Sex, music, and the survival of the species

Sex, music, and the survival of the species

Sex, music, and the survival of the species…now those are some pretty heavy-weight topics! No, I’m not trying for the best click bait I can cram into one headline, although I have to admit, that headline might just win a prize in such a contest. But the three concepts could well be intimately related. Was that last sentence a bad pun? I don’t know; maybe. Let’s try to keep on track here.

Dr. Daniel Levitin, author of the book, The World in Six Songs: How the Musical Brain Created Human Nature, explores music and how it has shaped humanity since the dawn of time. I haven’t read the book yet, but it’s next on my list. However, I have heard Levitin speak in a couple of different videos and podcasts. As one of his points of discussion, he explores the why behind music’s undeniable importance to humans. There could be an evolutionary reason for the central role that music has always played, and that’s where the sex and survival of the species may come into play.

The World in Six Songs by Daniel Levitin
The World in Six Songs by Daniel Levitin

It’s pretty well known that listening to music causes measurable physical reactions in our brains. For instance, music can cause our brains to release dopamine, which makes us feel good. When we sing together, our brains may release oxytocin, and that causes trust reactions. Among the other chemicals released you’ll find prolactin, and that’s where Levitin’s theory ties into the survival of the species. Prolactin, it turns out, promotes feelings of bonding between people.

Levitin points out that the brain produces prolactin in a number of different circumstances. It was first discovered that mammals release the chemical while suckling their young, that is, breast feeding, or lactating. That discovery gave the chemical its name. It’s not surprising that breast feeding can strengthen the bond between a mother and her baby. While that was obviously important for the survival of the species, it wasn’t enough to ensure that survival. Baby mammals need more than just mother’s milk and a bond with the mother to survive. They need protection and nurturing, and no other mammal baby needs these for longer periods of time than human babies do.

Because the human brain grows to be so advanced and physically large compared to the body, it can’t come out fully formed in babies. While this is true of all mammals, it is especially so in humans. The human brain is far less developed at birth relative to its final development than the brain of other mammals. Thus, it takes a very long time for the human brain to mature. We don’t even walk for the better part of the first year or more because our brains haven’t matured enough to figure that out, and language takes even longer to develop. What this means is that the human baby needs to be taken care of for a very long time, and taking care of a baby consumes a great deal of the parent’s attention.

Did music save the species?
Did music save the species?

So what does all of this have to do with sex and prolactin? Well, the theory goes, once humans evolved to the point of having the true capacity to love each other, love could keep the male with the female, and this was critical to the survival of infants. With the male around, the mother could focus on caring for the infant while the father hunted and gathered food, and also, protected the family from all of the dangers around them. So, survival of the species came to depend upon love and a binding relationship between mates. But how did the species survive before it had evolved to the point of love and lasting relationships?

As I said, the brain produces prolactin as a result of more than just lactation alone, and one of those triggers is orgasm. When humans have sex, their orgasms cause the brain to produce prolactin, and since we know that prolactin causes feelings of bonding, the brains of sexual partners who share orgasm release the bonding magic and the couple feels compelled to stay together. This may have been critical in early humans since the male would feel bonded with the female after intercourse, and thus a mating pair could survive for years. The male would still be around when the baby was born, and stay around to protect his mate and the child, all along enjoying repeated hits of the bonding prolactin as a result of continued sex with his partner.

But even this may not have been enough to ensure the survival of humans. Compared to the animal kingdom, let’s face it, humans are weak. A mother and her child are a poor match for a saber-toothed tiger even if the father is with them. Humans were smarter than other animals, and as a result could more cleverly avoid interaction and also create tools to help them fight. But even that wasn’t enough. Thus humans found safety in numbers. Society served many purposes, not the least of which may have been protection from attack. So it became critical for people to coexist in groups in order to survive. But how did these groups form, and what bonded them together? If your brain is heading down the road of wild group orgies or free communal sex, who knows? You could be right. But, let’s let Levitin pull us out of the gutter.

Levitin reports that as it turns out, another trigger for the production of prolactin is…you guessed it…music. Music can produce the same prolactin in the human brain that suckling a baby or mutual orgasm does. So it could be that people developed music as a way to keep groups bonded together. Early societies could have depended upon music as one of the triggers that quite literally held them together.

Now, as far as I know, this is only a theory. Like I said, I haven’t yet read Levitin’s book, and I admit that I’m no expert on this, but still, this is a fascinating theory, isn’t it? If it was true way back then, would it not still be true today? Does music still have this bonding effect upon us humans? Why wouldn’t it? Honestly, this whole theory kind of blows me away. I’ve talked before about how I was raised with mixed messages of the value of music. While my mother valued music deeply, my father didn’t have much time for it. For him, it was a waste of time, and just unwelcomed noise. This mixed messaging has caused me a lot of anxiety in my life as my own love for music fought against the guilt of wasting time enjoying it. But how much more important can something be than music if Levitin’s theory is correct? If that really is how it all happened with our ancestors, then music played an important role in the very survival of the species. I’d say that’s relatively important, wouldn’t you?



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