Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man

BOOK: Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man
8.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Praise for Mark Changizi and


The theoretical neurobiologist Mark Changizi has a dazzling ability to change the way we think by providing compelling answers to big, important questions that had never occurred to most of us in the first place.”

Roger Highfield
, editor of
New Scientist
and co-author of

In this remarkable book, Mark Changizi performs surgery on the mind, revealing nothing less than the origins of the abilities that make us human. And his conclusions are both provocative and surprising: The uniquely human facility with language and the universal human propensity to create and enjoy music came about not through biological adaptation, but through cultural evolution. Human culture harnessed what our brains already did well—perceiving physical events and human movements. Changizi’s carefully constructed evolutionary explanation of language and music promises to revolutionize thinking about what separates us from apes.”

Dan Simons
, co-author of
The Invisible Gorilla

Among the abundant theories on the origins of language and music, Mark Changizi’s book is unique in proposing a very precise hypothesis that leads to many testable and surprisingly accurate predictions. Bold, speculative, highly stimulating and entertaining, this book might hold a key to one of humanity’s longstanding mysteries.”

Stanislas Dehaene
, author of
The Number Sense
Reading in the Brain

Mark Changizi is always daring and original, and his theory of how we learned language and music from nature is truly unique, opening up our ears and eyes to a whole new vision of humanity.”

David Rothenberg
, author of
Survival of the Beautiful
Why Birds Sing

is one of the most interesting and original books I’ve read in the past few years. Changizi is an excellent writer, a compelling theorist, and relentless and ingenious in seeking evidence to back his theories. His approach to music is at once quite different from other work in the field and yet accessible and intelligible. He has answers where others don’t even know how to ask questions. What I like about his approach is that he shows how a brain that has been shaped in certain ways has latent capabilities that can be harnessed to tasks that are different from those that shaped it. That is an important idea and is certain to yield further insight.”

William Benzon
, author of
Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture

A rich tapestry of hypotheses about why language and music sound the way they do.”

Gary Marcus
, professor of  psychology at New York University, and author of
Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind

Praise for
The Vision Revolution


The novel ideas that Mr. Changizi outlines in
The Vision Revolution
—together with the evidence he does present—may have a big effect on our understanding of the human brain. Their implication is that the environments we evolved in shaped the design of our visual system according to a set of deep principles. Our challenge now is to see them clearly.”

The Wall Street Journal

The writing style is clear and captivating; the illustrations are nicely done and helpful.” —

Throughout the book, Changizi peppers his explanations with quick, fascinating visual exercises that help to drive his points home. . . . One thing is certain:
The Vision Revolution
will make you wonder the next time you notice someone blush, catch a ball or finish reading a magazine page.”

Scientific American MIND

Filled with optical illusions and simple experiments for the reader to perform, this book may be the most fun you’ll have learning about human cognition and evolution.”

The Barnes & Noble
online publication

The Vision Revolution
is essential science writing, not because the ideas are definitely correct, but because the book can give the ordinary reader an glimpse of how science can work. Changizi is unusual in the range and quality of his ideas, and the clarity and humour with which he can lay them out; but the real value of this book is in the excitement of the scientific process that it conveys.” —
The Psychologist

“The book contributes an interesting set of new ideas that are explained in a way that should engage a wide range of readers.”

The Quarterly Review of Biology

. . . fascinating book” —
New Scientist

. . . challenges common notions regarding sight . . . keep[s] them . . . dazzled.” —
Publishers Weekly

. . . see how a masterful theorist revisualizes one of the oldest subdisciplines of psychology.” —


How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man

Mark Changizi

BenBella Books, Inc.

Dallas, Texas



Copyright © 2011 by Mark Changizi

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

BenBella Books, Inc.

10300 N. Central Expressway, Suite 400

Dallas, TX 75231


Send feedback to
[email protected]

Printed in the United States of America


Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data is available for this title.

