Darwin’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful: What’s Musical about Biology and Why Does That Matter?
By Bob Labaree
A conversation with Richard Heinberg.
The image jumps off the page of the “Evolution” chapter of Cecil Sharp’s classic 1905 study, English Folksong. He’s reaching for the words which will capture a quality of creativity he has witnessed over decades of work with singers in English-speaking peasant communities on both sides of the Atlantic. He’s worrying the point of tension between what many scholars in his day called individual creation and communal creation. He is bothered by the facile assumptions behind the very term “communal creation.” “Corporate action has originated nothing and can originate nothing,” Sharp says. “Communal composition is unthinkable.” And yet:
“There are few things in nature more wonderful and more incomprehensible than the ordered flight of a flock of starlings. Many thousands of these birds will fly together in a compact mass; they wheel about in the air and describe orderly evolutions, without hesitancy, and with a precision which argues complete unanimity of purpose. If attention be concentrated upon the bounding lines of the moving and living mass, it will be noticed that these are not so clearly defined as, when casually observed, they appear to be. The edges, instead of being smooth and even, are rough and jagged. Further observation will show that these irregularities are due to the aberrations of flight on the part of individual birds, who are constantly separating themselves from their fellows, darting out at acute angles to the line of flight, and then swiftly returning to the flock. Every now and again, however, it will be seen that one of these birds is followed by the rest, and the course of flight of the whole mass is immediately changed.”
This image, says Sharp, is a faithful picture “of the way in which a folk song is evolved. Of the innumerable changes made by individual singers, only those that win general approval are perpetuated; the rest, being ignored, pass into oblivion.” Even more importantly, Sharp insists that the causes which lead to variation for the starling may be simply reflexive or accidental—for example, the result of “waywardness” or “a search for food.” Likewise, he says, “the changes which singers introduce into the words or melodies of their songs proceed from many causes—forgetfulness, chance, accident and what not; but very rarely, if ever, from a definite and conscious desire to improve.” Then in the next paragraph he gives us a pithy formulation. His view of folk song as a systemic interaction of individual and group and his emphasis on unconscious creation, leads to his summary with a distinctly Darwinian sound: “The individual, then, invents; the community selects.” This is how his “Evolution” chapter had begun, with a claim that music in general evolves in culture through continuity, variation and selection—more Darwin. (Sharp, 1905, 21-41)
The goal of this essay is to reignite a conversation with the Post Carbon Institute’s own Richard Heinberg about music and change in planetary systems, a conversation which began in the fall of 2017. I’ve chosen Cecil Sharp’s story about starlings and singers as a way to relaunch the discussion. I’m captioning this second stage of the conversation “What’s musical about biology and why does that matter?” Back then—it was during the record-breaking California fire season which in October had forced Richard and his wife to evacuate their home in Santa Rosa—when Richard graciously accepted my invitation to speak in Boston at New England Conservatory where I teach. I had suggested that he address the question of how his lifelong pursuit of music intersected with his lifelong work as a writer and environmental activist and, after serious reflection, he did just that. (The link to the text and video of his 2017 talk and performance is here. His talk was entitled “And the band played on: the looming crises of the 21st century and what they mean for young artists,” and he even provided a musical prelude, a piece by Niccolò Paganini, with him on violin, and with guitarist Carl Strassner, a conservatory graduate student. His talk moved through autobiography—where do the paths of violinist/rock musician intersect with environmentalism and the arcane world of energy futures?—and ended with reflections on where musicians fit into the global systemic shifts heading our way by the mid-21st century.
His summary was in three points, which I give you here in short form: 1) Preserve our culture’s greatest achievements. Sheet music printed on acid-laced paper will disintegrate over time; so will magnetic tape, CDs, and computer hard drives. Music cannot survive if it isn’t continually refreshed in live performance. 2) Help society adapt. The natural world will be shifting around us and everything will be up for change, redesign, and negotiation. It is up to artists to reflect people’s feelings and experiences back to them, transformed into art that’s inspiring and healing. Society will need the service of artists as never before as we re-weave the fabric of local community. 3) Do what artists always do, what even the birds do: celebrate life’s beauty. Our charge is to do this well, in fact better than ever. Life is precious, and our planet is precious.
