The Darwinian Audiophile

Mojo Nixon sings, "Elvis is everywhere." My version is "Darwin is everywhere." Last Thanksgiving, as my extended family was gathered around the dinner table, my 11-year-old nephew abruptly reminded us that Darwin was there, too. Out of the blue, he broadcast the $64,000 question:

"Did we come from at the zoo? Or did we come from Adam and Eve?"

Uh-oh. I pretended not to hear and fished for another piece of white meat.

"Ask your Uncle George," his Mom said. "He'll know."

I glared at my sister. Was she nuts? But it was too late. A pair of curious, free-thinking eyes were staring at me and expecting an answer. They had no inkling that this line of thought once sent Western Civilization into convulsions that still haven't died down. Imagine how it could ruin one family's Thanksgiving dinner. Hardly anyone is happy about Darwin's conclusion that we're distant cousins of modern apes and monkeys. You might as well talk about intestinal parasites.

Thinking fast (or trying to), I changed the subject.

"You know, I don't really want to talk about that, but I do want to know if you've written your letter to Santa Cl—"

Oops! Don't go there. With a six-year-old sitting across the table, these waters could be mined, too.

"Um, I mean, how's your turkey? What's better—white meat or dark?" (Phew!)

Darwin is dangerous. Oddly, I happened to be reading just the book for this occasion—Darwin's Dangerous Idea, by the philosopher Daniel Dennett (1995, Simon & Schuster). First the idea, then the danger, and then my theory: audiophiles are Darwinists.

Darwin theorized that species, including our own, come from other species via a process called evolution by natural selection. This process has four parts:

1) No two members of a species are identical. Variety abounds. Some are bigger, smaller, weaker, stronger, healthier, sicker, and so on.

2) Life is difficult. Given the facts of life, populations tend to increase in size geometrically, thus creating a perpetual shortage of resources. Competition is the name of the game.

3) Those creatures with small variations that give them an edge over others in life's competitions are likely to live longer and leave more offspring than those without them.

4) If these tiny variations are passed on from generation to generation, they will become more and more common in the population. (A standard illustration: ancient giraffes that happened to have slightly longer necks than their neighbors had more leaves to eat, had more kids, and had more kids with slightly longer necks.) As thousands of generations go by, these variations can "add up" and lead to entirely new species.

And the danger? Dennett compares Darwinism to a "universal acid"—a mythical solvent that eats through everything. It's impossible to contain. If it existed, only gravity could eventually capture it all at the center of the earth. Darwin's theory has nearly the same power. If it's true (as most biologists and scientists believe), it threatens our most cherished beliefs about ourselves and the world.

The well-known religious implications are just hors d'oeuvres. Natural selection, Darwin showed, could do all the species-making work of a supernatural designer (albeit in small, slow steps). And if that's true, Adam and Eve probably existed only in the imagination of the early scribes. And if that's true, then Providence—humanity's divine guarantee of future prosperity—remains only the capitol of Rhode Island. And if that's true...the acid continues to drip.

Do we have souls? Do we have, that is, immaterial and eternal substances that make each of us unique and endow us with free will? Darwin's theory plants us firmly within the natural world. So, unless all the birds and worms and giraffes have souls too, Darwin's Magic 8-Ball says, "Outlook Not So Good."

Drip, drip, drip.

"Okay," says the optimist, "so what if I don't have free will and an eternal, immaterial soul? I don't want eternal life anyway. Look what happened to Ripley in Alien: Resurrection! I'm just fine being me, with all my hopes and fears and plans and goals. I am still me, right?"

According to some evolutionists, you're not the you you thought you were (you got that?). Sure, your personality and hopes and fears are all there, but they count for little in the game of life. You are a transportation vehicle and preservation device for your genes. Your family, your job, your mind and body, are simply support props for evolution's main events: Reproduce! Get those genes out there and into future generations!

Drip, drip, drip.

As I read Dennett's book, I kept wondering if there are any dogmas about music or audio that Darwin's universal acid will dissolve. Of course, most audiophiles are well versed in evolutionspeak. We all talk about how components evolve through modifications and updates. But these changes are the result of intelligent, conscious design (of William Johnson or Dan D'Agostino, for example). They don't illustrate Darwinian natural selection. Nor is competition in the marketplace Darwinian. Consumer selection is not natural selection because consumers don't always select the "fittest" of the available alternatives: witness VHS's success over Beta, Windows' rise over Mac (or Unix or OS2), or the fact that 8-track tapes ever sold at all. It's not "survival of the fittest," it's "survival of the best-marketed." (Yes, my LPs and turntable asked me to make this point.)

