Fear not, dear reader. I'm not making the sounds of indecision. Nor have I forgotten the words to my local national anthem. Instead, those sets of letters are acronyms. Steven Mithen uses them to typify the foundations of our ability to communicate in our distant past. The letters stand for "Holistic, "multi-modal", "manipulative", and "musical". With the addition of "mimetic", he uses the collective phrase to explain why "music" in this broadly defined sense, preceded the development of language and grammar in our species. He also explains the "how" of this phenomenon, which is what gives this book its real value.
Mithen's previous works are a foundation for this one, although he openly admits that the phenomenon of music eluded him in them. He makes up for that oversight with a detailed examination of fossil and genetic information to support his thesis. As humans fluent in the use of speech, with its lexicons and syntax, we've become blinded to our true roots. We rush children through infancy, overlooking the process we use in communicating with those who lack words and their meanings. Mithen says this period is critical - both because its universality among cultures should tell us something about our past, and because a better understanding of the communication process can lead to smarter and healthier children. Who, among the mothers we know, fails to "sing" to their newborn?
In Mithen's view, that childhood communication method repeats what our African ancestors did with each other prior to the development of language. Words, in our time, are representative. They "mean" something - an object, an event, a lesson. In those early days, emotions, especially the basic ones of fear, flight, fight or feed, were the only significant topics. Music, he reminds us, is the language of emotion, whether it be lullabies to children or a Mozart aria. Newborns are particularly receptive to music or rhythmic sounds and gestures, especially when they're synchronised [hence "multi-modal"]. Newborns can't understand the words mothers use, but they comprehend the "message" [the "holistic" part].
The author explains how studies in brain activity associated with speech and music have given us great insight to the mind's processing of information. Where and when did these talents emerge? Mithen builds his thesis with careful detail, noting how our gaining a bipedal stature did more than distinguish us from the other apes. A range of body changes modified our method of movement, hand manipulation and breathing. It also impinged on our voices. The Early Humans, as Mithen broadly characterises the Homo genus, developed a range of sounds, with various pitches and volumes. The best way to use these new-found talents was in a musical manner and for a variety of circumstances.
Although nearly half the book must be consumed to reach the title's topic, the background is necessary for a full understanding. Homo neanderthalis, with its larger brain and stockier body than Homo sapiens, struggled for survival in Ice Age Europe. Even in the face of such stress, Neanderthal society remained doggedly static. The kinds of innovation speech might have spurred aren't found. Neanderthal excavation sites easily outnumber those of early Homo sapiens' digs in Africa, our original home. Yet in all those digs, nothing is found that would suggest the need for language. Jewellry only appears very late, probably introduced by Homo sapiens invading from Africa. And that invader brought a new talent in its armoury - language and symbolic representation. Which likely led, in Mithen's view, to our being the sole remaining Homo species.
Mithen isn't offering us wild speculation plucked from offhand supposition. Although he notes the interest in music as an evolutionary prompter is only beginning, his presentation rests on solid evidence. Support comes from Alison Wray - who suggested the term "holistic" and from Simon Kirby of Edinburgh University. Kirby applies computer modelling to show how recursive feedback reinforces word development in proto-languages. Indeed, it's noteworthy that Mithen's Notes section comprises a quarter of the book. There's one glaring error - genes aren't made of amino acids, they're comprised of codons. Editors and proofreaders are still catching up with the sciences, so we may forgive Mithen this small lapse. We'd better, since this ground-breaking book will lead to much discussion and likely no little acrimony in exchanges. That's good, because he has overturned a number of dogmas needing shedding. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]