instead of listening switched to making, playing music, that in the long term everyone would benefit. Those who don’t see any value in music would possibly see it. While their peers and friends enjoy themselves musicking, it may be worth joining them, regardless of the perceived ‘quality’ or ability. They would realize, that what counts is – participation; is enhancing the community; is creation of harmony, their experience – the society. 

Maybe we need more active music making in our lives, to make the humanity a bit better. 

What do you think?

Photo Anna’s Scholarship Entry 2012 — Walk with the San people — Botswana

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