Here’s where I want to re-enter the conversation—immediately following the inspiring re-affirmation that music is humanly necessary. This is an assurance that is always needed in the insecure world of professional performance, even among mature musicians, and even in pre-climate-change and pre-Covid eras. But I want to inject a fresh perspective into this picture, one which three years ago Richard and I had hardly touched on.
Cecil Sharp, absorbed in the mysterious creativity of oral tradition among ordinary people, instinctively saw the link between song-making and nature: he looked at the dynamic forms of the starling swarms as both beautiful and orderly and instantly saw both of these qualities as—what else to call it?—musical. He was not saying, as so many Romantic artists and critics of the 19th century said, that music was “inspired by” nature or even, as the philosopher Eduard Hanslick said about Beethoven’s Prometheus Overture, that its form grew, not “haphazardly” but in a manner that was like nature: “in organically distinct gradations, like sumptuous blossoming from a bud.” The argument that there is both an aliveness and a wholeness to organic life which is potentially recognizable to musicians in musical terms has in the past been easier to make for those immersed in the invisible, mycorrhyzal webs of oral traditions than in the architectural solidity of art music, with its notations, institutions, theories and formal pedagogies. But let’s not get stuck in these academic distinctions. Undeniably, folk music and art music exist in distinct habitats and have distinct histories, like alligators and bacteria, but as forms of life and as embodiments of living processes common to both, it makes more sense to refer to them both in one breath. Richard, when you reaffirmed music as essential to a disrupted world in 2050, you were not making a distinction between the essentialness of Paganini and the essentialness of Joni Mitchell, whom you also quoted.
So, here is a series of four questions which I have assembled around nuggets of science and art familiar to us both, which I offer for the purpose of carrying this conversation deeper into both the biology and the music, and in that way, deeper into the environmental mess we’re in. I believe following this path of questioning will carry us past our shared conviction of music’s value and bring us closer to the larger causes of our current planetary predicament and closer to understanding music’s historical participation in the conditions that are now bringing down the house on our heads. Strange as it may seem—and contrary as it is to the assumption that the arts stand pristine and alone, apart from and even above all the crass material workings of the “real” world—I believe putting music and musicians into this line of questioning actually helps to clarify our man-made predicament.
The questions are: 1. What’s in a bio-musical metaphor? 2. What do the “endless forms most beautiful” of biology and of music have in common? 3. Where do biological processes and musical processes intersect? 4. Why does any of this matter? Here is a quick take-home from these four interconnected questions: I believe they all lead to the not-so-startling observation that Homo sapiens does not stand apart from nature and that humanity’s willful artfulness does not support the modern world’s unquestioned assumption of nature’s passive artlessness. According to this view, we are the creators; nature’s job is to offer itself up for our use. Nature, in this view is neutral, passive, and in infinite supply, which suits our purposes perfectly. The artist is the poster child of this relationship.
I know that these are not your assumptions, Richard, and they are not mine, but I believe they are still sewn into the fabric of the musical and social practice we have inherited. With these questions, the door is creaking open on a much longer discussion full of history and science. This can only be a beginning.
- What’s in a bio-musical metaphor?
When Eduard Hanslick said that Beethoven’s music developed not “haphazardly” but “like sumptuous blossoming from a bud” he was looking into nature and seeing something he recognized, something of himself. This is the very thing that Wordsworth two generations earlier had bewailed the loss of in the face of industrialism: that “little we see in nature that is ours.” Cecil Sharp, on the other hand, skipped over the likenesses and simply proclaimed that a Starling swarm and a folk song develop in the same way. He draws our attention, not to what biology and music appear to be, but to the fact that they depend on the same processes. Both Hanslick’s and Sharp’s statements are metaphorical since living proteins are clearly made of different stuff from sound waves, but the difference between the two statements is instructive. One emphasizes appearance and the other emphasizes process. Hanslick’s statement is easier to dismiss as simply an act of the imagination and can be called upon to remind musicians to stay in their historic green zone where beauty can be contemplated at a distance undisturbed (that is what artists do, isn’t it?).
