Gradually the humanities are being invaded and disciplined by explanations of that kind, which purport to sweep away the mess of hermeneutics and replace it with clean, meaningful science. And the explanations really are as absurd as the two examples I have given — absurd precisely because they are looking to explain something that they have not defined. Until you define what music is, and how it differs from pitched sound, for example, you will not know what question you are asking, when you inquire into its origins. Until you recognize that the human sense of beauty is a completely different thing from the peahen’s sexual attraction, you won’t know what, if anything, is proved by the sparse similarities.
Worse, the whole ‘adaptation’ approach to human phenomena is topsy-turvy. It involves a mechanical application, case by case, of the theory of natural selection, as supplemented by modern genetics. It tells us that, if a trait is widespread across our species, then it has been ‘selected for.’ But this means only that the trait is not maladaptive, that it is not something that would disappear under evolutionary pressure. And that is a trivial observation. Everything that exists could be said to be not dysfunctional. That tells us nothing about how the thing in question came to exist. Nor does it tell us anything about its meaning or significance for us.