Monday, November 23, 2009

It's got a beat, and you can dance to it.

I was originally going to write about one hypothesis of mine, but, as usual, I got sidetracked in my research and will now write two thoughts, and plug a few books.

First, (but actually last), I just sent an email off to Professor Bernd Heinrich. (Professor Heinrich is at the University of Vermont, and wrote a book called "Mind of the Raven", which I enjoyed very much). Here's the text:

"Dear Professor Heinrich,

I read your fascinating book "Mind of the Raven", and noted that you expressed puzzlement as to how ravens identified each other as individuals when you could discern no visual, auditory, or olfactory clues through human senses. I read that birds have four and sometimes five types of cone cells and can see in the ultraviolet as well. I'm wondering if anyone has developed a camera that can see as birds do, and if so, have they looked at ravens to see if their feathers have a unique or distinctive plumage in these wavelengths (or combination of wavelengths) we cannot see?

Just a thought.

Take care,

John Kurman"

Well, that is the second hypothesis I had which I had no intention of writing about today: that birds, or corvids at least, can distinguish each other as individuals by distinctive colorations of their feathers in wavelengths that humans cannot see. This hypothesis is easily disproved by looking at birds in those wavelengths. So, I figured I'd write to Professor Hienrich in case no one had thought of this (though it seems simpleminded enough that someone should have). 

My original intention was to plug a book called "Born To Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen" by Christopher McDougall. I read this book as soon as my local library purchased it, towards the middle of summer. Not being one to follow popular culture, I only recently became aware that it was a bestseller. I'm plugging the book anyway. 

So imagine my delight, when, in checking the spelling for McDougall's name on Amazon, I find that Amazon's search results included a book by Hienrich called "Why We Run: A Natural History". I haven't read this book. According to the reviews, this is his book "Racing the Antelope" retitled and repackaged. I haven't read this book either, but I think I will. I'm assuming Heinrich explores a theme which was examined in McDougall's book - that we as a species evolved to run long distances, perhaps for the purpose of endurance hunting. I, for one, think the evidence is good for this, therefore I'll buy into this hypothesis for now.

But that's not what my hypothesis is about. Given (assume as true) that we are long-distance running apes, then I think I have a good explanation for our musical gifts and facility at rhythm. It involves the idea that our musical and rhythmic talents are a pre-adaptation. 

What's a pre-adaptation? It is when an animal possesses a structure or behavior that becomes exploited or useful in an entirely different manner at some later stage in evolutionary time. The classic example is feathers. We all know (or should) that birds are descendants of dinosaurs. And we all know (or should) that some dinosaurs, perhaps more than most, had feathers. (There are many fossil discoveries which show dinosaurs had  feathers. Don't take my word for it).  Feathers are very useful for flight in birds. But birds did not evolve feathers to fly. Feathers were there before birds, and the inherited property of having feathers from their dino-ancestors came in handy for flight. That's pre-adaptation.

I think we got music from running. I think the ability to efficiently run in time, in step, as an individual or in a group, was a pre-adaptation for rhythm. From rhythm, you get a beat, and once you got a beat, you are more than halfway there to jammin'. That's my idea.  


  1. I've never bought into the idea that humans were long distance runners, sprinters, yes. It seems to me that if we were built for long distance running it wouldn't play such havoc on knees and ankles. You put forth an interesting idea though. Music from running.

  2. I think it only plays havoc on knees and ankles because most people don't know how to run. I've been running long distances since high school, and have never had any problems at all - not even accidents. Now, you could chalk that up tio genetics, but I think you need to include a large amount of credit to my track and cross-country coaches. Besides, humans, compared to other animals, simply suck at sprinting. Why, I think even chimps can outpace us in a short distance sprint!