Skip to content


The Artful SpeciesAesthetics, Art, and Evolution

Stephen Davies

320 pages. Price:  £25.00

978-0-19-965854-1 | Hardback | November 2012

The Artful Species explores the idea that our aesthetic responses and art behaviors are connected to our evolved human nature. Our humanoid forerunners displayed aesthetic sensibilities hundreds of thousands of years ago and the art standing of prehistoric cave paintings is virtually uncontested. In Part One, Stephen Davies analyses the key concepts of the aesthetic, art, and evolution, and explores how they might be related. He considers a range of issues, including whether animals have aesthetic tastes and whether art is not only universal but cross-culturally comprehensible. Part Two examines the many aesthetic interests humans take in animals and how these reflect our biological interests, and the idea that our environmental and landscape preferences are rooted in the experiences of our distant ancestors. In considering the controversial subject of human beauty, evolutionary psychologists have traditionally focused on female physical attractiveness in the context of mate selection, but Davies presents a broader view which decouples human beauty from mate choice and explains why it goes more with social performance and self-presentation. Part Three asks if the arts, together or singly, are biological adaptations, incidental byproducts of nonart adaptations, or so removed from biology that they rate as purely cultural technologies. Davies does not conclusively support any one of the many positions considered here, but argues that there are grounds, nevertheless, for seeing art as part of human nature. Art serves as a powerful and complex signal of human fitness, and so cannot be incidental to biology. Indeed, aesthetic responses and art behaviors are the touchstones of our humanity.

For readers interested in art and human nature, from any academic background.

Cover picture: a detail of the frieze in the Salle du Fond, Chauvet Cave, France.
Reproduction with kind permission of Jean Clottes.

About the author:

Stephen Davies teaches philosophy at the University of Auckland. He writes mainly about aesthetics and the philosophy of art, and has written extensively on the definition of art, the ontological character of artworks, cross-cultural aesthetics, the expression of emotion in art, and the interpretation and evaluation of art. His books include Definitions of Art (Cornell University Press, 1991), Musical Meaning and Expression (Cornell University Press, 1994), Musical Works and Performances (Clarendon Press, 2001), Themes in the Philosophy of Music (OUP, 2003), The Philosophy of Art (Blackwell, 2006), Philosophical Perspectives on Art (OUP, 2007), and Musical Understandings and Other Essays on the Philosophy of Music (OUP, 2011). He is a former President of the American Society for Aesthetics and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of New Zealand and of the New Zealand Academy of the Humanities.

Click here for Stephen Davies’ contact details.

  1. Stefan Di Vietro permalink

    What is your ideas about the connection between morality and art?

    • I would give a naturalized account of human behaviors generally. So, I assume that there is an appropriate biological basis and history to moral behaviors. Theorists in this area appeal to kin selection and tit-for-tat game-playing strategies as the basis for morality, but these strike me as too weak to explain altruism and the rest. I’d prefer an account in terms of the fact that none of us can survive and reproduce successfully on our own so we need the help and cooperation of others. But there is no reason why they should give us that unless we treat them in a way that accords them the respect and value that we put on ourselves. And it goes from there.
      Other theorists run an error theory. Such a theory for religion would argue that there is no god but that it is evolutionarily useful to act as if there is one, because it provides security, “explanation” for what happens. It is a useful fiction, but only if people believe it is not a fiction. Some people tell a similar story about morality and the idea that there are moral obligations to others. (This implies that those who see through the fiction might better rip off others.) I think that our relations with others genuinely generate reciprocal obligations, rights and the rest, so I’d argue against an error theory account of morality.

  2. Thank you for the interesting read; your book gives a broad view of many of the arguments for and against arts functioning in humanity’s evolution.

    You rule out the plausibility of art as a technology based upon the idea that what distinguishes art from a technology is that the process by which the artist creates a work is important to the work itself, while the process by which a technology is implemented is irrelevant to the technology. I do not see how this argument holds water.

    While I agree that the artist is interested in the medium they will use to realize their work, the same could be true of any technology; since, the final outcome of either is dependent on the medium used. And, yes, the artist is interested in the process that goes into the creation of their work; but is not the engineer interested in the process leading to the creation of the technology (bridge, plane, fire)? How is the individual’s investment in the work’s creation any different from one to the other?

    • The argument is that technology is valuable only insofar as the end it produces is, whereas we value art intrinsically rather than regarding it as a means to an end. Another relevant argument is that technology is a separate category only insofar as it depends only indirectly and distantly on evolved capacities. (After all, everything we do depends on our evolved biology and so technology can be separated from adaptations or spandrels only as a matter of degree.) I think are does use general adaptations (such as general intelligence, humor, sociality, theory of mind), but in a direct and intimate matter rather than merely as background capacities. That counts against the technology hypothesis.

  3. Anthony G permalink

    If art is an adaptation of indication of human fitness, do you see a potential for other species to develop it for a similar use to the extent of how humans do? From a biological standpoint, it’s interesting that it seems to have been developed randomly like all mutations, and yet was preserved due to its use as a fitness indicator.

