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Introducing The Artful Species

November 6, 2012

This is to introduce myself and my newly published book, The Artful Species: Aesthetics, Art, and Evolution.

My academic training was in philosophy, musicology, and ethnomusicology, beginning in Australia. My Ph.D. in philosophy was from the University of London. For many years I have taught philosophy at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. My primary fields of research are aesthetics and the philosophy of the arts. I am a former President of the American Society for Aesthetics. For an upper level introduction to this area of philosophy, see my The Philosophy of Art (Blackwell, 2006). I also have a longstanding interest in bird study and have been involved in banding and publishing about shorebirds for decades. And I have written about Balinese culture, dance, and music.

The Artful Species seeks and examines connections between our evolved human nature and our aesthetics tastes and art behaviors. Because we are dealing with complex matters reaching back into prehistory, speculation in the theories considered is inevitable. Nevertheless, I approach these theories expecting rigorous debate and plausible evidence. In general, if many rival accounts are offered of how some behavior is alleged to be adaptive, or if many adaptions to which it is held to stand as a byproduct are identified, then plainly the explanations offered by the theories are called into doubt.

Because this study draws together ideas from many fields of study – archaeology, psychology, anthropology, biology, neurology, and philosophy, among others – it is important to establish a common ground for discussing the key concepts. So Part One introduces the notions of the aesthetic, art, evolution, and how these might be related. We can ask of our aesthetic tastes and art behaviors if they are evolutionary adaptations that improved the fitness of our ancestors, or incidental byproducts of more general adaptations, such as curiosity and intelligence, or products solely of culture, with no biological grounding? Clarifying these key concepts leads to consideration of many intriguing questions. When did an interest in beauty emerge in the human lineage? Do animals make aesthetic discriminations or create art? Can art be defined? What were the first artworks? Are there universal aesthetic standards and art practices? To what extent is art and aesthetic custom cross-culturally appreciable? If we adopt a broad view of art that takes in folk, domestic, decorative, and popular varieties, might everyone qualify as an artist? What does art behavioral competence consist in?

Part Two focuses on aesthetics. First I consider the various modes of humans’ aesthetic appreciation of animals. Some of these do have biological bases. For instance, we admire in them the exaggeration of what are fitness indicators in humans, such as strength and grace. We can also take an aesthetic interest in their adaptedness to their way of life. And animals’ forms or colors can trigger our sensory biases in a positive fashion. Some of these responses could be adaptive, making us better hunters for example. But others, such as ones based on inappropriately anthropomorphizing animals, are not. Yet other types of aesthetic responses to animals seem to be more purely cultural.  For instance, we can view them imaginatively as pseudo-artworks or, abstracting from their living nature, as formal sensory arrays.

A further topic here concerns landscape preferences. Evolutionary psychologists have conjectured that we are aesthetically attracted to habitats that were conducive to the survival of our prehistoric ancestors and that we retain a vestigial preference for savanna, which was the African habitat in which our forebears evolved. I defend a weak view of the thesis: we can find beauty in landscape features that are conducive to our flourishing and be repelled by landscape features that mitigate against our survival. But I reject the savanna hypothesis. Counting against it are the facts of climate instability during the period of our evolution and the greater importance for us of the social environment over the physical one. I suggest that, rather than being adapted to a specific habitat, it is our flexibility in adjusting to many habitat types that explains our success.

The third subject debated in Part Two is that of human beauty. Evolutionary psychologists tend to reduce this to youthful female sexual attractiveness in the context of mate selection, which makes it difficult to see what may be common between human and non-human forms of beauty. I challenge the narrowness of this approach. I argue that our judgments of human beauty are not confined to the merely physical and the business of mate selection. There is no separating our sense of human beauty from wider considerations of social functioning and self-presentation. These are perennially important while mate selection is not. Once this is allowed, we can see how human beauty reaches beyond the appearance of fertile availability to embrace beauties of appearance at all ages and stages of life, and beyond that again to encompass the more abstract forms of human beauty in character, intellect, and spirituality.

In Part Three I turn to the arts. The first view considered maintains that the arts in general are evolutionarily adaptive. I critically examine two such theories: Geoffrey Miller’s view that the arts serve as forms of sexual display with which we attract and bed each other and Ellen Dissanayake’s account of art as a form of “making special” that cements the social fabric, elevates ritual, and brings us together more harmoniously. I am doubtful that sexual display accounts for art’s origins or importance, though art behaviors can always be appropriated to this end. Such behaviors permeate all phases of life and are as common between mothers and their children and within same-sex groups as between courting adolescents. And though there is much to admire in Dissanayake’s theory, I think her focus on art’s pre-symbolic origins leaves too much unexplained. More generally, I think that the diversity of the arts and of their many functions counts against the likely success of overarching evolutionary explanations of their adaptive importance.

Another possibility is that the arts are incidental byproducts of adaptations that lie elsewhere, as the evolutionary psychologist Steven Pinker has argued, referring to music as “cheesecake for the mind.” In this case I first point out that the byproduct or “spandrel” hypothesis is not a cheaper option or easier to establish than the adaptationist thesis. To support the byproduct hypothesis, it is important to identify the adaptation to which art behaviors are linked and to demonstrate that they have not gone on to be adaptive in their own right. I also argue that, even if they originate as byproducts, art behaviors are not thereby evolutionarily incidental, because they serve as effective and powerful signals of biological fitness.

The idea that the arts are purely cultural technologies is explored with respect to music, drawing on arguments developed by the neuroscientist Aniruddh D. Patel. He argues that music behaviors do not emerge robustly as part of normal development, as happens with language acquisition, and he takes this as indicating that they are not adaptive. He compares them, rather, with fire, which is a cultural technology that is universal because it transforms our world in beneficial ways. In evaluating this position I suggest that music might be seen as innately scaffolded and as adaptive, even if this is not so readily apparent as in the case of language acquisition. And while it is obvious that we value music highly and that it has beneficial therapeutic and other effects, typically we do not value it for those effects, which strains the analogy with fire. More generally, I think theories of this ilk typically make the distinction between biology and culture too distinct, whereas I think they co-evolve.

An alternative approach to the idea that art is adaptive makes the claim with respect to individual art forms. I examine in some detail the suggestion defended by literary Darwinists that fictional narratives are adaptive for their capacity to educate and refine our mind-reading skills and imagination. I agree that narrative thinking and hypothetical and counterfactual reasoning are adaptive behaviors, but it seems more likely that art fiction is an offshoot rather than the primary source for these. And some of the relevant social understandings are developed before, indeed are presupposed by, our engagement with fictional stories. In addition, I question arguments presented by the musicologist Ian Cross for thinking that music plays a crucial role in psychological development.

I agree with Dissanayake that art is universal, ancient, and a source of appreciative satisfaction, and that together these suggest it is tied to evolution. I am not sure whether it is an adaptation or a byproduct. If the former, I don’t know what it is an adaptation for, or if the latter, I don’t know the adaptation from which it stems. But either way, it is in part a reflection of our evolved human nature. We can say more than this, however. Noting that art behaviors are universal tends to mask the fact that the art behaviors and competencies displayed by individuals are very various. Moreover, these behaviors and competencies all tend to be costly in terms of time, skill, and resources. As a result, they provide not only honest but also extremely nuanced and diverse signals of fitness. This does not make them adaptations, I think, because there are so many other non-art signals of the same kinds of fitness. But it does highlight their evolutionary importance. In fact, they belong to those rare suites of behavior that are mastered by nearly every person despite the extremely high cost this imposes. As such, they are among the touchstones of our humanity.


Stephen Davies

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