Musical Mystery

Singer Tom Jones, famous recipient of ladies’ panties

There are three categories of supersars who seem to attract excessive female interest. The first is actors, who of course are selected for being abnormally attractive and put into romantic and exciting narratives that our brains subconsciously interpret as real. The second are sports stars and other athletes, whose ritualized combat and displays of strength obviously indicate their genetic “fitness” for siring and providing for children.

The third and strangest category is professional musicians, especially rock stars.

I understand why people want to pass athletic abilities on to their children, but what is the evolutionary importance of musical talent? Does music tap into some deep, fundamental instinct like a bird’s attraction to the courtship song of its mate? And if so, why?

There’s no denying the importance of music to American courtship rituals–not only do people visit bars, clubs, and concerts where music is being played in order to meet potential partners, but they also display musical tastes on dating profiles in order to meet musically-like-minded people.

Of all the traits to look for in a mate, why rate musical taste so highly? And why do some people describe their taste as, “Anything but rap,” or “Anything but country”?

Mick Jagger and Chuck Berry

At least when I was a teen, musical taste was an important part of one’s “identity.” There were goths and punks, indie scene kids and the aforementioned rap and country fans.

Is there actually any correlation between musical taste and personality? Do people who like slow jazz get along with other slow jazz fans better than fans of classical Indian? Or is this all compounded by different ethnic groups identifying with specific musical styles?

Obviously country correlates with Amerikaner ancestry; rap with African American. I’m not sure what ancestry is biggest fans of Die Antwoord. Heavy Metal is popular in Finno-Scandia. Rock ‘n Roll got its start in the African American community as “Race Music” and became popular with white audiences after Elvis Presley took up the guitar.

While Europe has a long and lovely musical heritage, it’s indisputable that African Americans have contributed tremendously to American musical innovation.

Here are two excerpts on the subject of music and dance in African societies:

source: A Voyage to Senegal: The Isle of Goreé, and the River Gambia by  Michel Adanson, Correspondent of the Royal Academy of Sciences

and:

source: Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience Aardvark-Catholic. Vol. 1
Elvis’s pelvis, considered too sexy for TV

Both of these h/t HBD Chick and my apologies in advance if I got the sources reversed.

One of the major HBD theories holds that the three races vary–on average–in the distribution of certain traits, such as age of first tooth eruption or intensity of an infant’s response to a tissue placed over its face. Sub-Saharan Africans and Asians are considered two extremes in this distribution, with whites somewhere in between.

If traditional African dancing involves more variety in rhythmic expression than traditional European, does traditional Asian dance involve less? I really know very little about traditional Asian music or dance of any kind, but I would not be surprised to see some kind of continuum affected by whether a society traditionally practiced arranged marriages. Where people chose their own mates, it seems like they display a preference for athletic or musically talented mates (“sexy” mates;) when parents chose mates, they seem to prefer hard-working, devout, “good providers.”

Natasha Rostova and Andrei Bolkonsky, from War and Peace by Tolstoy

Even in traditional European and American society, where parents played more of a role in courtship than they do today, music still played a major part. Young women, if their families could afford it, learned to play the piano or other instruments in order to be “accomplished” and thus more attractive to higher-status men; young men and women often met and courted at musical events or dances organized by the adults.

It is undoubtedly true that music stirs the soul and speaks to the heart, but why?

 

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Is Racism an Instinct?

Everyone is a little bit racist–Hillary Clinton

If everyone in the world exhibits a particular behavior, chances are it’s innate. But I have been informed–by Harvard-educated people, no less–that humans do not have instincts. We are so smart, you see, that we don’t need instincts anymore.

This is nonsense, of course.

One amusing and well-documented human instinct is the nesting instinct, experienced by pregnant women shortly before going into labor. (As my father put it, “When shes starts rearranging the furniture, get the ready to head to the hospital.”) Having personally experienced this sudden, overwhelming urge to CLEAN ALL THE THINGS multiple times, I can testify that it is a real phenomenon.

