Did Music Have A Biological Function In The Before Time?

25 September, 2022
Music used to have a biological function, but then something changed. After the change, the original function of music ceased to be relevant.


Music is a thing that consumes considerable time, energy and other resources (ie money, in the modern world).

Yet, it appears to have no obvious function.

There is a small percentage of people who are not interested in music, who don't make any effort to listen to music, and who seem to do fine without it.

(Science has only recently discovered the existence of people who are positively disinterested in music, so our knowledge about such people is rather limited. For example, we don't know what relationship might exist between a person's level of interest in music and that person's long-term reproductive success – the large-scale research project required to answer that question has not yet happened. At most we have anecdotal evidence of people who aren't interested in music, who seem to be as successful in life as other people are.)

We can ask if music has a function, and the answer might be "yes", or "no". Both of those answers have their own followup questions:

Both of these questions relate to evolutionary theory.

If music has a function, then that function has to be something that increases long-term reproductive success.

If music doesn't have a function, then the costs of creating and listening to music are a negative benefit, and evolution should cause music, as a thing, to steadily disappear, with evolution favoring those genes that cause people to be less interested in music.

The "Side-Effect" Hypothesis

It might be that music is somehow a side effect of something else that is an adaptation that favours long-term reproductive success.

However, it is not at all obvious what that other thing might be.

And whatever it is, we still have to explain the existence of non-listeners to music. Either those people don't have that other thing, or, somehow they manage to have the other thing, but without the need to listen to music. (In which case, it should be possible for all people to have the other thing, without the costly side-effect of wanting to listen to music.)

The "Used-To-Be-Adaptive" Hypothesis

There is another possible solution to this problem, which is a mixture of "yes" and "no" answers to the original question:

Music used to be functional, in the past, but now it isn't.

It could be that music doesn't have any function now, but it did have a function in the "recent" past.

By "recent", I mean: "sufficiently recent that evolution has not yet had time to make music go away".

This hypothesis is a variant of the "no" answer, where the explanation for why music hasn't evolved away is that actually it is evolving away, but the evolving away is still in progress.

This hypothesis raises its own questions:

For the purpose of discussing these questions, it can be useful to define some labels:

(Note: I originally thought "Before Time" came from a South Park episode, but it turns out it actually came from a Star Trek episode, which I didn't know because I don't watch Star Trek.)

Side Note: Proto-Music

It's important to note that the above terminology does not necessarily describe the full evolutionary history of music as a thing. Music likely evolved from some ancestral form – AKA "proto-music" – that had functions somewhat different to the final functionality being discussed here, and that process of evolution could have consisted of multiple stages with multiple different types of functionality.

For example, the ancestral form of music may have been part of a communication system, even though (probably) the final functional form of music wasn't part of a communication system.

Or to put it another way, there wasn't just a Before Time, there was also a Before the Before Time, and other times before that.

But, in the current discussion, I am limiting the scope to the very last "Before Time", ie I am only considering the last biological function that music had, and what might have happened causing music to no longer have that function.

The Sapient Paradox

It turns out that music is not the only big question about human evolution that might involve a "Before Time" and an "After Time".

There is the Sapient Paradox.

This "paradox" has to do with the transition to so-called "Civilisation" (not always "civil"), where a substantial proportion of people are living in large organised societies.

This transition seems to have occurred about 12,000 years ago.

But "anatomically modern humans" appear to have existed for about 200,000 years.

And the big question is: what were our ancestors doing in the first 188,000 years that they never formed large organised societies?

An interesting article about the Sapient Paradox is Erik Hoel's The gossip trap.

Hoel introduces his own terminology – that there was a Great Trap, something in the circumstances of human life, which actively prevented humans from doing all those things that are necessary to create civilisation.

This hypothesis can be described using the same terminology that I introduced above in relation to the history of the functionality of music:

Hoel also develops a specific hypothesis about what the Great Trap might have been.

But, before considering that, I want to propose a hypothesis about music, in relation to the abstract concept of the Great Trap, which is as follows:

The Before Time, Transition and After Time in relation to the biological function of music are identical to the Before Time, Transition and After Time in relation to the Great Trap.