But Sharp claims something potentially more disruptive—that biological activity and human activity are in some way the same, which implies that the celebrated individual will of the artist might not be so easily separated from the creator-less fecundity of nature. If this is true, what, then, of the genius of Coltrane, Mozart and Tyagaraja? Are the virtuosic inventions of a virus to be considered on a par with the virtuosic inventions of an Aretha Franklin or a Niccolò Paganini? For now, my short answer is yes, the virtuosic creativity of a virus and of a musician are both examples of processes that are essentially the same.
We will return to the topic of biological and musical processes in my third question, but first it is important to put this out there: the metaphorical connections which we feel between music and nature are legitimate and meaningful, but they are not only poetic images which suggest commonalities at the same time as they affirm otherness. The fact that metaphors can turn categorical boundaries into porous membranes is why we resort to them, so that we can explore connections which exceed our capacity to describe or even understand. I suggest that we ride along with the subversive energy of Sharp’s bio-musical metaphor and see where it takes us.
- Darwin’s endless forms most beautiful
Consider for a moment the final pages of Darwin’s Origin of Species where he describes “a tangled bank,” one of his many examples of nature’s “endless forms most beautiful.” Like him, we can “reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us.” Wow! Even in 1859, it seems that fecundity was lawful. However riotous it may seem, it is disciplined. Neither the riot nor the law is the exception; they are both—together—the rule. In the world of music, on all sides we are confronted with populations of tunes as dense as microbial families, sonic events and rituals preserved with genomic meticulousness, and a bewildering array of interacting practices, pedagogies, formulas, and family trees, all of which ultimately register on the ear. Both the riot and the order of music are what we cherish.
This is also where Sharp began—with an entire living system, or at least as much of a flock of five thousand starlings as he could take in with the naked eye. The hint of breathless enthusiasm in his words even resembles Darwin’s “endless forms,” most of which, we now know, are actually out of sight, below ground in the undergrowth’s root systems, in its microscopic networks and in its symbiotic colonies of fungi and bacteria, as well as in the densely leafed out structures that house the system’s photosynthetic machinery. Only a small portion of all this was within Darwin’s ability to observe with the tools available to him. These secrets hidden within that tangled bank, so clotted with beautiful forms, were an intuition which it would take another century to be substantiated through the observations of thousands of scientists with newly invented virtuosic tools. Nor could Sharp have been aware of the systemic behavior of swarms of all kinds to be revealed by science in the century ahead—the behavior of fish and of ants, but also the human behavior scrutinized by psychologists, and the man-made behavior of computers and markets. Both Sharp and Darwin resorted to metaphors informed by their particular professional points of view in order to locate what was true about humanity’s relation to natural systems, and they did this by first locating the beauty of those systems. Aesthetics—human emotional response—was integral to their work, not an afterthought. In their work we are left to ponder both the beauty and the lawfulness—the very word “law” implying a history, an unfathomably complex and interactive cumulative practice—leaving us with a model for how we can actually see ourselves in nature. With our aesthetic response to those systems, the border wall, which confirms nature and ourselves as essential others, transforms into a porous membrane.
- Biological processes and musical processes
So, Richard, now comes the hard part. It’s also the most important part. I believe it’s where the rubber of a musical system hits the road of a biological system. The road, I believe, leads us toward a recognition of the continuity of art and biology, in which both the variability of musical invention and the stability of musical transmission are as integral to human life as the variability and stability in cell division, sexual reproduction and immunity.
This is the part that will require a much more detailed exploration in future discussions: the biological and the musical systems even rely on common processes. Putting this another way, the bio-musical continuity I’m arguing for is more than a poetic likeness, and more even than the much-studied link between musical talent and genes or between neurological structure and musical cognition. The systems generating life out of inert chemicals are the same as those generating music out of sound waves. Darwin and Sharp had parallel intuitions: that “laws” created the “tangled bank” and that there was a “precision” and “unanimity of purpose” in the starling swarm. The unpredictable chaos of tangled undergrowth and of the unguided motion of birds may strike us as the antithesis of artistic order. Who’s in charge here? We might ask, and, 150 years after Darwin and a century after Sharp, we are getting an answer which does not square with the conventional conviction (inherited from Darwin’s century) that causation of anything orderly or beautiful requires a master executive.