Humans have other instincts–babies will not only pick up and try to eat pretty much anything they run across, to every parent’s consternation, but they will also crawl right up to puddles and attempt to drink out of them.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves: What, exactly, is an instinct? According to Wikipedia:

Instinct or innate behavior is the inherent inclination of a living organism towards a particular complex behavior. The simplest example of an instinctive behavior is a fixed action pattern (FAP), in which a very short to medium length sequence of actions, without variation, are carried out in response to a clearly defined stimulus.

Any behavior is instinctive if it is performed without being based upon prior experience (that is, in the absence of learning), and is therefore an expression of innate biological factors. …

Instincts are inborn complex patterns of behavior that exist in most members of the species, and should be distinguished from reflexes, which are simple responses of an organism to a specific stimulus, such as the contraction of the pupil in response to bright light or the spasmodic movement of the lower leg when the knee is tapped.

The go-to example of an instinct is the gosling’s imprinting instinct. Typically, goslings imprint on their mothers, but a baby gosling doesn’t actually know what its mother is supposed to look like, and can accidentally imprint on other random objects, provided they are moving slowly around the nest around the time the gosling hatches.

Stray dog nursing kittens
Stray dog nursing kittens

Here we come to something I think may be useful for distinguishing an instinct from other behaviors: an instinct, once triggered, tends to keep going even if it has been accidentally or incorrectly triggered. Goslings look like they have an instinct to follow their mothers, but they actually have an instinct to imprint on the first large, slowly moving object near their nest when they hatch.

So if you find people strangely compelled to do something that makes no sense but which everyone else seems to think makes perfect sense, you may be dealing with an instinct. For example, women enjoy celebrity gossip because humans have an instinct to keep track of social ranks and dynamics within their own tribe; men enjoy watching other men play sports because it conveys the vicarious feeling of defeating a neighboring tribe at war.

So what about racism? Is it an instinct?

Strictly speaking–and I know I have to define racism, just a moment–I don’t see how we could have evolved such an instinct. Races exist because major human groups were geographically separated for thousands of years–prior to 1492, the average person never even met a person of another race in their entire life. So how could we evolve an instinct in response to something our ancestors never encountered?

Unfortunately, “racism” is a chimera, always changing whenever we attempt to pin it down, but the Urban Dictionary gives a reasonable definition:

An irrational bias towards members of a racial background. The bias can be positive (e.g. one race can prefer the company of its own race or even another) or it can be negative (e.g. one race can hate another). To qualify as racism, the bias must be irrational. That is, it cannot have a factual basis for preference.

Of course, instincts exist because they ensured our ancestors’ survival, so if racism is an instinct, it can’t exactly be “irrational.” We might call a gosling who follows a scientist instead of its mother “irrational,” but this is a misunderstanding of the gosling’s motivation. Since “racist” is a term of moral judgment, people are prone to defending their actions/beliefs towards others on the grounds that it can’t possibly be immoral to believe something that is actually true.

The claim that people are “racist” against members of other races implies, in converse, that they exhibit no similar behaviors toward members of their own race. But even the most perfunctory overview of history reveals people acting in extremely “racist” ways toward members of their own race. During the Anglo-Boer wars, the English committed genocide against the Dutch South Africans (Afrikaners.) During WWII, Germans allied with the the Japanese and slaughtered their neighbors, Poles and Jews. (Ashkenazim are genetically Caucasian and half Italian.) If Hitler were really racist, he’d have teamed up with Stalin and Einstein–his fellow whites–and dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima. (And for their part, the Japanese would have allied with the Chinese against the Germans.)

picture-2Some quotes from the NewScientist article:

The murder victim, a West African chimpanzee called Foudouko, had been beaten with rocks and sticks, stomped on and then cannibalised by his own community. …

“When you reverse that and have almost two males per every female — that really intensifies the competition for reproduction. That seems to be a key factor here,” says Wilson.