This then suggests a hypothesis about the functionality of music, which is:

Music had a biological function which was relevant to humans living in the Great Trap, but, once humans escaped from the Great Trap, music no longer had a biological function.

We can think about this as analogous to a set of skills that a person might have learned in prison:

The Social Status Hypothesis

Hoel's specific hypothesis is that the Great Trap consisted of Social Status, ie your status among the people you live with.

In modern society, social status is a good thing to have.

But Hoel is suggesting that, in the Great Trap, social status was everything. The survival and success of yourself, as an individual, was totally dependent on your social status.

And civilisation, as we know it, could only come into existence when this dependence on social status was significantly weakened (by something).

Social Status, Music and Maladaptive Daydreaming

So, to take this analysis to a full conclusion, we want to ask – does music have anything to do with social status?

A possible answer to this question has to do with Maladaptive Daydreaming.

Maladaptive Daydreamers are people who compulsively engage in intense and prolonged daydreaming to an extent that significantly interferes with their ability to get anything done in real life.

And in many cases, maladaptive daydreaming only happens when the daydreamer is listening to music.

When we analyse this phenomenon in a theoretical biological framework, maladaptive daydreaming is a bit like music – it happens, those who do it are strongly motivated to do it, but it seems to have no biological function.

But, as it happens, there is one very interesting connection.

A significant proportion of the daydreams of maladaptive daydreamers have to do with status ("social" or otherwise).

In fact, some typical examples of maladaptive daydreamers' daydreams are:

One important observation is that none of these daydreams result in any practical plans to achieve increased status. The only consequence of the daydreaming is that the daydreamer experiences what it is like to have higher (or lower) status.

The Opportunistic Hypothesis

So we have a connection between music and daydreaming, and we have a connection between daydreams and social status. But, the daydreams do not relate to any plans or actions that can be taken to achieve increased status in real life.

So, what benefit can such daydreams actually provide?

One possibility is that the act of experiencing what it is like to have higher or lower social status is a way of precalculating the value of social status.

This doesn't in itself lead to a plan to achieve increased status. But, if an opportunity should arise, and a quick decision needs to be made about such an opportunity, which may for example involve some risk of downside, then the person has already calculated that value, and can quickly make a rational decision.

To give a specific example, a person sees an opportunity to rescue another individual from some danger, like a dangerous animal. If the rescue is successful, the person will be a hero, and almost certainly gain status as a result.

But the intended hero can't wait around trying to calculate the exact value of being a hero, because the dangerous animal isn't waiting – the rescue is now or never.

The person needs to already know how much they want to be a hero. And that's what the daydreaming is for.

As I mentioned above, Hoel has developed the hypothesis that dependence on social status was much greater in (what I call) the "Before Time" than it is now in the "After Time".

With the Opportunistic Hypothesis, I am suggesting a second way that life in the Before Time was different to that in the After Time, ie that life in the Before Time was much more opportunistic than modern life.

For example, opportunities for heroic acts were more common, because there were more dangerous animals, and more inter-personal violence. And if something bad was about to happen to someone, you couldn't just dial the emergency number on your mobile phone.

Also, in a smaller society, the highest status individual was maybe one person out of a hundred. In a modern larger society, the celebrity that you hang out with in your fantasy daydreams is a one in a million, and in real life you are not ever going to hang out with that person.

And similarly, in a smaller society, it is more likely that you might (somehow) become that highest status individual, whereas in a larger society, for most people, the probability of that ever happening is very, very small.

In effect, there was a Great Trap, which society as a whole could not easily escape from, but, there were more opportunities for individuals to (occasionally) take some action that would put them in a better position relative to everyone else inside that Trap.

And the biological function of music, for the people living in the Great Trap, was to enter a state of mind in which one could precalculate the value of social status, so that, when a risky opportunity arose to do something that could significantly increase the individual's social status, a quick and rational decision could be made whether or not to act on the opportunity.