    • To the extent that art is cognitively sophisticated, it would not be a possibility for other animals. But if it is more about emotional expression, then perhaps it could be. I don’t suppose there will be a clear boundary. Humpback whale songs might look like art from one viewpoint, but not from another.

  4. Emily permalink

    If you had to define art without using it as a Spandrel, Technology, or an Adaptation, how would you describe it? Does one need to have an aesthetic experience in order to appreciate art? Is awareness of art sufficient?

    • I’ve come to think these categories are not for talking about human evolution. We don’t adapt to our environment, we create the environment that suits us. We are nicvhe constructors. As a result, there are feedback loops in terms of which culture affects biology and biology affects culture. So the notion of adaptation does not apply to us in the way it does to most other species.

  5. Devin Bailey permalink

    Assuming that art is an indication of human fitness, would that also assume that non-creators of art are lacking in the realm of art-related fitness and have then began to compensate through other, non art related ventures, (e.g. power, physical attractiveness) or do these things coincide with art? Would the very act of creating a more “fit” self be considered art?

    • These are good questions. I think that art behaviors are so diverse that someone who cannot dance might get into painting or some other art form for which they are better suited. And there certainly ways of demonstrating fitness that are not at all art-related. Deliberately aiming at appearing to be biologically fit might or might not involve the creation of art. If I exercise at the gym to look more buff, it’s not obvious that we would consider me art. I think of art more as manifest in appropriate behaviors, than as an artefact or oputcome.

  6. Krista Marie permalink

    May one consider consciousness to be a spandrel?

    • This will depend on one’s theory of mind. According to epiphenomenalism it will be a spandrel. According to identity theory or functionalism it is likely to be an adaptation if the neural substrate with which it is identical or of which it is an aspect is.

  7. Vitor Guerreiro permalink

    In page 17, commenting on the implausible views of 19th century ethologist Ernst Grosse, you characterize his reasoning as kantian: “if the attitude to art must be disinterested, art could never be primarily involved in practical goals such as serving religion.”
    In the previous page, you mention that disinterested *perception* of free beauty always involves the free play of understanding and imagination.

    Two doubts cross my mind, though: was Kant primarily focused on attitudes to art and modes of perception, or rather in a specific kind of *pleasure* (disinterested pleasure) – the pleasure on which judgements of taste are grounded? “Interested” pleasures may ground the other sort of subjective judgement – agreeableness/disagreableness or niceness/nastiness – but they have no claim (so says Kant) to normativity.

    I recall here Augustine’s well known question (and perhaps false dilemma?): “Are beautiful things beautiful *because* they please us, or do they please us *because* they are beautiful?”
    We could understand Kant’s theory of disinterested pleasure as answering Augustine in the following way: beautiful things are those that please us *in a specific way* (disinterestedly). Kant must reject the second horn of the dilemma, since he doesn’t think beauty is a property of things nor that the predicate “beauty” expresses the concept of a property. But neither was he willing to accept that just any sort of pleasing can ground a judgement of beauty. He was trying to single out a kind of pleasure which is not derivative from desires. I see here an analogy, in moral philosophy, with the idea of reasons for acting which are not dependent on desires. (Which does not exclude some form of conceptual connection with desire, in the sense that we would not be the kind of creatures capable of desire-independent reaons for acting if we were not also creatures with desires.)

    Take, e.g., Bruno Nettl’s examples of some metaphorical, evaluative, uses of the term “music” – “in our society, music is associated with good things; your favorite dog barking is “music to your ears,” as is the jingling of money in your pocket; a sound you like is a “musical sound.” (Musical Thinking and Thinking About Music). This pretty much captures the idea I’m trying to convey: such uses of “music” are “interested” in the way that “a beautiful hand at cards” is: a metaphorical, non-aesthetic use of an aesthetic predicate. One who so speaks is not really attributing beauty but using aesthetic language to express the satisfaction of his non-aesthetic needs. Likewise, not every sound one likes is literally music.

    Eddy Zemach has criticised the characterization of the aesthetic as “disinterested” on the basis that our *aesthetic* interests and needs are no less interests and needs than our *other* interests and needs. Maybe this is just a matter of labelling – whether we call our aesthetic interests “disinterested interests” is a merely notational quirk, they are interests nevertheless. But they are also distinct from our other interests, as much as those other interests are distinct among themselves. Maybe Kant’s view is compatible with this. “Disinterestedness” would point to a distinctive property of aesthetic pleasure (which need not be construed as the idea of there being a phenomenologically distinct kind of pleasure, thus avoiding Zemach’s criticism of a certain notion of aesthetic pleasure). Maybe we could point to that same property using a less troublesome word.

