Rethinking music's status as adaptation versus technology

A niche construction perspective

Anton Killin

In this article I critique F. R. S. Lawson's evolutionary theorising about music that appeared in a recent issue of "Ethnomusicology Forum". Moreover, I argue that asking whether music is an adaptation or technology, as Lawson does, artificially splits the interwoven, dynamic co-evolutionary forces at work. In my view, in cases of complex, dynamic co-evolution, the distinction between the 'biological' and the 'cultural' is undermined. I suggest that human musicality is one such example, calling into question the adaptation/technology distinction that frames Lawson's theorising about music. In place of that research framework, I offer a niche construction perspective, with reference to several brief ethnographic examples, and a 'socio-cognitive niche' picture of the evolution of music that takes seriously co-evolution and the project of developing empirically constrained, phylogenetically plausible scenarios for the evolution of music, in a general context of hominin evolution. I identify areas of research where ethnomusicology can weigh in on debates concerning the evolutionary career of music, including, importantly, data for phylogenetic modelling and analysis.

Journal British Journal of Ethnomusicology
Year 2016
Volume 25
Issue 2
Pages 210-233

Killin, Anton (2016) Rethinking music's status as adaptation versus technology: a niche construction perspective. In: British Journal of Ethnomusicology, Vol. 25, No. 2, pp. 210-233. Available at


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