No master executive? This answer is a tough one to swallow for musicians raised on the hagiographies of exceptional individuals. For musicians, the master executive has always been the artist, and, especially in classical music, the composer. (In jazz, emphasis has been on the genius improviser.) Does accepting a bio-musical continuity really require us to denigrate the contributions of these extraordinary humans? This time, my short answer is no, which for me is demonstrated in biology’s model, where (as in Sharp’s intuition) there is room for the idea of an individual within the idea of staggeringly large interactive systems of individuals.
Biologists are well ahead of musicians in addressing this question. They have had to be, since the idea of a master executive in evolution has dramatically transformed since Darwin’s day: William Paley’s Divine Watchmaker in the late 18th century gave way in the 19th to Darwin’s natural selection of randomly generated mutations, which gave way in the 20th to the all-controlling mechanisms of the genes. Since the late 20th century the appearance of executive function in the genes has been steadily redefined by a list of limiting adjectives: “plastic,” “dynamic,” “reactive,” “implicit,” and “metastable.”
And now, in the latest revision of the creative executive function in biology, driven by unprecedented new investigative technologies, biology is adopting the language of complex adaptive systems, the ultimate step away from the artist into impersonal-sounding processes like “self-organization,” “emergence,” and (look out!) “non-linear causality,” all of which shift emphasis to a non-individualistic view of creativity. These changes are the result of moving concepts like epigenesis and symbiosis from the margins of research to the center, where they have combined with views of variation and transmission cycling in and out of biology through fields like immunology, climatology, computer science, statistics and sociology.
Adjectives like “dynamic,” “interactive,” and “emergent” are everywhere in these new interdisciplinary developments, from which, it must be noted, music has been largely absent. (An important exception to this generalization is in the minority group of avant garde composers working with computers and mathematical models and with concepts of chance or game-playing.) Music’s absence is strange, in my opinion, since all these developments, besides being good for biology, are good for music, especially for our conversation about the relationship of music to environmental degradation.
This general move across many fields toward what the philosopher of science Philip Kitcher has called the “interactionist consensus” is ideally suited to music because it reminds us that what humans have always most cared about music is its unfailing ability to evoke life. Even as hard-nosed a materialist as Karl Marx reached instinctively for a musical metaphor to identify the mysterious energy of change in human society: “to make the frozen circumstances dance you must play to them their own melody.” He was perhaps thinking of music’s fabled ability to “soothe the savage breast” and to set resting bodies in motion, but from a biological perspective it is the irreducible presence of movement or variation—a concept historically revered by biologist and musician alike—which signals the presence of life. This is the quality that the cell biologist Mahlon Hoagland referred to as the “less than equilibrium state” which is necessary for there to be life.
This dynamism of instability (perhaps better, metastability) is the mark of life’s presence, whether in a cell or in a performance. If there is stasis, there is death. In a cell, if there is change going on—energy converted, cells dividing, immune response activated—then there is life, even if that activity would be considered malignant. And the clock ticks for the musical event, just as it does for humans and for insects. In human sound art, we are propelled from nanosecond to nanosecond by the invisible movement of sound waves in time. When that movement—that incessant variation of what went before—ceases, its liveliness ceases. The question of whether or not this sonic event we are witnessing will continue is always there.
I like the way Terrence W. Deacon, whose roots are in anthropology and neuroscience, uses the term “emergence” to describe the essential ability of life forms to come into being, to reproduce and to adapt using words which will perhaps be recognizable to musicians:
“…major transitions in the organization of things are often described as emergent, because they have the appearance of spontaneous novelty, as though they are poking their noses into our world from a cave of non-existence. And while they are not exactly something coming from nothing, they have a quality of unprecedented discontinuity about them—an almost magical aspect, like a rabbit pulled from an apparently empty hat.” (2012, 144.)
What musician wouldn’t recognize the magic of this hat trick? Even when every note of a centuries-old score is known and has been played countless times, there are still the micro-variants in emphasis, rhythm and tempo in this performance now which produces the sense of aliveness. Any musician immersed in what we commonly call “improvisation” may be less persuaded of the magic in following a score, and therefore in my notion of a bio-musical continuity. I will return to the important conceptual schism between improvisation and composition in my fourth question. But imagine gushing to a classical violinist after a concert of the Bach Chaconne, “I loved your performance. It was just like the score!” This is the ultimate insult. It suggests that there was no dynamism and no emergence to melt our frozen circumstances—no life.
