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Published 22 October 2008, doi:10

Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man

by Mark Changizi
BenBella Books, Dallas, TX, 2011
242 pp., illus. b/w. Trade, $16.95 US
ISBN: 978-1-935618-53-9.

Reviewed by Richard Kade
Ubiquitous Iconoclast
Sunnyvale, CA 94089-1622 USA


The book’s introduction opens with a snippet from Stephen Pinker's demonstration [1] of the amazing power of language, which is used to lay the groundwork for Mark Changizi's own thesis while briefly recapping his most recent earlier book, The Vision Revolution (2009). This allusion points out how much of the research into the hard wiring of the human brain reveals no "reading instinct", citing problems in attempts at developing software for handwriting recognition as an example. While the light-hearted reference to Homo-Turingipithecus might prompt some (Ray Kurzweil, et al.) to quibble, offering as rebuttal evidence the IBM [2] Jeopardy! Challenge (where Watson won handily in the three-day exhibition game against Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter) of an "upwardly ratcheting goalpost" in the Turing Test, especially after the rematch between Deep Blue and Kasparov well over a decade ago, the quirkiness of the incorrect answers by Watson shows conclusively that massive brute-force database searches are no substitute for cognition.

Dr. Changizi acknowledges that others have considered the matter of language and how written language in particular enables (in the case of deceased authors) a form of "spirit channeling" (although the recently released first volume of the Autobiography of Mark Twain amply makes obvious the potential "petard pitfall" [3]). The author also concedes that he is far from the first to think about the nature of music and its effects upon humans as well as how it developed (in terms of being a non-verbal form of expression, etc.) without delving too deeply into any of the history (from Pythagoras and his Music of the Spheres through the Harvard Lecture Series by Leonard Bernstein culminating in the discussion of musical ambiguities in the Debussy Afternoon of a Faun or Wagner's Prelude to Tristan and Isolde).

Having laid the groundwork for solid foundation, he tells us, "What is new here is that I am putting forth specific proposals for how culture actually goes about harnessing us. Saying that language and music might be shaped for the brain doesn't take us very far in understanding the shape of language and music, because we don't have a good understanding of the brain." The next few pages spell out the process of "natural harnessing" and "cultural selection" in terms not unlike the "functional Darwinism" written about at length by Henry Petroski.

Some might argue that this new approach is little more than a slight twist on the age-old children's questions of whether the chicken or the egg came first. That, of course, is a gross over-simplification.

The bulk of the book affords a systematic means of understanding much of the sociological and anthropological ways language and music evolved. Replete with examples of the functions of the human mind in dealing with natural stimuli which, for all time, have been the (genetically pre-programmed) purpose of the brain (or "purp") as opposed to the quirks that often occasionally shape quantum leaps but, far more often, are dismissed by the mind's natural filtration system.

The "smoking gun" ("QED" or whatever term one might use) establishing the specific proposals spelled out at the beginning of the book is the Doppler effect and how it relates to the elements of music. The text seems geared to hypothetical great grandchildren of the author's own toddler daughter or infant son while explaining clearly the interrelationship between the development of language and music within the context of the physical world in a refreshing way with appropriate touches of humor.

The book's penultimate section, "Conclusion", summarizes the distinction between "harnessing" and natural evolution with a beautiful example reminiscent of the old adage that dogs "adopt you as family but with cats, well, you're just staff." We are not merely toilet-trained apes, we even design the very toilets upon which we sit.

Perhaps, for the sake of completeness, some attempt at review of the studies of dolphin communication or the so-called "songs of the great whales" might have been a nice addition even if nothing definitive were unearthed. Without harboring any trepidation over the prospect of dolphins supplanting humans however many billennia from now (and despite the clever subtitle of John McWhorter's 2003 book, Doing Our Own Thing; The degradation of language and music and why we should, like, care) such study might not be quite as outlandish as one might suppose in light of recent observations of interspecies friendships. In one instance, after a 2004 tsunami in Kenya, a baby hippo found a substitute mother in a 130-year-old tortoise. Amongst the most surprising findings was the development of a form of language [4] employed by the duo.

Back to humans, another possible line of interest might have been successive generations' views of (disgust with) "new" shifts in music and the language (including "body language"): Sinatra (and his effect on bobby-soxers), Elvis ("Pelvis Presley"), Beatles, Michael Jackson (crotch grab, etc.), Madonna, (from "Like a Virgin" to the MTV Awards Show kissing) Britney Spears and Lady Gaga?

While I would also have loved an examination of implications of the larger anthropological context of defining who, exactly, we are and where within some virtual proximity that "places" us on the spectrum of my favorite thumb-sucker:

"If Gutenberg made us all readers and the office copier started us down the road to becoming publishers, what will people fifty years from now say the 'net in general and the web in particular 'made' us?"

... answers to that and other such questions raised are the "meat" for grinding in sequels.


[1] Pinker, Steven, The Language Instinct (New York, NY, Morrow, 1994); pp. 1-2.
[2] http://www-03.ibm.com/innovation/us/watson/research-team/index.html andhttp://www-03.ibm.com/innovation/us/watson/research-team/dr-david-ferrucci.html.
[3] leonardo.info/reviews/feb2011/kade_smith.php [CTRL + F] petard.
[4] Holland, Jennifer S., Unlikely Friendships: 47 Remarkable Stories from the Animal Kingdom (New York, NY, Workman Publishing 2011); pp. 191-193.

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