    And now to my main point in this comment: Maybe this distinctive property of aesthetic pleasure is compatible with more than one way of attending works of art. Maybe “disinterested pleasure” imposes no particular way of contemplating works of art. Disinterested pleasure could be a component of “interested” ways of attending works of art, as long as those ways of attending incorporate the experience of beauty. I recall here Wolterstorff’s criticisms of the “grand narrative” – art’s “coming into its own” in “disinterested contemplation”. One objection I would raise him is that even the memorial and devotional uses of art he calls our attention to owe their effectiveness in satisfying non-aesthetic needs to their “aesthetic dimension”. Another way of saying this is, e.g., that religion (among other spheres of human interest) must work aesthetically if it is to work at all. I realise this idea would need substantial fleshing out, but the general point I’m aiming at is already distinguishable.

    In sum, my point is that a “disinterested” view of aesthetic pleasure (a certain view of the nature of aesthetic pleasure) need not be tied to a disinterested mode of attending to works of art. The religious experience of art is no less aesthetic than the “non-religiously contemplative” experience of art. But both would involve “disinterested” pleasure (or the same hedonic property pointed out with a less troublesome predicate) – a pleasure not dependent on previous desires, analogously to the way that a moral reason for acting is not dependent on a previous desire, even if we would be incapable of having such reasons if we were not capable of desires, if there was even no point in having such desire-independent reasons for acting if not for the fact that we have desires and interests. The same relation would hold between our aesthetic interests and those of our non-aesthetic interests whose satisfaction involves aesthetic means.

    Whether we can reconcile this point (about the independence between the nature of the pleasure involved in the experience of beauty and a specific mode of attending to artworks) with Kant’s own views, I’m not sure. But it seems it can be reconciled with some kantian view on the nature of aesthetic pleasure.

    • Dear Vitor,

      Thanks for your interest in my work.

      I’ll leave the fine points of Kantian interpretation to the experts. But whether he was understood correctly or not, many subsequent theorists adopted the idea that aesthetic experience is disinterested in not being concerned with its object’s nature, origin, purpose, or kind. When extended to art, the claim became that art has no function other than being for contemplative appreciation “for its own sake.”

      In accepting some such view, Ernst Grosse, who believed that tribal cultures had art, therefore felt it necessary to argue that their art practices had no religious function, despite appearances to the contrary.

      By contrast with these views, I hold that aesthetic experience can concern itself with the beauty with which something performs its function or instances its kind, and that much art serves practical social functions, even if high end Fine Art sometimes has the special function of being appreciated for its own sake alone.
      I agree with you that aesthetic experience often is disinterested in the sense that it is not driven by a desire one has prior to the encounter with its object.

      • Vitor Guerreiro permalink

        I believe you are entirely right that independently of how we interpret Kant himself, he is the historical source whence the theorists you mention draw their inspiration. I also think that the most philosophically interesting pursuit is not to establish the correct interpretation of Kant’s words (important though it may be). The most philosophical interesting pursuit is to throw as much light as possible on the nature of aesthetic experience.
        Yet, it is also interesting to note an ambivalence in Kant’s aesthetics. His concept of “dependent beauty” is in tension with his more general view of beauty as “that which pleases universally without concept”. It seems that he recognized a kind of beauty which is “concerned with its object’s nature, origin, purpose, or kind”. Independently of the interpretive task of how we are to reconcile these two aspects of kantian aesthetics, it seems that formalism is not the only view of the aesthetic that has an historical origin in some aspect of Kant’s theorising.

        Apart from this, It is not my contention that “disinterestedness” is a crucial element of the aesthetic (I’m pretty much in tune with what you say about the nature of the aesthetic). What interested me the most was not to defend disinterestedness, nor the correct interpretation of Kant, but the possibility that a kantian view of the aesthetic (whether or not *that* was Kant’s particular view) is compatible with several ways of attending to works of art (“disinterested contemplation” being just one of those ways). In other words, to separate, to distinguish, a kantian view of the nature of aesthetic pleasure, and a theory of art appreciation (whether or not Kant would accept it).

        Thanks for your reply.

      • Noel Carroll has observed, rightly in my view, that Kant’s account of dependent beauty is more appropriate to the appreciation of art than his account of free beauty, though it is the latter on which later aestheticians modeled their theories. In terms of free beauty, Kant comes out as a formalist, and that sets a limit on the range of responses that will qualify as aesthetic. My own view is that both the aesthetic response and its object can be various; the response can be simple or cognitively complex, the object can be simple or formally/semantically/affectively complex.

  8. Parker Damon permalink

    I am in the process of reading The Artful Species and enjoying it very much. Some of its conclusions mirror those of Eric Kandel in his Age of Insight which was also published in 2012. I wonder if Prof. Davies disagrees with any of Dr. Kandel’s conclusions.

    • I must admit that I have not yet read Eric Kandel’s book and I look forward to doing so. From the information released about it, I see that it is mainly about thinkers and painters of twentieth century Europe. In my book I am interested in a broad spread of arts, including prehistoric, folk, and popular kinds. I discuss music and literature, as well as other arts. And the psychologists whose views I comment on have an evolutionary rather than a psychoanalytic orientation. My concern is with connections between our art behaviors and our evolved human nature, especially as this was formed in the lifeways of our hunter-forager ancestors. At the same time, I think the content and value of contemporary art is likely to have transcended these origins.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s