In another way, however, Darwin's ideas do capture the spirit and point of high-end audio. To see this, we have to go back to Darwin. Some say his main insight was not the theory of natural selection, but rather his new "populational" view of species. Species are simply populations of animals that share an evolutionary history.

By contrast, the dominant definition of species in Darwin's day was much more elaborate. A species was not merely a population, but a population whose members each possessed a certain essence that united and defined them. Species, that is, were metaphysically distinct and different from each other. God designed them to be that way. No surprise, then, that many thought Darwin was an idiot. That one species could evolve out of another seemed as unlikely as a triangle becoming a square, or six becoming seven. Essences don't change, so they don't evolve.

But Darwin turned things around. The small, ubiquitous differences among members of a species are not merely noise on a robust, unchanging signal—the essence, or the underlying form of the species. Instead, those differences are the signal. They are the main stuff of life and its history. Nature cares not a whit about essences, only about these variations and deviations. As Darwin metaphorically put it, "Natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, the slightest variations; rejecting those that are bad, preserving and adding up all that are good; silently and insensibly working, whenever and wherever opportunity offers, at the improvement of each organic being in relation to its organic and inorganic conditions of life."

Mother Nature sounds like an audiophile, doesn't she? Daily and hourly scrutinizing her audio rig for the slightest variations in performance; rejecting those interconnects and components that are bad, preserving those that work well together... But it's not this obsession with hardware that makes audiophiles Darwinian. Rather, high-end audio encourages a populational view of music much like Darwin's populational view of species.

Every giraffe is different, if only slightly, and so is every performance of, say, the Brandenburg Concertos. A high-end system lets you hear these differences when low- and mid-fi systems usually won't. In my car, for instance, my neanderthal FM radio gives me just enough information to identify the music that WFMT is playing. But I can never tell (without the announcer's help) who's playing, who's conducting, where the performance took place, how it was recorded, etc. The radio strips away the variations among the many, many recordings out there, leaving me with only the musical essence that they all share. In my car, that is, I'm neither an audiophile nor a Darwinist about music.

But in my living room, Richter's Brandenburgs sound very different from Klemperer's, Harnoncourt's, or any other conductor's. Through my Krell/Martin-Logan system, distinguishing marks become obvious and—importantly—they're not just incidental. They're not different window dressings on the same, essential pieces of music. Some Brandenburgs are wooden and plodding; others are vivacious and (for me, at least) sometimes dramatic and hair-raising. They're all different.

So which Brandenburgs are the real or essential Brandenburgs? To audiophiles, the question rings hollow. We celebrate these differences among recordings and prize audio systems for their ability to detect them. If you agree that there simply is no real or essential version of the Brandenbergs (or of any other piece of music), then you're Darwinian, too. For there is no real or essential version of a giraffe or anteater, either. What exist are populations of animals and populations of musical performances (footnote 1). Each member of these populations is different in ways that count.

This may be the difference between audiophiles and those hordes of music-lovers who are happy with mid-fi or low-fi systems. They're not very Darwinian. Just as I have to listen through the sound of my car radio (and the rattling of a plastic speaker grille) to the musical information inside it, they must tend to listen through their systems. The trick is to ignore the bad sound but still hear good music.

A professor of mine once lectured me about the singular genius of Beethoven. (I had dared to opine that Bach was more interesting.) Yet he never once mentioned the sound of Beethoven's music, or the experience of hearing any particular symphony. He just listed an impressive array of formal musicological innovations that Beethoven had pioneered. Coincidence or not, the speaker cartons I spied in his office (where I stood corrected) betrayed his mid-fi leanings. His speakers at home were big old mid-'70s Advents—fine for hearing a contrapuntal hyper-mega-inversion (or whatever—I'm no musicologist), but not so good for telling the CSO from the LSO, a Telecaster from a Stratocaster, and the other sorts of sonic variations that reveal music's populational character.

So Darwin's universal acid might have something to eat through over at Stereo Review, but it leaves much of audiophilia untouched. We're already Darwinian. Besides, every audiophile knows that good sound and expensive, exotic equipment are aphrodisiacs. (Born in 1962, I've always assumed that I was a Living Stereo baby.) And if the warm glow of 6550s or a faceplate's satin finish don't always lead to activities that can modify the genetic makeup of our planet, they'll at least seduce an audiophile to write a check.

Footnote 1: This is not to say that we don't have our favorite recordings and performances, or that all of them are equally good or bad. The point is that these choices and evaluations are our own. They are not intrinsic to any member of the population.