I recently finished Steven Mithen’s provocative book, The Singing Neanderthals. Mithen speaks from the outset of his own musical incompetence: “I can neither sing in tune nor clap in rhythm. I am unable to play any musical instrument.” He goes on to praise his wife and children for their musical accomplishments, and to formulate a wide-ranging theory, in large part (and unavoidably) speculative, about why music evolved and why it is so important to our species. He ends with an impassioned call for us to listen, and then to play and sing. My suspicion is that such envoys are atypical in scientific works, even those intended for the lay reader, rare.
It would be false for me to pretend to have retained a full comprehension everything from my first reading of this wide-ranging, interdisciplinary book, nor that I did not sometimes find it to be heavy going. Few things are as humbling, for me, as reading books about math or science that are intended for the general reader—the experience often reminds me what a dimwit I can be, in certain areas, how far below the “general educated lay reader” I can fall. Mithen’s hypothesis is that essential primate communication was originally musical, not verbal, and that communication via a variety of pitched vocalizations—laden with emotional content but not the potentially abstract combinatorics of words—is completely consistent with both the long-term survival and cultural stability (hundreds of thousands of years) of the cultures of pre-homo sapiens such at the Neanderthals, a stability and survival that is demonstrated in the fossil record. What is striking about the book, amidst all the summaries of studies in other disciplines, adducing of other scholars’ findings, and piecing together of a broad and complex picture, is the extent to which it seems to be a work of passion, a—well—slapdown of linguist Steven Pinker’s assessment of music as “auditory cheesecake,” something really outside the imperatives of human development. It seems to me that Pinker’s linguacentrism unleashed Mithen’s Poet Within. (I have no informed opinion one way or the other, beyond finding Mithen persuasive.)
How does a scholar compose an ode? With explications and marginalia and footnotes.
Before you laugh too hard, though, reflect that the eloquence of any utterance depends on sympathy for the idiom. Hiphop or rap will not communicate to people ill-disposed to those characteristic uses of language. Ditto for the Rock song, and even poetry that doesn’t rhyme, to people who insist that it should.
I admit that there were points when I wanted to interrupt, though to chime in rather than dispute. In his concluding chapter, for instance, Mithen observes:
“It is now apparent, for instance, why even when listening to music made by instruments rather than the human voice, we treat music as a virtual person and attribute to it an emotional state and sometimes a personality and intention. It is also now clear why so much of music is structured as if a conversation is taking place within the music itself, and why we often intuitively feel that a piece of music should have a meaning attached to it even though we cannot grasp what that might be.”
The entire world of musical rhetoric, topics, formal conventions and generic contracts and so on leapt to mind, as it would to style mavens, film music people, and many others of us. Mithen may not have heard of such explanations for what to him seems to be a deeply alluring mystery, but the reader feels an urge to share, explain, contribute.
It’s not our story, though, it’s his. Mithen’s fugue of paleontology, anthropology, neuroscience, child psychology, and so much else amounts to a love song, to music itself—which he loves desperately, but seemingly through a glass, darkly—and to his family. One wonders if they understand that. Scholarly writing with this kind of¬—well, unbridled passion is all too rare, but such a pleasure when discovered.