The political motivations for the “is music biological or cultural” question

Nature just published another entry in the “is musical preference biological or cultural?” debate. It’s getting a lot of press attention now. Scholars outside the hard sciences are pretty much (as Nick Seaver put it) “duh” about it. I fall in the “duh” camp. It’s a settled question, and in a lot of ways it’s been sufficiently settled with arguments that come from the early 18th century. I don’t want to engage the argument here so much as think about why this argument comes from the 18th century and why its origins matter for us today. The nature/culture question emerged in the enlightenment, and it was a big deal then because social contract theory made it a big deal. It was and is a metaphysical question whose motivation and effect was and is primarily political.

So, back to the 18th century: As Rousseau argues in his Essay on the Origin of Languages,

If the major impact of our sensations upon us is not due to moral [i.e., conventional] causes, then why are we so sensitive to impressions which are meaningless to barbarians? Why is music that moves us but an empty noise to the ear of a Carib? Are his nerves of a different nature from ours? Why are they not excited in the same way, or why do the same excitations affect some people so strongly and others hardly at all? (EOL 289).


Rousseau is arguing that unless you want to say West Indians are physiologically of a different order than Europeans (and this is important, bc also duh, some people want to argue exactly that), then there is no empirical basis for the claim that musical preference is biological, physiological, or somehow in the material nature of human bodies, because non-Western cultures have different sonic epistemologies than Europeans do.

So the catch is, as I just mentioned, that at the time most philosophers and scientists DID think West Indians were physiologically of a subordinate order to Europeans: at the time Rousseau wrote the Essay, Kant and Herder and Hegel were all gearing up to write the concept of race into the philosophical canon and pave the way for some WTF 19th c scientific racism. The basic idea was that human bodies could be categorized according to a physiological hierarchy. In Hegel, for example, that hierarchy of human anatomy followed the geographic and topographical hierarchy that puts Europe as the sublation/aufhebung of Africa and Asia–bodies were outgrowths of their environments, so the people native to a specific area carried, in their bodies, the features of their native environments. This physiological hierarchy then became the basis of a moral/political hierarchy of non-persons (social death), sub-persons (minor status, like white women and children), and full persons.

Social contract theory argues that civil society must treat everyone equally and that civil society can neither admit nor produce any status differences. But, you ask, we are different: some are taller and shorter, some are better at brains or better at brawn, some of us get pregnant and some of us don’t, etc. Well, social contract theory replies, that’s very true, but those differences are natural: they are inherent in the materiality of things, not in law or culture or custom. Civil society can and should admit natural differences precisely because they aren’t civil differences. So it’s totally OK for us to deny political personhood to people on the based on the shape of their nose or skull or eyes, secondary sex characteristics, and so on. Because that’s not creating a civil distinction in status. …so the argument goes. (I have a lot more to say about this in my first book.)

The nature/culture distinction still impacts US law. Ladelle McWhorter addresses this in her book Racism And Sexual Oppression in Anglo-America. There she argues that the 14th Amendment is written and interpreted in a way that ties civil rights to “immutable” biological difference. Though “some legal theorists have argued that ‘immutability’ is not the actual measure of identifiability intended in the 1938 decision or the 1987 refinement in Bowen…advocates of civil rights for LGBT people have very little legal leverage to do anything but promote the idea that there is some unalterable biological trait that all homosexual and transgendered people have in common, a trait that might qualify them as a true minority, as a sort of race” (313-4). US law requires empirical biological difference to exist in order to grant a group the civil rights protections that come with minority or protected class status…Because to admit that racial, sexual, gender, or other sort of difference is anything other than biological would be to admit the law’s complicity in creating those status differences to begin with.

So what does this have to do with music and that study in Nature? Well, the nature/culture question is a metaphysical question we continue to care about because it’s the secondary expression of a question that’s primarily political: can liberal civil society ever live up to its stated promises of full equality and justice? And just like the 14th Amendment tries to hide the law’s own responsibility for creating white supremacy and racial difference as a Thing, the nature/culture question tries to hide philosophers’ and scientists’ own responsibility for creating the terms our research seeks to study–i.e., the circularity of our own arguments. For example, the first line of the Nature study is: “Music is present in every culture, but the degree to which it is shaped by biology remains debated.” First, though Westerners might find what sounds to them like music in every culture, not every culture understands that practice according to our definition of what music is. And second, why care whether our musical preferences and practices are shaped by biology? Why, well, that’s where the politics come in. The biological foundation of cultural difference matters because liberal democratic theory/social contract theory says it does. This metaphysical question still matters to us (and there are plenty of metaphysical questions that don’t matter to us anymore, like how many angels fit on the head of a pin) because our hegemonic political institutions and ideologies depend on it.