The evolution of preference

(This is the continuation of a Twitter discussion with @RafalMista , whose is the opening quote.)

I’ll concentrate on “If there is a feedback between preferences and musical variants (transformed by preferences which are transformed by available repertoires of musical variants etc.)…”

I think we have to distinguish between various theories, e.g. the Darwinian theory and the CES theory which, as Nathalie Gontier says, has yet to be formulated.  Per Darwin, musical variants can be melody, harmony, rhythm  and timbre among others.  A preference in a group is an observed tendency to, where there is a choice, do one thing and not the other, as play a syncopated rather than a non-syncopated triplet.  That is an act of selection, which in a human being can only get out of the brain by muscle contraction, as Richard Dawkins notes in The Extended Phenotype.  What I think you refer to as a cultural preference is not a unitary thing.  A village band might consensually dislike syncopation but the clarinet player may slip a bit in nonetheless.  The bandmaster frowns, but the clarinetist does it again at a dance and the kids cheer.  That is an act of selection by the kids which may become ancestral to a new variant of the tune.  Here at a stroke the trope “preference” disintegrates into what is actually happening.  There is replication with fidelity (the band plays the tune with no syncopation time without number), there is variation within a very limited envelope (the clarinet player syncopates a triplet), there is selection (by the cheering young people at the dance), the clarinet player is encouraged to do it again at the next dance, at the third dance he is forbidden to do so by the bandmaster, he doesn’t syncopate, the kids jeer, the fourth time he does it again, cheers, the syncopated triplet moves towards fixation as an acknowledged variant.  Maybe the bandmaster induces a split, taking the older non-triplet-syncopating conservatives with him.  The syncopaters are the ones employed for dances, the non-syncopaters give sparsely attended concerts for a few elderly villagers. The syncopated version has now reached fixation in that village.

“I’ve read how people couldn’t dance to music played by a band from another village, as they had strong local preferences.”  Perhaps they couldn’t dance because their dances (learned patterns of muscle contraction) didn’t fit the music (learned patterns realised by rapid muscle contraction of the musicians).  This is an entirely different use of the vague word “preference”.

I think “perceptual niche” is a good term. But it refers to a limitation, a confinement to a narrow range of auditory experience of replication and selection delimited by the music that lies within that range—niche music in fact.

Sperberian tropes seem to me to belong to a world of make-believe.  With Darwinism, Modern Synthesis, there has always been a conflict for those non-materialists who practise, or pretend to practise, science, but also believe in some sort of reality beyond science, to which science has no access.  That’s fine, but the attempt to try to reconcile science and any form of “spirituality”, when the literal big money is behind the “spirituality” is pernicious, because it deliberately distorts science.

That’s why if it would save a lot of confusion if evolution meant Darwinism (MS).  Anything else might more properly be called metaphysical culturalism.


2 thoughts on “The evolution of preference

  1. Dear James, sorry for such a delayed response, but September was a very busy month for me. And because I’m rather disagreeing with you, I’ve wanted to be more free-minded to answer you.

    I agree that the “preference” is a vague word. But in one of the meanings, it’s quite concrete – it could be referred to some kind of memes, of routines/habits, of worn paths in mind. And we could treat it as totally endogenous (native?) or as (at least partially) constructed in social interactions. In this latter case, it is a kind of cultural trait (like religious beliefs or political views) and I don’t see why it can’t evolve like any other cultural traits?

    But what I just wanted to say it is that there is (or could be) some coevolution between musical variants and musical preferences. The music is an environment for musical preferences (if we assume some kind of evolutionary “ceteris paribus”) and musical preferences are an environment for musical variants. Both could be analysed as cultural traits (to some degree) that evolves.

    I don’t understand why you call sperberian approach as ‘metaphysical’. At what point are Sperberians non-materialists? And your definition of “preferences” (i.e. “A preference in a group is an observed tendency to, where there is a choice, do one thing and not the other (..)”) is very similar to the definition of “cultural attraction” (“In a web of crisscrossing cultural chains, cultural attraction is the probabilistic favoring of some types of items over others” from a very good paper about CAT written by Scott-Phillips: What is wrong with it?


