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No. 798:
The Ik Do Not Sing

Today, we think about music and community. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Pathologist Lewis Thomas talks about the Ik. The Ik do not sing. The Ik were nomad hunters in Northern Uganda. The government made their hunting grounds into a national park and relocated them. They had to take up farming.

In 1972 anthropologist C.M. Turnbull wrote about the Ik in their new life. They laugh only at one another's misfortunes. They teach their children to steal food from the old. They are solitary and ill-humored. "They breed without love," says Thomas, and "they defecate on one another's doorsteps."

The social roles of the Ik have been unthreaded. And with that, they've lost all sense of community. Each Ik is now an isolated one-man tribe unto himself. Interdependency is gone; and the Ik no longer sing.

So Thomas turns his attention to animal and insect music-making. What does he find? He finds that music always accompanies community. At first we hear only babble. It takes patience to sift out syntax and sense. But syntax and sense is there.

Termites constantly rap their heads against the floor. It sounds random and senseless. Yet when biologists record the sound, and study it, they find pattern, variety, even phrasing.

Ask yourself how an alien might react to a Bartok quartet. I can answer that one. I was alien to string quartets the first time I heard one. I didn't hear music. I heard only the cacophony of termites banging their heads.

Bartok became clear to me in 1952 when I made a strange experiment. I covered my ears for a moment and only watched the four players. Suddenly I saw conversation. I saw a ballet. I saw the players trading ideas. After that the music made sense. I've loved Bartok ever since.

Now I know what I'd really seen in that instant. I'd seen what we all crave -- what we cannot live without. I'd seen community. For the next 40 years I constantly involved myself in music. Choirs, chamber groups, opera -- always finding community in the intimacy of music-making

Thomas takes a term from physics, the musical term ensemble. An ensemble is a group of atoms whose individual action seems chaotic, but whose aggregate action displays order and sense.

That's what the Ik have lost. They have no ensemble. Their old roles in one another's lives are gone. The threads of community have been pulled out. Each Ik is what you or I might become if we let ourselves be stripped of community.

And the surest sign of that isolation is almost too terrifying to think about. It is that the Ik no longer sing.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Thomas, L, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher. New York: Bantam Books, 1975, pp. 22-28, 126-129

Turnbull, C.M., The Mountain People. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1972.

Tien, C.L., and Lienhard, J.H., Statistical Thermodynamics. New York: Hemisphere Pub. Corp., 1979 (see especially, Chapter 8, Statistical Mechanical Ensembles.)

Trumbull's 1972 characterization if the Ik was made during their darkest hour, and it may have been overstated as well. No people will dwell very long in that kind of darkness and, while the picture does not fit the Ik today, Trumbull's images unfortunately linger on. I wrote this episode in 1993. For a more balanced picture of a more resilient people, see this website