ISBN 978-1-935618-53-9

Editing by Erin Kelley

Copyediting by Annie Gottlieb

Proofreading by Michael Fedison

Cover design by David Drummond

Text design and composition by Neuwirth & Associates, Inc.

Printed by Berryville Graphics

Distributed by Perseus Distribution


To place orders through Perseus Distribution:

Tel: 800-343-4499

Fax: 800-351-5073

[email protected]

Significant discounts for bulk sales are available.

Please contact Glenn Yeffeth at
[email protected]
or (214) 750-3628.



The Reading Instinct

Chapter 1

Chapter 2
Speech Events

Chapter 3
Soylent Music

Chapter 4
Musical M

So What Are We?


Word Events




The Reading Instinct


t the beginning of his book
The Language Instinct
, Steven Pinker demonstrates the amazing power of language with an example. He writes:

The [language] ability comes so naturally that we are apt to forget what a miracle it is. So let me remind you with some simple demonstrations. Asking you only to surrender your imagination to my words for a few moments, I can cause you to think some very specific thoughts:

When a male octopus spots a female, his normally grayish body suddenly becomes striped . . .

Cherries jubilee on a white suit? Wine on an altar cloth? Apply club soda immediately . . .

When Dixie opens the door to Tad, she is stunned, because she thought he was dead . . .

With just a handful of words, our brains are pulled hither and thither to far-off corners of a vast mental universe, and new content is installed. For me, the Dixie-and-dead-Tad story from
All My Children
is old news, but a few of you may not have known Tad is alive. And now you know, from just a few words in the right order.

That kind of brainpower doesn’t happen by accident, Pinker argues. The deeply malleable, blank-slate brains the social sciences have long supposed we possess could never learn and do language as we can. Language is astoundingly complicated—to this day, we cannot build effective speech-recognition machines—and yet we are uncannily good at it: children learn language too quickly and easily, we all comprehend it too automatically and effortlessly, and it pervades our life too completely to be something we simply learn with general-purpose brains. And our brains, indeed, have long appeared to have specialized regions for language. That we have an instinct for language is also suggested by its universality: language is found everywhere, and languages tend to share many common features.

And although Pinker may not extend these arguments to music—he famously called music “auditory cheesecake”—other researchers would. Steven Mithen, in
The Singing Neanderthals
, pointed out that music is complex, and yet we’re creepily good at processing it; we have seemingly specialized brain regions for it; and music is found virtually everywhere, with certain fundamentally similar characteristics.

To my mind, Pinker’s arguments that we are not the universal-learning machines we are often believed to be (something he has argued in all his books) are convincing. And his arguments that language possesses all the hallmarks of design (and analogous arguments by others in the case of music) are highly persuasive.

Language and music, on the one hand, and the human brain, on the other, are designed to fit one another.

But there is a gnawing problem, one Pinker himself implicitly reveals on the first page of his book, in the passage I quoted above: the octopus, club soda, and soap opera excerpts were
. My ability to comprehend Pinker’s examples—and all his books, and, well, everything I have ever come to know and admire about him—relied on writing and reading.

Why is reading a problem for the notion of language and music instincts? Because, like language and music, our ability to read
has the hallmarks of design . . . and yet we
we have no reading instinct.

We know there’s no reading instinct because writing is too recent, having been invented only several thousand years ago; in fact, it didn’t take hold among a large fraction of the population until just a few generations ago. There’s a good chance most of your great-great-great-grandparents didn’t read.