- Why does any of this matter?
Back in 1905, Cecil Sharp dismissed the notion of “communal creation” which was popular in his day, then looked closer at the Starling swarm and saw in its incomprehensible unanimity of purpose a place for individual creators—the individual creates, the community selects. Instinctively, he was allying himself with the “interactionist consensus” and the conceptual drift toward non-linear causality which was coming in science. Since then, his Darwinian generalization has been filled in and supplemented by the dizzying details which scientists of many stripes have observed through their electron microscopes and computer models.
But why bother with these bio-musical questions? In this period of “the great derangement” (Amitav Ghosh’s term) why does it matter whether musicians—always marginal to the seemingly unstoppable machinery which grinds away at our planet—can see themselves on a continuum with nature? As you pointed out three years ago, Richard, in 2050 we can be certain that our services will still be essential to preserving what a profoundly disrupted society treasures, and to helping society adapt to the trauma of transition. We will continue to do what the birds do.
But I believe it doesn’t stop there, though at this early stage of our conversation, we must content ourselves with a starter kit of questions and sketches which can help us move on. In that spirit, I have three closing suggestions for the next stage of our discussion, all of them flowing from this bio-musical exercise and addressing the question, why does any of this matter? First, we must rethink our musical metaphors; second, we must rethink music’s individualistic fetishes; and third, we must rethink music’s privileged separation (or is it alienation?) from society.
Rethinking our musical metaphors. In The Music of Life: Biology Beyond Genes (2006), the distinguished English physiologist Denis Noble lays out a view of transmission and change compatible with Sharp’s individual-community formulation, which is also compatible with biology’s two century rethinking of the idea of a creative executive in nature. As a guitarist as well as a systems biologist and cardiologist, Noble explores concepts of western classical music: pipe organ, score, mode, key, conductor, composition, and orchestra. His detailed use of bio-musical language embodies ideas that are as challenging for biology as they are for music. “The score: is it written down?” and “the orchestra of life works without a conductor,” for instance, may be metaphors, but they are metaphors that require both musicians and biologists to stop and think.
In both disciplines, the many individuals who are more comfortable with the clear lines of causation conventionally implied by “score” and “conductor” would find Noble’s language controversial. Biologists comfortable with self-organization in a cell might have difficulty tolerating self-organization in the context of art. Musicians hooked on great artist models might have to pause for a moment when they look through an electron microscope and see the riot of authorless invention and interaction in a living cell. Each side is immersed in its own community’s definition of creativity and, like any other brand of provinciality—ethnic nationalism, for example—confrontation with a wider world can be disturbing. But think of what is potentially gained: in Noble’s comparative metaphorical-scientific approach, music gains by its association with the knowable and at times quantifiable material complexity of biological feedback systems. I would suggest that biology, for its part (though Noble doesn’t say so), gains by its association with music’s intuitive wholeness (harmony in the largest sense) and its emotional impact, what non-scientists refer to as meaning.
Rethinking our individualistic musical fetishes. And what if one of the take-homes of this bio-musical exploration is the de-emphasis, or at least the de-centering, of individual musical creators, and with them, their creations? Noble’s matrix of bio-musical metaphors suggests exactly this: music, he says, like biology, “is a process, not a thing”—not a new idea in music, but the biological perspective gives it new scope. The musicologist Nicholas Cook says the 19th– and 20th-century tendency to emphasize the objectness of musical experience is “a conceptual paradigm that constructs process as subordinate to product.” Behind the subordination process to product is the subordination of “natural entities” to human-made “cultural artifacts” during the same period, as noted by another musicologist, Holly Watkins.
Nowhere are these subordinations more apparent than in the strict division of musical labor that developed during the 19th century under pressure from the forces of marketplace, copyright and democracy, to name a few. The definition of musicianship gradually transformed. The wholeness of process and product which earlier had been accepted across the board in the West, when the hyphenated performer-composer was the cultural norm, changed in the Romantic era, dividing into two specialties of musicianship—those who create (composers) and those who execute what the composers create (performers).
