Events Calendar

Music, Cognition, and the Brain Seminar Series: Piilonen

Wednesday, December 4, 2019
3:30 pm - 4:30 pm
Talbot College (TC)
Room: MB 140
Talbot College

The initiative’s seminar series brings guest speakers to Western to present varied research on music, cognition, and the brain.

Miriam Piilonen (Northwestern University) presents:
"Against Adaptationism in Evolutionary Musicology"


Adaptationism refers to a class of ideas about how evolution works. An evolutionary claim can be called “adaptationist” when natural selection is taken to be the most important factor in the emergence of especially “adapted” traits; adaptationism is both a technical assumption about the mechanisms of evolution and a philosophical claim about the design of nature. In biological research, adaptationism has been the subject of intense criticism since the late 1970s. Why, then, has it found a more welcoming home in the resurgent field of evolutionary musicology? What does it mean that some of the most widely read texts on the evolution of music—including Geoffrey Miller’s “Darwinian” theory of music’s evolution and Daniel Levitin’s best-selling The World in Six Songs (2008)—have been adaptationist by design?

This presentation argues against adaptationism in evolutionary musicology and secondarily theorizes about why these approaches have been maintained. I outline three distinct arguments against music adaptationism:

1. Music adaptationism exaggerates the role of selective forces, to the exclusion or marginalization of other known evolutionary factors.

2. Music adaptationism finds its roots in the misguided musical musings of Charles Darwin, and in subsequent misreadings of “Darwinian music theory.”

3. Music adaptationism is an historically normalizing discourse with a track record of dehumanizing effects.

I develop these arguments in examining a series of case studies, such as Miller’s vision of an evolutionary arms race among “hominid Eric Claptons,” Levitin’s sentimental account of the adaptive significance of love songs, and Charlton’s gene-centric treatment of musical seduction.

In critiquing the science and philosophical commitments of musical adaptationism, I point out that these ideas persist because of, and in order to maintain, a specific blend of ideologies about what music is, how music functions, and who makes and listens to music at a “high level.” Detailing the history and conceptual commitments of adaptationism in these terms can help us better understand why adaptationism, as a music-analytic strategy, has been limiting, as well as why it continues to capture the imaginations of music researchers.

To learn more about Western’s Music, Cognition, and the Brain initiative, visit

Admission to this seminar is free. All are welcome to attend.

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Kevin Watson
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