Tag Archive: evolution

an austere beauty


Photo Credit: Vera Kratochvil; Licence: Public Domain

Nature has the power to humble us. As much as the ravages of natural disasters are tragic, they also remind us that we do not own this planet, we will never overcome it, and our abuses will never go unpunished.  But there is also something astounding in the ingenuity of human achievement.  The universe gives us gravity; humanity responds with bridges, towering skyscrapers, and planes.  Process the concept of taking an 85 metric tonne hunk of metal and getting it to lift off the ground and fly it at speeds over 500 mph at 30,000-40,000 ft. If that doesn’t take your breath away, few things will.

I love nature and, if my life ambitions can be boiled down to a select few, moving further away from cities would be high on the list.  But I love the culture one finds it cities too and so I am drawn to them as well.  Let me find a place to live surrounded with trees and lakes and rivers, with mesmerizing sunrises and sunsets, with immense mountains and enchanted vistas, but let me be close enough to the city to see the marvels that one finds there.

While attending a conference for work this past weekend, I was simultaneously appalled at the dearth of green space and in awe of the vast network of towering monuments to human achievement.  It is not that I think skyscrapers and overlapping overpasses are the greatest testament to what humanity has accomplished.  The growth of compassion and philanthropy would be more valuable evidence.  But, regardless of your personal beliefs, humans were in some sense delivered into the world innocent, ignorant, and naive.  With observation they learned, with creativity they explained, with tenacity they tested, and with ingenuity they created.  They created the wheel, and bridges, and buildings, and music, and medicine, and trains, and cars, and planes, and transistors, and microchips, and… and then they took it a step further.  They didn’t just build something practical: they created art.  Engineers fought physics, architects made it aesthetic; scientists produced technology, designers made it alluring.  There is a beauty in that.  Sometimes it is an austere, cold beauty, but it is a beauty nevertheless.

Today, I am thankful for human ingenuity.  It has sometimes led to terrible outcomes, but overall our world is an incredible place to live simply because of the power of the human mind to evolve the most fantastical idea into reality.


I am a proponent of evolutionary psychology, the school of psychology that believes human behaviour can be explained in terms of survival benefit. It is beneficial for the species, for instance, that we do everything we can to ensure our offspring survive. We deposit infants into the world, completely vulnerable and unable to care for themselves. It makes sense, then, that parents should care for their offspring until the children are able to care for themselves. If you’ve spent much time with infants, you’ll know they don’t exactly ingratiate themselves with you through their behaviour alone. Charming traits like waking you up every two hours to feed and eliminating waste at any place, any time, might have made our neanderthal forebears inclined to toss these screaming tyrants to the wolves. That would never do, of course, so the capacity for love evolved. (I realize this is a severe oversimplification, but you get the point).

But music! No matter how many theories I read on the evolutionary benefit of music, it still feels like an anomaly. Sure, it might be a by-product of the evolution of another behaviour, or it might have evolved as an adaptive mechanism to promote bonding.  But none of that explains the way music makes me feel, like an explosion of feeling has gone off in my chest, and sometimes an intensity felt throughout my entire body.  None of that explains the complex neuronal light show necessary for musical appreciation. To listen to music uses a multitude of cognitive functions, and our brains must be just like a fireworks display. All of that from an evolutionary by-product?  Hard to believe.  And there are already several other simpler human behaviours which promote bonding.  Why would music ever be necessary?


Photo Credit: Vera Kratochvil, Licence: Public Domain

Yet there music is, in us and around us and in every culture, in every inhabited place in the world.  Somehow, the inadequacy of science to explain music to me makes music seem like a mystery unwilling and unable to be solved.  And there is nothing wrong with that.  As much as I love science — and I really do adore science — there is some small measure of comfort in feeling that there are things science can’t explain, though science may strive to do so.

Today, whether I am sailing down the highway singing along with some classic rock, snapping my fingers to the rhythm of some jazz, or glorying in an operatic aria — today, I am thankful for music.  Music has transformed my life, permitting me to leave behind drudgery for a little while and enter a unique and remarkable realm filled with inexplicable feelings and sensations.

How do you experience music?

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