Along with this change was a new emphasis on enduring and replicable musical objects that outlived their creators, as was already the case in painting and literature. Out of the earlier acceptance of a more comprehensive definition of musicianship a third, more exceptional specialty also surfaced: the improviser, the individual who seems to most readily embody Terrence Deacon’s emergent magic hat trick. What was a normal part of the musical process until around 1800—the invention of music in performance—became the domain of special virtuosic soloists like Franz Liszt and (your pal) Paganini. It became a separate branch of performance art and was given a special name, improvisation.
This is the cultural niche (recently vacated by the disappearance of “improvisation” from the cultural norm) where the new African-American art of jazz made a home early in the 20th century, on the margins of respectable European art music. Jazz was labeled exotic because of race, but also because it appeared to be unscripted. In the end, however, each of these three specialties today have come to individualize creation in its own way, often to a degree which I would describe as fetishization. By this I mean a form of hero worship which has adapted itself to the prevailing commodity framework which more than a century of western economic development determined is the proper place for us to practice our art. (Another discussion.)
Richard, for the sake of argument, I have chosen to make the authorless fecundity of nature the standard of this discussion. Quite reasonably, this could be considered an unfair standard by you or any musician in whatever cultural milieu, since anything created by Homo sapiens would come off as individualistic compared to the nonlinear and emergent inventiveness of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. But I believe that a bio-musical orientation like Noble’s provides a perspective not unlike the astronaut’s view of earth from space: the limits and the localness of our customary terrestrial view of reality change forever, like Copernicus’ proof that we are not, after all, the center of the universe.
The recognition of heliocentrism instead of humanocentrism was painful in the 17th century—ask Galileo and his inquisitors how much it hurt—and in our own time the view of the artist in a continuum with bacteria might be no less painful. But, like the famous earthrise photo taken from Apollo 8 in 1968, a bio-musical view can locate humans, as never before, where we have been all along, not as the master of a passive nature’s raw materials, but embedded, inseparable from nature, breathing out the CO2 that the plants breathe in, the bacteria with whom we coevolved digesting the food in our stomachs for us as we gobble up the habitat we benefit from, and seeing the impact of our actions on the rapidly degrading environment we sprang from and will return to.
Rethinking music’s privileged separation. If it seems strange to suggest that music itself has any meaningful relation to these ecological changes, then perhaps we should back up to the assumptions behind this appearance of strangeness, to the belief in what can only be called the mutual otherness of art and nature. If humans are the uniquely intelligent exception in nature, the goal and pinnacle of life’s evolution over 3.7 billion years, the master of nature’s neutral and passive resources with which we are destined to build what serves us best, then what single human activity is better proof of that mastery than art? From this point of view, doesn’t the uniquely human genius that creates Taj Mahals and Sistine Chapel ceilings and Eroica symphonies offer the irrefutable argument on behalf of human exceptionalism, proof that we and nature are not the same? How different art is, we might argue: the flora and fauna of our planet are all the products of “laws,” as Darwin put it, not the unique products of individual genius—likewise the planet’s magisterial but unauthored forests.
What is more, music’s special immateriality (once played, where is the proof that the music existed, except in our memories?) has allowed us to think that music stands apart from the causes and effects of the “real world,” so different from music in its discrete globs of molecules with weight and dimension. In this view, if music stands apart from nature, then humanity stands apart from nature, and the reverse is also true—if humanity stands apart, music stands apart. Together, they provide the perfect tautology for the exceptionalism of both humans and human music. But, as environmentalists and as citizens, we also know that this belief in our exceptionalism—the master manipulators of a passive nature that is here to serve us forever—is most assuredly our downfall.
Sharp intuitively claimed something disruptive—that biological activity and human activity are not just similar, but the same. Against this background, the insistence that music exists in a biological continuum may not be a solution to our predicament, a rallying cry for calling musicians to the barricades, but it is an indispensable perspective, like the Apollo earthrise photo, a mental lens for seeing ourselves differently. Isn’t this what we need? My tirade here has ended up being as much an “amen” to your argument that music is necessary as it has been a case for the role of music in our environmental predicament.
Musicians do enact a relationship with nature. We do not stand apart. We’re not the most creative organisms on the planet.
To be continued…
Teaser photo credit: Walter Baxter / A murmuration of starlings at Gretna https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Starling_murmuration.jpg