Teaching evolution through music?
August 15, 2006 9:33 AM   Subscribe

Calling all audiophiles and music know-it-alls: Help a biologist explain evolution to college kids, using music as an analogy.

I'm just a few days away from starting the Fall semester at a small university south of the Mason-Dixon line. One of the biggest problems in teaching biology here (or anywhere else in the US for that matter) is finding a way to make evolution make sense to the students, especially when they are quite likely to have had substandard or contrary experiences/teachings from K12 education, church and family.

About a week ago, I came up with what I thought was a good analogy to get students into the right mindframe: Skip biology for a day and talk about music. I figured if I could show them how music changes over time - undirected, unplanned, and almost accidentally, like life - they might be able to get the concepts down before I apply it to biology. It's a good idea, I'm sure; we can even talk about how genres or bands live, die or expand based on the demand for the music (or even random effects like overdoses that squish otherwise promising starts!) much as success in the world of biology depends on the "free market" of life and competition.

My problem is that I am a biologist, and although I like music I am not a music expert by any means. What I am looking for are some potential logical progression steps I can use to help students connect their own knowledge of something familiar with the concepts I want them to learn.

I was thinking something like start with what they know now, and work backwards. Outkast perhaps, or another relatively popular well-known group. Work backwards, maybe to Run D.M.C. Show how this grew out of the roots laid down by groups like maybe Sugar Hill Gang and Grandmaster Flash? (honestly, after I get past Run D.M.C. I'm lost here...)

My problem is that I have a lot of holes in my "fossil record of music" that I would like to have filled in. Not any clear idea what comes before, and the links in between are also not good. Sound clips are also appreciated.

If I get ambitious enough some cross-genre stuff might be cool too (like the lateral transfer of genes between organisms - using perhaps The Knack's "My Charona" guitar riff buried in Run D.M.C.'s "It's Tricky" as an example?)

Anyone have a good line on a site that can help with this, keeping in mind I have little time to prepare? Better ideas for doing the progression - start at the beginning and work forwards, perhaps? Good examples of "extinctions" that parallel the line of musical descent - genres/groups that were big but went nowhere? Anything that can help here is appreciated.
posted by caution live frogs to Education (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Here in Canada, MuchMoreMusic runs a show called "Evolution" that purports to show the evolution of various aspects of music (how Madonna led to Britney, Run DMC to 50 Cent, etc.). It's typical of most MTV-style infotainment crap, but it might help. Not sure how you could track down a few episodes where you are...

Just trying to do whatever I can to support such an awesome idea.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 9:50 AM on August 15, 2006

I've always found Ishkur's Guide to Electronic Music to be interesting. Samples aplenty too.
posted by trixie_bee at 9:50 AM on August 15, 2006

Sounds like a cool idea. It also sounds like a lot of work to put into a day or two's worth of presentation only then to have to risk having to analogize everything you do re: evolution -> music when one is a biological process and the other social. But! If you can pull it off and make sure it is somewhat compartmentalized you may have a winner. good luck
posted by edgeways at 9:51 AM on August 15, 2006

There's the great cock rock extinction of 1989. The disappearance of the drum solo in, what, the early 80s as mammalian punks devoured the eggs of the dinosaurs of rock. Jamaican immigrants influenced the British music scene which in turn sent Sting over America where he now smothers soft rock/office radio like so much kudzu...
posted by jaysus chris at 10:00 AM on August 15, 2006

The problem with this analogy is that music is composed by people, and that's going to open the Intelligent Design can of worms. You might be better off getting "order" out of randomness, by, for example, shaking up jars of beans with different sizes, shapes, and colors, to see if/how they group.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 10:03 AM on August 15, 2006

I agree with WGP - music is evolution is subject to the intelligent (or not so) design of musicians.

You should be recasting the issue from one of faith to one of inquiry. Your students are welcome to believe whatever they want about how the world was actually created, but science is about deriving the laws of nature from observation, not from faith.

