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The First Song - The Evolution of Music

Thursday 30th April 2009 @ 19:00

Non-Member: £12.00 ; Staff: £5.00 ; Student: £3.00


Professor Armand Marie Leroi, Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology, Imperial College

Collaborating with Brian Eno and the Alan Lomax Foundation in New York, Professor Armand Marie Leroi is using evolutionary algorithms to trace the history of song styles.

He is analysing thousands of songs from around the world to find out how they are related to each other. "Perhaps," he says, "we can even identify some of the features of the very first song sung by humans."

In an article he wrote for the Sunday Times in 2005 at the start of his research he said that he believed that that the first song ever sung by a human being was a kind of yodel. Or rather, several yodels, for the first human was not alone: he must have had friends and when he sang they must have joined in.

His starting point was the polyrhythmic chants of Xhosa farmers; the guttural grunts of Siberian pastoralists; the nasal cries of Lisbon Fadistas. He believes that they contain information, information that tells how humans migrated out of Africa more than sixty thousand years ago, fanned out across the globe and constructed the fathomlessly diverse cultural world we see today. In short, he thinks that songs are the products of history, a history that can be retrieved if one but listens to them in the right way.

He has been using similar methods of analysis to those use by geneticists to trace the movements and interbreeding of people and by linguists for language. Professor Leroi poses the question, "If these very different human attributes are ruled by Darwinian dynamics, might not music be too?"

Professor Leroi is an accomplished author and film maker. He wrote and presented What Darwin Didn't Know, a BBC4 film broadcast on 26 January. Lasting a stimulating and engrossing 90 minutes, the film starts with Darwin's theory, criticised at the time for being short on evidence and long on assertion, Darwin, being the honest scientist that he was, agreed with them. He knew that his theory was riddled with 'difficulties', but he entrusted future generations to complete his work and prove the essential truth of his vision. Professor Leroi showed how scientists have been continuing to strengthen and prove the theory during the past 150 years.

The film argues that, with the new science of evolutionary developmental biology (evo devo), it may be possible to take that theory to a new level - to do more than explain what has evolved in the past, and start to predict what might evolve in the future.

His very successful book, Mutants gives a "brilliant narrative account of our genetic grammar and the people whose bodies have revealed it. Stepping effortlessly from myth to molecular biology, this elegant, humane and illuminating book is about us all." You can buy it on Amazon.

Armand Marie Leroi was born in Wellington, New Zealand. A Dutch citizen, his youth was spent in New Zealand, South Africa and Canada. He was awarded a Bsc. by Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada in 1989, and a Ph.D. by the University of California, Irvine in 1993. His doctoral work was supervised by Michael Rose and concerned the genetics of ageing in fruit flies. This was followed by postdoctoral work at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, in Scott Emmons's laboratory. Here he began to work on growth in the nematode worm, Caenorhabditis elegans, and its relatives. In 1996 he was appointed Lecturer at Imperial College London; in 2001, Professor of Evolutionary Developmental Biology.

Venue: Sir Alexander Fleming Building