From a reader:
Hi Jonah. When Pinker calls music “auditory cheesecake”, he’s not saying
it’s meaningless in the cultural sense, but in the evolutionary sense. In
other words, there is no adaptative function behind music, but that it’s a
by-product of our neurological system which MAY be evolved (Pinker and many
others believe that the evidence points towards the mind as an adaptation,
others believe that mind evolved but is not an adaptation-Derb can fill you
in on the crucial difference between’evolved’ and ‘adaptated’-and others,
such as myself, which are in between the two views).
Pinker’s views are more complex than his critics usually acknowledge.
He’s generally regarded as being on the political left, but is a strong
critic of the academic left, and has promoted the economic theories of
Milton Friedman and Thomas Sowell (he even wrote a back cover blurb for
Sowell’s book on late-talking children). He also wrote a brilliant
smackdown of George Lakoff’s ludicrous (from a neurophysiological
standpoint) “framing” theory for TNR. I would have loved to see him do a
similar tearing-up of Gore’s imbecelic and outdated misinterpretation of
neuroscience in The Assault on Reason.
Me: That’s all fine and good, and not really news to me either (I don’t mean that in a snarky way). I generally like Pinker, and I like much of his work. But I do think he’s a reductionist. As for the auditory cheesecake thing, I’m not so sure. The problem is that even if music is a happy accident of evolution, his skepticism toward concepts like dignity and transcendence necessarily imply (or at least one could argue that they necessarily imply) that music can never be anything more than auditory cheesecake.
But we can discuss that during the work week.