As such, a scientist must be capable of presenting their findings in a faith-neutral context. God may have put a bunch of dinosaur bones in the earth in order to test the faithful, but that isn't a relevant conversation for scientists. Those who have trouble forming a sentence without God or Jesus in it would be wise to find a career path that does not challenge their lifestyle in this way.
posted by b1tr0t at 10:19 AM on August 15, 2006

You might want to use Pandora to explain natural selection (i.e. selecting for certain traits in music).
posted by nekton at 10:24 AM on August 15, 2006

This metaphor is really dangerous, mainly because music's fitness function is intelligent (well, in some genres anyway). Complicating that, musicians are anything but random. This is only going to lead to more confusion.

I'm a student going to a "southern" (at least in mentality) public school (University of Kentucky). When dealing with those who do not understand evolution, delving into metaphor is extremely dangerous, because it's the darling of I.D. proponents. Obtuse metaphors, artfully constructed, can sound very meaningful and resonate emotionally. They don't need the sneak attack approach from both sides.

I, as a highschool student, thought Dawkin's The Selfish Gene did the best job of explaining, without resorting to any literary handwaving, evolutionary theory to the layman (which I very much am, as an engineering student). The last chapter on memetics will only unessicarly anger religiously devout students, so I wouldn't assign the whole thing as required reading, but the first few chapters stand well on their own.
posted by phrontist at 10:35 AM on August 15, 2006

b1tr0t has it.
posted by phrontist at 10:36 AM on August 15, 2006

The biggest problem I see with this is that human innovation is largely driven by appropriation from distant sources, while evolution is driven by descent with modification with very few transfers of traits between lineages. (This is one of my big objections to memetics btw.) This could result in some big misconceptions.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 10:40 AM on August 15, 2006

Which is to say that music, like all culture, changes through Lamarckian evolution, not through Darwinian evolution.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 11:00 AM on August 15, 2006

"honestly, after I get past Run D.M.C. I'm lost here..."

Well in my opinion before Run DMC there was no rap, but that's just my research. You don't have to know the answer. It's an analogy. It's to get them to think, so make them come up with the answer. Show them where the holes are and have them fill in the gaps.

Or even better than that don't show them your holes. Let them come up with their own. What did rap evolve from? What influenced Run DMC and their contemporaries? If the kids don't know, tell them to hit the books. That's where you really learn anyway, go find it out for yourselves. Let the kids design the progression of music as they understand it, based on their (albeit limited) knowledge of favorite music. After they see where the gaps are on their music evolution scale, then they can go research it.

Here's their homework. Ask them to pick one favorite artist of theirs, and then tell them to research what that artist has publically admitted his/her influences are. Then trace it back. What did those artists say publically were their influences? Then have them chart it like this or however your curriculum is gonna teach them to chart animals. Maybe do an equivalent of species and genus by using music styles. Use latin root words to delineate different types of music styles. Okay that's too much. Latin was used to give the scientists a universal language across continents. The kids just need a language they can use among one another so skip the Latin.

THEN. When everyone's done their homework, the real fun would be taking the music tastes of thirty students and trying to connect them to each other. Like say maybe Korn & Limp Bizcuit both said they were influenced by The Ramones. So two different students could find correlations in their findings to that of others.

Essentially what I'm saying is this: utilize the scientific method of cataloging animals towards modern music. Then, to bridge the metaphor into biology, start comparing actual animals to different bands. This could help them with pneumonics if they attribute favorite species names to favorite band names.

Phrontist, I don't understand what you mean by metaphor being dangerous. When I was in school, I usually only grokked stuff if the teacher compared it to stuff I already knew. I had a geology teacher in college who taught like this, connecting his field of expertise to things that mattered to us students. I learned more in his class than many others combined, cuz he met me where I was.