And yet, despite the fact that we cannot possibly have specialized reading mechanisms in our brains, reading has the same appearance of instinct, much like language and music. Reading is astoundingly complex—to this day, we cannot build effective handwriting-recognition machines—and yet we display machinelike proficiency at reading. Children learn to read at about twice the age at which they can comprehend speech, but when they do learn, their reading experiences are meager compared to those for speech. To put it in context, they’re often reading before they’re competent at pouring milk into cereal, wiping their bottoms, or even engaging in stereotypical ape behaviors like turning somersaults and climbing monkey bars. Once we’ve learned, we read automatically and effortlessly, and reading is arguably more pervasive in our lives today than speech. Our brilliantly capable reading brains even appear to have regions specialized for reading (one is called the “visual word form area”), which researchers like the neuroscientists Stanislas Dehaene and Laurent Cohen discuss, and which Dehaene takes up in his recent book,
Reading in the Brain
. The whiff of a reading instinct is also apparent in the near universality of writing and reading. Writing is found in nearly every human society today, and there are strong universal tendencies across writing (e.g., in the number of strokes per character among phonemic writing systems like ours, and in the ways that strokes can interconnect to build characters, something I discussed in Chapter 4 of
The Vision Revolution

If we can appear to have a reading instinct without actually having one, perhaps the appearance of instincts for language and music is an illusion, too. Perhaps the story of the origins of speech and music is the same as the story underlying our ability to read, whatever that story might be.

It does not escape Pinker’s notice that his illustration of language’s power is communicated to a reader, not a listener. He says in the paragraph following the octopus-soda-soap excerpts:

True, my demonstrations depended on our ability to read and write, and this makes our communication even more impressive by bridging gaps of time, space, and acquaintanceship. But writing is clearly an optional accessory; the real engine of verbal communication is the spoken language we acquire as children.

Writing is optional, Pinker says, but optional for what? Speech and writing serve distinctly different functions. As Pinker notes, writing, but not speech, can bridge space and time, giving writing a power akin to a superpower (for example, if I’m dead when you’re reading this, then you’re not merely reading, but spirit reading!). And as I discuss in
The Vision Revolution
, writing serves functions that audio recordings (which also bridge space and time) cannot, allowing the reader to interact with other minds and upload content so efficiently that it changed us from
Homo sapiens
to a universally programmable
Homo turingipithecus
. And these distinctive functions of writing are not optional: recorded history and modern civilization depend on it!

At any rate, optional or not, we appear to be designed to read, and yet we have no reading instinct. How is this possible?

The answer is that, rather than our brains being designed for reading, reading is designed for our brains. Writing is a technology that has been optimized over time by the forces of cultural selection to be good for our visual system. We have no reading instinct. Instead, writing has a brain instinct (i.e., is designed for the brain), something neuroscientist Stanislas Dehaene calls “neuronal recycling.”

In my research and in my previous book,
The Vision Revolution
, I provided evidence to support a specific theory of how culture managed to shape writing for the brain: writing was culturally selected to look, in fundamental respects,
like nature
, which is the look our evolutionarily illiterate visual system is highly competent at processing. Writing doesn’t have a brain instinct so much as a

In the case of writing, then, instinct is not responsible for the appearance of design. The designer is not natural selection, but cultural selection. The tight fit between reading and the brain is because reading has been bent to the brain, not the other way around. And the tight fit was achieved via what I call
: mimicking nature so as to harness evolutionarily ancient brain mechanisms for a new purpose.

And now we are poised to see the purpose of

If cultural selection can give us writing shaped like nature that is thereby optimized for our visual system, and can do so in just several thousand years, then imagine how well optimized for our brains speech and music may be if they have been culturally evolving for
of thousands of years to be good for our auditory systems! What if writing, speech, and music are
products of culture, but—consistent with the fact that we’re not general-purpose machines—they are highly designed technologies shaped for our minds?

And, more specifically, what if, just as writing
like nature, these two auditory capabilities—speech and music—have come to
like nature, and thereby to harness ancient, highly efficient brain mechanisms that were never intended for language or music?

But what in nature might speech and music sound like?
the topic of the book. Before getting into speech and music, however, we must discuss in more detail the general nature-harnessing approach that I believe explains writing, speech, and music—and explains who we are today. And that’s the topic of Chapter 1.

BOOK: Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man
8.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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