Before we begin, consider having this beautiful piece, Glorious (by MaMuse), play in the background as you read this post about the evolution of song. Something else you might like to listen to, perhaps after reading, is a piece entitled Singing which aired recently on a BBC Radio program called The Why Factor. In my own field of evolutionary biology I have often had reason to contemplate the phenomenon of preadaptation (or exaptation) which involves the co-option, recycling, repurposing, or re-application of a structure or behavior to new function. Few objects are developed de novo in plant and animal evolutionary sequences and nature seems to find it easier to adapt and to put old structures to new uses. For those of you who have heard of Rube Goldberg you’ll know how this approach to biomechanical triumph was envisioned by this legendary engineer turned Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist.Rube2A classic example of biological co-option is found in the evolutionary reorganization and modification of the articular and quadrate bones of the reptilian jaw to fashion the malleus and the incus which joint with the stapes to form the auditory ossicles (ear bones) of the mammalian middle ear. So, what does this have to do with the evolution of song? Think about the function of vocalizations which may have occurred among ancient mammals. Have you ever heard the vocalizations which pass between a cow, goat, sheep, or hog and its newborn? A variety of chuckles, whickers, croons, and grunts. It fascinates me that these very particular sounds are made only during a brief period following parturition to establish and to then strengthen and solidify the bond between mother and offspring. How about warning calls? Or calls made during aggressive encounters between and among males for territory. [Check out this link to a video showing a fearsome Maori Haka.] And certainly the sounds and calls involved in pair bonding and in mating. Now enlarge your view to consider vocalizations that are made to ensure that traveling groups remain together. Consider the calls made by geese as they fly in formation or the trumpets of elephants as they travel the savannah. These vocalizations, these calls, are intended to foster and solidify group membership and cohesion. Now let’s turn to archaic humans and think about why they may have vocalized? Certainly to communicate between and among members of small or larger family groups as well as for all of the reasons mentioned above. In addition, perhaps they called in groups as a way to announce to other adjacent and competing groups their presence. Perhaps these same calls played the dual role of fostering feelings of community, cohesion, comfort, safety, and well-being. And, while we’re at it, why not call these group calls song by suggesting that especially the ones which conveyed feelings of pleasure were uttered on purpose, as it were. What sends a tingle up my spine is the raw emotion I feel when listening to certain types of (mostly live) music. It is perhaps the very same feeling my neonate ancestor felt when it heard the utterances of bonding made during its first days of life. Those early behaviors, adaptations, and capacities derived so long ago may be the very same capacities co-opted by us to different function in an oh so different a time.

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