Teaching biology through music is genius.
posted by ZachsMind at 11:41 AM on August 15, 2006


Inspiring students to take interest in a subject is a very important and widely neglected part of the educational process. Metaphor is very useful in doing this, but I'm trying to caution the poster about taking this too far. The metaphor may be inspirational, but it should only be a means of whetting their appetite. It should then be set aside and it's shortcomings exposed.

If the metaphor were apt, my issue would end there. The problem is the development of music is so very unlike evolution. It is at every level instrinsically the product of human intelligence and aestetic sense. The musician experiments with their media, and filters out the things that appeal to them. This influence other artists, who then filter out what they like most of other's work, adding more intelligent guidance. Then the fans decide what they like. The cycle continues, at there is almost nothing random about it.

If anything, this would be an excellent way to frame an argument for a deist point of view.
posted by phrontist at 12:02 PM on August 15, 2006

What about selecting a single musical composition, that "evolves" from a simple string of notes into more complex patterns? I suspect some composers have deliberately structured their compositions in just such a way--though I can't think of a good example at the moment--
It might still invoke the Intelligent Design bugaboo, but so what.
posted by revonrut at 12:10 PM on August 15, 2006

AllMusic.com is an amazing resource for researching musical artists, including who they were influenced by and who they influenced. It also has a wonderful library of essays detailing the history and evolution of various genres. Sounds like an interesting idea, good luck!
posted by platinum at 12:13 PM on August 15, 2006

Well, I think even Lamarckian evolution is a false analogy because in Lamarckian evolution traits are passed on from parent to offspring. There isn't a real mechanism for lateral transfer there either. An example of lateral transfer is the use of the Pachabel's Canon in a wide variety of pop, rock, and hip-hop songs after it was "rediscovered" in the 70s. This is the sort of thing that would strongly falsify both Darwinian and Lamarckian evolution if found in biological systems.

Not that this helps the original question much.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 12:17 PM on August 15, 2006

Perhaps the "intelligent design" aspect of musical evolution could be neutralized by taking the long view, say all the way back to classical or at least more than 100 years? This might better illustrate that though each individual musical piece is created by individual people, there is no single overarching intelligent being guiding where and when and how music evolves.
posted by platinum at 12:33 PM on August 15, 2006

It would probably be easiest to show evolution in music in the electronica genre, since, until recently, much of it was tentative and experimental (hint hint).

I'm not an expert, but this might be one progression demonstrating a radical mutation either finding equilibrium with its ecosystem or going extinct:

2. Dub/Reggae - opening up of electronic 'mutation' within the genres of gospel/soul/spirituals with rudimentary soundsystems (Barrington Levy's "Black Roses") (60s-80s)
3. Electronic dub (same vein as Massive Attack's "Unfinished Sympathy") (80s-90s)
4. Drum n' Bass - up-tempo, dissonant grooves (Roni Size's "Share the Fall") (90s)
5. Trip-hop - pop/electronica fusion, mostly downtempo (Lamb's "Gorecki") (90s)
6. Pop synthesis - bumping against what the mainstream sounds like (Esthero's "Junglebook" w/ Andre 3000 from Outkast) (2000s)

So the sound has weathered the electronic 'mutation' and used it to adapt to the mainstream music ecology. Electronica has plenty of evolutionary dead ends, trance music comes to mind (though even bad music never really dies).

I dunno how palatable that music is to your audience, I can't really think of anything better (I'm a niche-digger my self). But it's a concrete example, and the sound would be relatively easy to follow.
posted by cowbellemoo at 12:39 PM on August 15, 2006

Some unordered thoughts:

I kind of agree with what people are saying about this possibly being a dodgy road to go down. This is for three reasons - firstly, I'm not sure it can ever be an accurate enough analogy to have real explanatory power.

