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Art and human evolution

By Stephen Davies


Young children take to painting, singing, dancing, storytelling, and role-playing with scarcely any explicit training. They delight in these proto-art behaviors. Grown-ups are no less avid in extending such behaviors, either as spectators or participants.

Provided we have a generous view of art, one that includes appropriate mass, popular, folk, ritual, and domestic practices as well as the esoteric professional art of specialists, we all engage routinely and often passionately with art. Consider, for example, the absorption of teenagers in popular music and the extent to which it contributes to their sense of self-identity. The same continues throughout life. We are interested in TV shows, movies, novels, music, dance, and the plastic arts. In fact, almost everyone has expert knowledge about some genres of art and a broad understanding of others. Many people participate creatively as amateurs both in high art forms and in more quotidian ones, such as potting, making clothes, adorning their environments, and so on. Moreover, the art of skilled professionals often receives sophisticated appreciation involving high levels of cognitive and emotional engagement.

In other words, nothing could be more natural than our attraction to the arts. Indeed, we might suspect that their ancient origins and the universal spread of art behaviors, along with the interest and deep satisfaction to which such behaviors give rise, indicate that they are a touchstone of our biologically-framed and culturally-inflected human nature. Note that the earliest known European cave art dates back more than 35,000 years to a time when the climate was very harsh and life must have been hard; art has been ubiquitous since then or earlier.

"Meercatze" rock carving in Libya. Photo by Luca Galuzzi (www.galuzzi.it), 2007. Creative Commons License.

But now consider these same behaviors from the perspective of the Martian anthropologist. How exotic and bizarre they must appear to be! He puzzles:

They tell or enact stories about people who have never existed and yet, knowing this, they find those stories deeply stimulating and emotionally moving. They find it intriguing to view paintings of bowls of fruit but don’t spend much time gazing at actual fruit bowls. They attach catgut to plywood, scrape it with horsehair, and enjoy the noise, though many other sounds do not appeal to them in a similar way. They amuse themselves by exaggerating their normal form of locomotion by swaying, jumping, spinning, and weaving patterns in groups.

Our sporting practices and spiritual rituals would be similarly perplexing to the alien visitor.

Those of us who share some of the Martian’s amazement are bound to wonder how the arts became so important to us. They permeate our lives and consume our energies, resources, and time. Of course they are often a source of pleasure. (Though recall that we are frequently drawn to tragic dramas and to stories and music that are sad; also that much art is of unrewardingly poor quality.) Yet we may wonder just why they are enjoyed.

One possibility is that art served humans’ evolutionary agendas for reproductive success, because evolution often gets creatures to do what is in their genes’ interests by making the pertinent activities intrinsically pleasurable. Art behaviors might have been directly adaptive; their adoption was responsible for increased reproductive success and the relevant propensities were passed to future generations. For instance, art might have bonded individuals and sustained their values in ways that benefitted their reproductive chances compared to those of art-impoverished people. Alternatively, art behaviors might have been incidental by-products of other adaptive capacities, such as intelligence, curiosity, and creativity. Many such theories have been advanced and there is considerable disagreement about what the arts are alleged to have been adaptations for or about the adaptations to which they are alleged to have stood as by-products. The comparative evaluation of these various, often conflicting, positions is challenging but well deserving of close attention.

And when that is done, it remains to consider if the arts serve similar or related evolutionary functions in our modern context. Perhaps as by-products they went on later to become adaptive in some new way. Perhaps as adaptations their evolutionary advantages came to be negated by changes in the human social and physical environment.

We can say at least this much: even if art behaviors are near-universal when taken together, they are so complex and varied that each individual person expresses them in a subtly distinctive fashion. Some people love novels, others are mainly interested in movies, a person who is insensitive to poetry might be a fine dancer, etc. We can also observe that, unlike other universal behaviors that are mastered relatively cheaply, such as bipedalism, art behaviors involve significant costs and ongoing commitments. These two facts together suggest that these behaviors can serve as informationally rich signals about fitness-relevant characteristics of those who display them. That is sufficient to show an important link between art and evolution.

Stephen Davies is a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Auckland. He is the author of The Artful Species: Aesthetics, Art, and Evolution (Oxford University Press, 2012) and he blogs at artfulspecies.

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