Jill Pruetz at Iowa State University, who has been studying this group of chimpanzees in south-eastern Senegal since 2001, agrees. She suggests that human influence may have caused this skewed gender ratio that is likely to have been behind this attack. In Senegal, female chimpanzees are poached to provide infants for the pet trade. …

Early one morning, Pruetz and her team heard loud screams and hoots from the chimps’ nearby sleep nest. At dawn, they found Foudouko dead, bleeding profusely from a bite to his right foot. He also had a large gash in his back and a ripped anus. Later he was found to have cracked ribs. Pruetz says Foudouko probably died of internal injuries or bled out from his foot wound.

Foudouko also had wounds on his fingers. These were likely to have been caused by chimps clamping them in their teeth to stretch his arms out and hold him down during the attack, says Pruetz.

After his death, the gang continued to abuse Foudouko’s body, throwing rocks and poking it with sticks, breaking its limbs, biting it and eventually eating some of the flesh.

“It was striking. The female that cannibalised the body the most, she’s the mother of the top two high-ranking males. Her sons were the only ones that really didn’t attack the body aggressively,” Pruetz says …

Historically, the vast majority of wars and genocides were waged by one group of people against their neighbors–people they were likely to be closely related to in the grand scheme of things–not against distant peoples they’d never met. If you’re a chimp, the chimp most likely to steal your banana is the one standing right in front of you, not some strange chimp you’ve never met before who lives in another forest.

Indeed, in Jane Goodall’s account of the Gombe Chimpanzee War, the combatants were not members of two unrelated communities that had recently encountered each other, but members of a single community that had split in two. Chimps who had formerly lived peacefully together, groomed each other, shared bananas, etc., now bashed each other’s brains out and cannibalized their young. Poor Jane was traumatized.

I think there is an instinct to form in-groups and out-groups. People often have multiple defined in-groups (“I am a progressive, a Christian, a baker, and a Swede,”) but one of these identities generally trumps the others in importance. Ethnicity and gender are major groups most people seem to have, but I don’t see a lot of evidence suggesting that the grouping of “race” is uniquely special, globally, in people’s ideas of in- and out-.

For example, as I am writing today, people are concerned that Donald Trump is enacting racist policies toward Muslims, even though “Muslim” is not a race and most of the countries targeted by Trump’s travel/immigration ban are filled with fellow Caucasians, not Sub-Saharan Africans or Asians.

Race is a largely American obsession, because our nation (like the other North and South American nations,) has always had whites, blacks, and Asians (Native Americans). But many countries don’t have this arrangement. Certainly Ireland didn’t have an historical black community, nor Japan a white one. Irish identity was formed in contrast to English identity; Japanese in contrast to Chinese and Korean.

Only in the context where different races live in close proximity to each other does it seem that people develop strong racial identities; otherwise people don’t think much about race.

Napoleon Chagnon, a white man, has spent years living among the Yanomamo, one of the world’s most murderous tribes, folks who go and slaughter their neighbors and neighbors’ children all the time, and they still haven’t murdered him.

Why do people insist on claiming that Trump’s “Muslim ban” is racist when Muslims aren’t a race? Because Islam is an identity group that appears to function similarly to race, even though Muslims come in white, black, and Asian.

If you’ve read any of the comments on my old post about Turkic DNA, Turkey: Not very Turkic, you’ll have noted that Turks are quite passionate about their Turkic identity, even though “Turkic” clearly doesn’t correspond to any particular ethnic groups. (It’s even more mixed up than Jewish, and that’s a pretty mixed up one after thousands of years of inter-breeding with non-Jews.)

Group identities are fluid. When threatened, groups merged. When resources are abundant and times are good, groups split.

What about evidence that infants identify–stare longer at–faces of people of different races than their parents? This may be true, but all it really tells us is that babies are attuned to novelty. It certainly doesn’t tell us that babies are racist just because they find people interesting who look different from the people they’re used to.

What happens when people encounter others of a different race for the first time?

We have many accounts of “first contacts” between different races during the Age of Exploration. For example, when escaped English convict William Buckley wandered into an uncontacted Aborigine tribe, they assumed he was a ghost, adopted him, taught him to survive, and protected him for 30 years. By contrast, the last guy who landed on North Sentinel Island and tried to chat with the natives there got a spear to the chest and a shallow grave for his efforts. (But I am not certain the North Sentinelese haven’t encountered outsiders at some point.)