Secondly, and related to that, I can see some areas where the analogy falls down that could actively lead to misconceptions later on - in particular, as KJS noted, the mutual influence that bands in the same "generation" have on each other is very different from what happens in evolution (assuming you're using influence=genetic inheritance and audience=environment; it's useful once you get to talking about how rivals and other parts of the ecosystem also form the environment, but then you have to change how your system of musical heredity works). The intelligent design thing could also be a problem here - trying to convince people exposed to ID that evolution can work by using something so clearly designed might be a bad move.

And thirdly, I've read you explaining evolutionary material before, and I'd say you're good enough at it to not need a prop like this. There are no perfect analogies for biological evolution (excepting computer models of evolution, I suppose), and I don't think you'll gain anything from using an imperfect one. Start from the first principles (inheritance with small variance + competiton + lots of time) and let them connect the dots for you.

That said, here's a few areas where the analogy could be useful. Perhaps.

Examples of how there is no "best" form - it's entirely dependent on . So compare bands that were fairly obscure back in the day with bands who later had much greater success with the same evolutionary strategy, because the environment had changed - off the top of my head, Kurt Cobain's comment about "I was just ripping off The Pixies" seems apt. Connected to this, the analogy can shoot down the notion of evolution progressing towards some final goal, which is more transparently silly when talking about music.

It could be useful in pointing out how the notion of "species" is actually ill-defined, somewhat fluid and (to a certain extent) imposed on the natural world by us. I think that one of the big stumbling blocks that many who've been overexposed to ID have with evolution is that they think species is rigid concept, so they think evolution actually says that fish turn into frogs in one giant bound. So get them to see how it's a useful conept, by classifying artists they like and showing how it is largely true, but then point out the transitionary forms. Off the top of my head, again, genre-hopping artists like The Flaming Lips or Beck, the incorporation of different musical styles by The Npetunes/NERD, Kraftwerk's influence on early hip-hop (Afrika Bambaataa, etc.) and so on.

The electric guitar is a great example of an already existing mechanism being co-opted into a new purpose; a very similar design, with one small mutation that nonetheless opened up a huge number of radical new niches. I think this might make Hendrix Pikaia, but I don't insist on it.

Conversely, the drums are a great example of an element that is universal to almost all organisms, and has existed in a largely unchanged form for a very long time - while small changes in how they control the functioning of the other instruments (e.g. switching from 4/4 time to 3/4) can lead to very different outcomes. Basically, the drummer is a Hox cluster.

In more general terms, how different combinations of a rather small number of elements (notes, basic instruments, and technologies) can produce wildly varying forms.
posted by flashboy at 12:44 PM on August 15, 2006

Here's how you start the lesson:

"In the beginning, there was metal. And it was good...."
posted by rileyray3000 at 12:52 PM on August 15, 2006

I'm not sure how useful this is, but there's a Philip K. Dick short story called "The Preserving Machine" where a scientist puts musical scores (by Beethoven and Mozart, maybe?) into a machine that brings them to life. The musical creatures run around his garden for a while and reproduce. Then he reverses the process on their offspring only to discover that they had evolved into a cacophonous mess.
posted by clockwork at 1:03 PM on August 15, 2006

Perhaps the "intelligent design" aspect of musical evolution could be neutralized by taking the long view, say all the way back to classical or at least more than 100 years?

But in the long view, the "evolution" of music is clearly the work of god.

The trick is to avoiod the semantic fight. Acknowledge that god may have created everything, but that puny human brains could never fully comprehend His Plan. So we have to resort to intellectual crutches like evolution that our observation-oriented brains can understand. Cast evolution not as a world view that competes with Chrisitan theology, but one that best allows us to comprehend and organize what we observe.

The safest way to win a fight is to not fight at all.
posted by b1tr0t at 1:38 PM on August 15, 2006

This seems like a tricky and dangerous approach to me.

1. Most obvious, as others have pointed out, music involves intelligent design. This might not be a huge issue if there weren't a large and vocal group of people distorting and denying evolution over this very point. As it is, though, you'd be severely weakening your credibility when you went on to claim that evolutionary changes are not intelligently directed.