    • Yes I absolutely agree with your third paragraph, in fact I don’t think you have to be so cautious, of course there is an evolutionary linkage between music and musical preferences because the preferences are the selecting factors upon the music.
      My point is that what is evolving through the usual process of replication, variation and selection is the music, and it is absolutely necessary to specify the scale at which you are analysing this evolution. In this sense you can only talk about “music evolving” in the same sense as about “life evolving”. We know life evolved, but if we are to analyse this process we have to get down to the scale that Natalie Gontier rightly demanded of any evolutionary account, “Tell me what is evolving, where it is evolving, and how it is evolving”. In the case of “life” this would be the scale at which Nick Lane (Lane, The Vital Question, 2015) for instance analyses the potential of mineral cells in cool thermal vents. In the case of music it could be particles of pitch, time, timbre, across synchronous acoustic events.
      Preference is merely a second order name for an element of selection upon one or more variations. Folk music is the equivalent of oral literature, there is not much composing or invention, it’s all evolution. So I’d get rid of the word preference and look at selection.
      Rather than the constant repetition of the indeterminate trope “social learning” as an explanation of “cultural transmission”, another indeterminate trope, we now have three rather compelling papers out there that strongly point to evolution as the process of changes in material culture; (Buckley, 2017) (Maxime Derex, 2018) and now “The evolution of air resonance power efficiency in the violin and its ancestors” . The section of this which I think is salient is:
      “By evolution rate analysis, we find these changes to be consistent with mutations arising within the range of accidental replication fluctuations from craftsmanship limitations and selection favouring instruments with higher air-resonance power, rather than drastic preconceived design changes. Unsuccessful nineteenth century mutations after the Cremonese period known to be due to radical design preconceptions are correctly identified by evolution rate analysis as being inconsistent with accidental replication fluctuations from craftsmanship limitations and are quantitatively found to be less fit in terms of air resonance power efficiency.”
      It does not seem to be appreciated in the powerhouse of the present received dogma of the CES, as best described by (Mesoudi, 2004)( who has done us great service in doing so) that they are drifting around at the end of a cul-de-sac which started with (Boyd, 2005). I have long suspected that the CES has no interest in evolution and very little in culture. It’s economic infrastructure gives strong clues as to why this is so. They may stay financially afloat for a year or a decade, but intellectually at least they are bankrupt.
      What they have promulgated is a metaphysical research programme which evades the evolutionary process by allowing only second order tropes to be presented as loci of change, your memes, routines/habits, of worn paths in mind, cultural traits (like religious beliefs or political views). None of these are the particles that evolve (such as a hole in violin, an irreducible locus that cannot be reduced further without disappearing). Look at the whole Tartu conference, and try and abstract from it an account of anything actually evolving at this (the only) level. Jamie Tehrani’s clear exposition of the phylogeny of folk tales is one, and I hope I remember correctly that he told me that Chris Buckley’s paper on the evolution of looms was one of the things that drew him, an anthropologist, to the evolution of human culture. There were at least a couple more papers, both by women, that looked at things which were actually evolving, but that’s not a lot.
      In the Nineties, at the Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, I sat right behind György Ligeti in a talk by a physicist on the relationship between Ligeti’s music and fractals. It started with a physical demonstration of what a mathematical attractor is, rather as in (just for the picture, really, but the demonstration was to me magical and, it seemed, to Ligeti).
      That is an in-the-world attractor, you could see it developing before your eyes. Sperber’s is a metaphysical trope, no more. He was basically into cognitive psychology. While I greatly admire Steven Pinker’s The False Allure of Group Selection (Pinker, 2012) as a necessary demolition job on Sloan Wilson’s group selection waffle, Cognitive Psychology itself seems to me a Cartesian pursuit, metaphysical claptrap. Of course the hominin brain evolved, but not on nothing, less than thin air. The brain evolved in step with the hominin extended phenotype. Cognitive psychology is certainly not evolutionary, far from it.
      So it seems to me better to analyse, from an evolutionary standpoint, the evolution of particulate music rather than the evolution of preferences.


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