But what about the lunchroom seating habits of the wild American teenager?

If people have an instinct to form in-groups and out-groups, then races (or religions?) may represent the furthest bounds of this, at least until we encounter aliens. All else held equal, perhaps we are most inclined to like the people most like ourselves, and least inclined to like the people least like ourselves–racism would thus be the strongest manifestation of this broader instinct. But what about people who have a great dislike for one race, but seem just fine with another, eg, a white person who likes Asians but not blacks, or a black who like Asians but not whites? And can we say–per our definition above–that these preferences are irrational, or are they born of some lived experience of positive or negative interactions?

Again, we are only likely to have strong opinions about members of other races if we are in direct conflict or competition with them. Most of the time, people are in competition with their neighbors, not people on the other side of the world. I certainly don’t sit here thinking negative thoughts about Pygmies or Aborigines, even though we are very genetically distant from each other, and I doubt they spend their free time thinking negatively about me.

Just because flamingos prefer to flock with other flamingos doesn’t mean they dislike horses; for the most part, I think people are largely indifferent to folks outside their own lives.

In 6th Grade, I Prayed Every Day for God to Turn me into a Mexican

Then, I thought, I would have friends.

In retrospect, if god had turned me into an Indian, I think I would have just about died of joy. I fucking loved Indians. Alas, scouring my family tree didn’t reveal even one great-grandparent who could conceivably have been a Cherokee princess.*

For irrelevant reasons, I got sent to a ghetto school for sixth grade. I had no friends at this place. The whites wanted nothing to do with me. The blacks were openly hostile. A few of the Mexicans were friendly, but when it came to recess, they played with each other, not me. And besides, they didn’t speak English, and I didn’t know much Spanish.

If only I were Mexican, I thought. If only I woke up tomorrow with beautiful black hair and brown skin, then I could have friends and my classmates wouldn’t hit me.

Sadly, god was not forthcoming. I was stuck with whiteness, pale, useless, disgusting. Maggots are white, I thought.

For some reason my parents tacked up on the wall a portrait I drew of myself in art class. The portrait was supposed to express my misery. Every time I walked past it, I thought, Why do they have that thing on the wall? They never understood.

By middle school, I’d latched onto an identity that I could reasonably fake. It wasn’t really mine, but it was close. I at least had the right facial features, and was legally related (through adoption) to some people from that part of the world, if you went back enough generations. This became my obsession. I studied the language. I saved up my allowance to purchase traditional costumes. I read histories and novels; devoured the music. I talked endlessly about my heritage, no doubt annoying the everliving shit out of everyone around me. (No wonder no one liked me.) I even dyed my hair to look more like my ethnic ideal and lied about my eye color.

In retrospect, that was pretty dumb. But I was a kid, lonely and desperate. The people around me had culture, community, history, identity, pride. And I wanted that. I wanted something to call my own–my own music, my own history, my own country.

The place where I grew up was, obviously, not terribly pleasant or special to me. “Whiteness” is not a trait whites are taught to be proud of; “white music” or “white history” are not things that I was aware of as part of my heritage. On top of that, I came from a part of the country with a reputation for backwardness and bigotry, also not things I was proud of. Ethnically, I do not really have a particular European country I can claim as my own–I am not a majority English or French or German or Hungarian or anything.

As a statistical outlier in many ways, I don’t fit in terribly well with most people, except with other outliers like myself. (Finding such outliers is, I suppose, one of the purposes of this blog.) Not fitting in and what that does to your psyche is a thing I understand.

I have known other people like myself–other people who, at some point in their lives, desperately wanted to be part of an ethnic group they weren’t born in to, leading to what an outside observer would call, “talking all the damn time about it.” I suspect Dolezal experienced something similar. I suspect she just wanted to fit in with the people she loved being with and an identity to claim as her own. Our politics may differ, but I still feel really sorry for her.