2. What makes evolution hard for people to accept is that it is not like most things that they experience in their daily lives. The scales of both time and population are far, far beyond anything that our brains are wired to handle. I think I'd start with analogies that demonstrate this. Show some of the Powers of Ten films, and use the old "Earth history as one year" thought experiment. Evolution can be viewed as an emergent behavior, so show other examples of large-scale behavior that is built from qualitatively different small-scale pieces.

Perhaps further down the line music can be used to illustrate some of the concepts of combination and novelty, but at the start I think preconceptions should be thrown out as much as possible, rather than being repurposed through analogy.
posted by bjrubble at 3:29 PM on August 15, 2006

What you need is a piece of software which enables you to randomly generate and `breed' new pieces of music.

Fitness for survival would, in this case, be what you found most pleasing.

So, a random music generator starts off, and you decide that a regular beat makes a piece of music more fit. You select the piece which has a more regular beat. Then you randomly create more music using that as the seed, and select the best one.

Eventually you would find attractive music would survive while ugly music would mostly die out.

I think this could work well, but I don't think such a program exists. Random music type generators do, but the idea of having them seed new pieces of music might not be implemented.
posted by tomble at 7:03 PM on August 15, 2006

You mentioned hip-hop, so how about a short lecture on the Amen Break. It has been used in many different forms over the years, but the sample itself is a simple sequence. It comes with a nice snarky commentary, too. There's also an argument to be made for rock and roll evolving from delta blues, where fitness = popularity of a tune. There was no master plan for the creation of the sound of rock and roll starting with delta blues; the sounds that people liked the most are the ones that people remembered, played, and made derivatives of.

Once you have them thinking you're cool and all, then start talking about how the purpose of science is to ask questions, gather evidence, and suggest the most likely explanation out of all proposed explanations, that fits most of the evidence. Then you can tell them how questions for which it is not possible to gather evidence, or for which there are reasons to select other explanations than the most likely one aren't scientific questions.

A shorter way to say all this is that scientific theories are, at least in principle, able to be proven wrong.

Once they understand this, they'll realize that your job is to teach them the explanation that's most likely and best supported by evidence, and then you can stop wasting your time with this bullshit and get back to teaching them actual science curriculum.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 8:09 PM on August 15, 2006

Thanks, all. The feedback was helpful - I can see clearly the potential problems that could arise with this type of an analogy; hadn't considered it from that angle upon conception of the idea.
posted by caution live frogs at 10:24 PM on August 15, 2006

Facts, evidence, predictions. The pilars of good science. Stick to them.

You should delay talking about the mechanisms evolution until you presented enough observations that your students are at a lost of how to explain them. Let them sense that something curious, wonderful, is going on with the world.

Spend the first week or two about the history of science. Tell the story of the brave men and women of science, who went out in the field and saw wonderful things. Make a big deal of the predictions they made. I would give a leg for the world to know all the predictions of evolution theory. Make a big deal of how the predictions were ultimately verified. Don't tell them (yet) how the prediction were made. Let them revel in the glow of the superpowers of the science men.

Darwin is a hero: You needs balls to go on all these trip on a shaky boat. Popular culture needs to know its science heros better. The white-coat stereotype of the scientist is a dangerous things. Ask your history teachers for advices on how to make your storytelling captivating.

Ask the kids to make their own predictions, as homework. Show them how hard this can be. They will get it wrong, so mark them on the quality of their reasoning.

bjrubble's idea is great. Use week three to practice thinking about big and small numbers. Try to span 10^21 to 10^-21 in a number of different ways, starting with the Power Of Ten video. Talk about the slow raise of mountains.

Then show them evolution. It will be innevitable.

I agree, the music methaphore is a petard.

Good luck.
posted by gmarceau at 10:59 PM on August 15, 2006

Also, The Evolution Evidence Page
posted by gmarceau at 11:17 PM on August 15, 2006

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