Did Humans Evolve to Dance? Additional Clues

In my last blog (March 31), I asked whether dancing might be an activity on par with cooking that humans evolved to do. In asking the question, I was not asking whether homo sapiens evolved around 250,000 years ago and then learned to dance. I was asking whether dancing not only preceded the emergence of homo sapiens, but played a significant, constitutive role in enabling humans to become the big-brained, symbol-wielding, ultrasocial creatures we are.

Are we humans human because our hominid ancestors danced? Could it be that dancing helped determine how we would allocate the calories concentrated through cooking methods during the million years of the Pleistocene era before homo sapiens emerged? Could it be that we evolved big brains in order to dance?

I find clues in the work of anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy. In her book Mothers and Others, Hrdy argues that there was a line of apes at some point in the Pleistocene (1.8 million to 10,000 years ago), before the appearance of modern-sized human brains and language use, who engaged in cooperative breeding (Hrdy 2009: 31). In such an arrangement, she explains, mothers would band together with partners, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers—or alloparents—in order to raise their children. In turn, infants raised under such conditions would have needed skills to help them cultivate relationships with those on whom they depended—skills of sensing and responding to the bodily movements of others. Is this where human dancing began?

In making her argument, Hrdy dislodges the idea that maternal care is the norm for primates. As she argues, 40-50 percent of living primates do not demonstrate exclusive maternal/infant care. In contrast to attachment theorist John Bowlby, she insists that continuous-care-and-contact is a strategy of last resort for those who lack alternatives (Hrdy 2009: 85). Rather than one parenting solution, there are multiple options, including cooperative breeding. One line of apes, synchronous with homo erectus, adopted it.

As Hrdy explains, the results of adopting this method of child rearing may explain observed differences between infant apes and infant humans with respect to their willingness to form attachments with caregivers. Although she affirms that, “Neither in humans nor in any other ape does the initial impulse to connect need to be learned” (Hrdy 2009: 60), she cites the work of primatologists who chart divergent paths of development. In the first few weeks of life, infant apes seem to smile and respond to caregivers with a curiosity and attentiveness similar to human infants, but then they simply lose interest. Human children do not. As she affirms, in primates, “early flickerings of empathic interest—what might even be termed tentative quests for intersubjective engagement—fade away instead of developing and intensifying as they do in human children” (Hrdy 2009: 58).

Further, using the example of contemporary infants, Hrdy surmises that the medium in which this impulse to connect first developed was bodily movement. Here she quotes the work of developmental psychologist Andrew Meltzoff: “infants’ connection to others emerges from the fact that the bodily movement patterns they see others perform are coded like the ones they themselves perform” (Hrdy 2009: 49). Human infants are particularly adept at noticing the bodily movements of others—especially movements of facial features. Infants notice movement in the range of sensory awareness that they themselves have. And infants not only notice these movements, they are moved by them to move in response. As infants move in response to caregivers, their movements spark a similar response from caregivers, initiating a round of responsive movements that yield obvious pleasure in both parties. One smile begets another.

This “coding” of bodily movements that Meltzoff describes occurs in the regions of the brain identified in the 1990s as “mirror neurons.” However, attention to movement patterns reveals that much more is happening than simply a reflection or even an imitation. The images that “mirror” neurons create are not visual. They are kinetic—they exist in the infant as a possibility for mobilizing one’s bodily self in a similar pattern.

Given the need to attract attention to themselves and create life-enabling relationships with a range of caregivers, then, human infants developed a remarkable and distinctive ability to notice and respond to the bodily movements of others who look very different from themselves. They are able to translate these sensory impressions into their own sensory awareness, and respond by recreating movement patterns that don’t simply imitate, but play with alternatives. Infants can move and be moved to the extent that they have developed an awareness of themselves as moving. Drawing on the work of psychologist Susan Jones, Hrdy claims that the process of developing this “imitative competency” develops over the first two years of life, as a toddler gains an increased sense of his self and his bodily competencies (Hrdy 2009: 59).

In a view shared by Hrdy and others, this capacity for the responsive recreation of bodily movement forms the roots of human intersubjectivity. It is the capacity that enables humans to move with one another—to empathize with one another—and thus develop a concept of each other as individuals. As a result, my three year old, Leif, will hold a melting ice cream sandwich in his hands for fifteen minutes on the way home for the grocery store, waiting to share it with his older brother, Kai. And Kai would not have received this gift, as Hrdy writes, had human infants not needed to survive and thrive under conditions of cooperative breeding. As Hrdy concludes, “A self-reinforcing evolutionary process produces parents and alloparents who are more sensitive to infantile signals and babies who are better at emitting them” (Hrdy 2009: 220).

It is this ability to connect with one another, Hrdy affirms, that gives rise to a desire for additional forms of communication. “The first social bonds ever forged were between a mother and her offspring” (Hrdy 2009: 41). But once forged, those bonds created in human persons capacities and competencies for connecting with others that they exercised in relation to wider ranges of people—partners, families, friends, and communities—playing with movement patterns to invent modes of communication such as language, art, and religion.

Might this capacity for sensing and responding to patterns of movement, first honed in the relationship between caregiver and infant, be understood as a first form of dance? Might this dance have pulled into existence both a human brain designed to sense and respond to more complex patterns of movement, and a versatile, variable bodily self able to enact them?

Next blog, more clues.

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