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Mithen’s music mystery magnified!

Author of The Singing Neanderthals, Steven Mithen, is now ‘even more mystified’ as to why singing arose


Steven Mithen, University of Reading (UK) archaeologist and author of The Singing Neanderthals, is an outspoken atheist and a particular favourite of the evolutionary propaganda machine. (See e.g. our rebuttal of statements he made in the anti-Christian documentary series ‘Testing God’, first screened in 2004.)

For some time Mithen has pondered the origins of music—of course, from his unquestioned starting point that evolution is true. We have earlier reported (see Mithen’s music musings) his suggestion that when we make music, ‘Perhaps what we are really doing is exploring the evolutionary history of humankind: making sounds that are uncertain memories of a shared ancestral past, a time when we communicated not with words but with melody, pitch and rhythm.’

That’s a very inventive suggestion, but there is no factual basis to such creative storytelling. So it’s not surprising that a deeper analysis of the complexities of music, and the variable abilities of humans to perform and appreciate it, raises some very awkward questions for evolutionists—as Steven Mithen has himself recently discovered, and now admitted.

In his 2005 book The Singing Neanderthals, Mithen tried to answer the question: ‘Why should evolution have created a species [i.e. humans] that can sing with such remarkable beauty?’

He said his research had persuaded him that ‘musicality is deeply embedded in the human genome, with far more ancient evolutionary roots than spoken language.’ Yet Mithen himself, at the time of writing his book, admitted to being distinctly unmusical, ‘unable to carry a tune or match a rhythm’.

When some friends suggested that he’d been ‘turned off’ music as a child, and that some coaching in singing could help him find his voice, Mithen decided to try it. For one year he subjected himself to singing lessons—and got frustrated.

‘In The Singing Neanderthals I argued that singing is a means for achieving well-being through social bonding,’ he wrote recently in New Scientist.1 ‘Sadly, that was not my experience—I simply became cross, stressed and dissatisfied. My singing wasn’t good for my family life either, as my children didn’t appreciate the late night practising.’

What else did Mithen learn from a year of trying to sing? Mithen concludes: ‘By understanding just how remarkably difficult it is to sing—to simultaneously and unconsciously manage pitch, rhythm, timbre, tone and dynamics—I am even more mystified as to why humans have evolved such an amazing ability.’

The answer, of course, is that they didn’t. It’s a gift, from the Giver of life, breath and everything else (Acts 17:25).

Published: 16 May 2008


  1. Mithen, S., The diva within, New Scientist, 197(2644):38–39; 23 February 2008. Return to text.

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