Scratch a dozen whites, and I bet six of them secretly wish they could be something they aren’t. That’s why so many of them lie about being Irish, twisting one possibly Catholic grandparent or great-grandparent into a claim that they practically hopped off the land o’ blarney yesterday. No one wants to admit to being mostly English or German, even if they are.

I am struggling to come up with a neat and tidy conclusion to this post. I have obviously come to a point where I am comfortable admitting actual reality, and enough distance from the loneliness to think I was once kind of funny. I have some positive thoughts associated with various accomplishments of groups I have some kinship with. And I am an adult, busy with the everyday concerns of work, friends, family, etc.

But I look at my kids and wonder what sort of identity would make them happy.

 

*According to 23 and Me, I may actually have a sliver of Indian ancestry, but it’s pretty far back.

Without ethnicity, religious identity disappears. (part 3)

Without ceremony, religion is empty.

Without children, it’s pointless.

Without a strong sense of ethnicity, religious identity disappears.

This is part 3 of a series on the Rise of Atheism. Parts 1 and 2 are here.

 

Different religions exist because different cultures exist. (Culture, of course, is just another word for ethnicity.)

There’s not a whole lot of difference between what Jews, Christians, and Muslims officially believe–we’re talking about a couple of prophets and whether or not one guy is the Messiah. Heck, some Jews think/thought Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson was the Messiah, but no one considers these folks not Jewish. Mormons are polytheistic, but they still consider themselves Christian.

There’s no particular reason–theologically speaking–to consider the three separate religions at all. We only do so because the adherents of these religions insist on it. In fact, just try suggesting to a Jew or Muslim that their religion is practically indistinguishable from the other’s and see how they react. While you are at it, try suggesting to a Pakistani that Urdu is actually just a dialect of Hindi.

The big difference between Muslims, Jews, and Christians is that they are different ethnic groups–Muslims marry Muslims, Christians marry Christians, and Jews–actually, Jews are marrying non-Jews at a tremendous rate, but I bet that’s mostly atheist Jews. Religious Jews still favor other Jews.

In short, religion is ethnicity.

This works as long as you believe your own culture/ethnicity actually exists. If you stop believing that your culture exists, well, you stop believing in the individual bits of it, too. Note that you can have a culture without being particularly aware of it–different American groups definitely have distinct cultures, but aren’t particularly aware of it.

Catholics marry other Catholics and Lutherans marry other Lutherans under the assumption that there is something that it means to be a Catholic instead of a Lutheran. If you regard Catholics and Lutherans as basically identical, then you have no particular reason to marry one or another or even identify as one or another. You just become a generalized “Christian.” And if you stop seeing much difference between Christians and other god-believing folks, then why bother with that distinction? Aren’t you all just theists?

Next thing you know, you’re attending the Unitarian Universalist church, being preached to by an explicitly atheist minister about the wonders of global harmony. Which is fine if you like that sort of thing.

Note that in the graph a posted a few weeks ago:

 

Millennials increasingly are driving growth of ‘nones’
Millennials increasingly are driving growth of ‘nones’

Protestants, Evangelicals, and Catholics have all lost a third to half their members over the generations, but Historically Black Churches have not. Blacks still see themselves as a coherent ethnic group, with strong church affiliation. Whites with some form of ethnic identity also still tend to attend church (or synagogue.) But whites who have effectively lost their ethnic identity do not.

White Americans have generally lost much of their ethnic identity because “white” is not an identity whites like to promote (“white pride” is generally regarded as offensive,) and few of them have much in the way of memories of their grandparents or great-grandparents who might have immigrated from some other country.

I myself am descended from 12 or 13 different ethnic groups, and have to go back to the early 1700s before I find an immigrant in my family tree. (And since some of my ancestors were Indians, I can take the “American” line back as far as science will let me.) Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised to find some other immigrants in the 1800s, but I haven’t yet–despite a fair amount of research, reading family histories compiled by my grandparents, etc. At this point, the most accurate thing I can say is that my ancestors came from the American South.

Without any strong ethnic identity, people stop identifying with any particular church. And the endpoint of that is atheism.