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Art and Human Evolution

November 24, 2012

The following was published on the OUP authors’ blog on November 23, 2012.


Art and human evolution

Very 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. And the same continues throughout life. We are interested in TV shows and movies, novels, music, dance, and the plastic arts. In fact, almost everyone has quite expert knowledge about some genres of art and has a broad understanding also of others. And 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, and art has been ubiquitous since then or earlier.

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, and 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. This article relates to his book The Artful Species (Oxford University Press, 2012).

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  1. **The term “art behaviors” comes from Ellen Dissanayake. The point is that, if we are talking about the products of evolution, these won’t be poems, songs, and paintings, but rather, behavioral dispositions to make and appreciate such things.”

    I assume you are talking about the very beginnings of art behaviors in our ancestors. How different from non-art behaviors must these first art behaviors really be in order to count as art behaviors? Granted, there seems to be quite a difference between humans and non-humans in regard to spontaneous art: animals seem to lack it. But, regardless of extant paradigm art behaviors, if biological evolution basically is a gradual process, then wouldn’t there actually be such a fine gradation between so called art behaviors and so called non-art behaviors that the two ultimately cannot be distinguished? Even some species of birds are known to use tools.

  2. I’ve been frustrated by your book, The Artful Species. This is because, until just now, I’ve had a sense of missing something in your writing, something which I could not ‘put my finger on’, but which I commonly find in most other writings that I read: a simple thesis statement that unifies and summarizes everything you write in the book.

    One possible such statement has only just now occurred to me. And, I’m hoping that it’s not so far off the mark as to prevent you agreeing that, *compared* to my now-former said ‘lack of something that I could not put my finger’, it is an at least ball-park (‘warmer’) approximation of the thesis of your book. I here put that approximation in the first person:

    >Contrary to my passions for art, I, Stephen Davies, have not found a way to prove to myself that art *originated* as adaptive; but, I am confident that art *currently* serves in one or more adaptive capacities.<

    So ends the only thesis that has thus far occurred to me for your book.

    My sense at current is that I'm missing some critical distinction, likely in regard to the concept of 'adaptation'. I seem to recall reading or hearing you say that art is *not* an adaptation. But, I, in having read various portions in your book discussing the problem, and, in presently having no distinct recall of your having said or written that art is *not* an adaptation, I also have a sense that I may be mistaking in seeming to recall your having said or written such a thing.

    I’m hoping you can at least confirm or deny my sense that I am missing a critical distinction, and that this may be at least partly why I've been frustrated in trying to get a sense as to your thesis.

    In this blog post here you write "art behaviors might have been incidental by-products of other adaptive capacities, such as intelligence, curiosity, and creativity." But, in The Artful Species, you end the fourth paragraph of Chapter 11 by saying that the typical enthralled human response to music means that "music is paradoxically among the most and least likely products of the evolutionary path taken by our species."

    I thus far failed to see any deep distinction between, on the one hand, the celebratory expressions of creative-and-perceptual intelligence and, on the other hand, the adaptive function of such an intelligence. I’m not sure what all you’re presupposing in saying that “art behaviors might have been incidental by-products of other adaptive capacities, such as intelligence, curiosity, and creativity” , but, to my mind, an actual, functional, high degree of intelligence cannot be instantiated in a static, once-and-for-all descriptive mere *conception* of such intelligence; it must be perceptual and active. Similarly, contrary to those who take the ostensible statement of the Liar Paradox at face value, and, in adoring honor of cartoon Calvin’s comment to tiger Hobbes that “verbing weirds language”, the lexical verb is not an instance of a verb.

    • I consider three possibilities for art behaviors: that they are adaptations (either formerly or now), by-products (either formerly or now), or technologies. By “technologies”, I mean things so distanced from evolutionary adaptations that they should be considered to be purely cultural. I reject this third view for several reasons. At the most general, level it implies a separation of culture and biology that seems to me too stark. More specifically, the arts have an importance and value that is partly visceral and that seems to transcend cultural differences. Moreover, art behaviors directly apply so many obvious adaptations (creativity, imagination, emotional expression, representation, narrative, etc.) that the view strikes me as unattractive.

      I agree with Ellen Dissanayake that art behaviors are ancient, universal, and a source of intrinsic pleasure. I don’t agree with her that these imply they are adaptations. This evidence is consistent also with them being by-products. I’m not sure which view, the adaptationist one or the by-product one, is better supported by the evidence. Either way, art behaviors can be regarded as expressing our human nature (because this is as much a matter of universal by-products as of universal adaptations).

      In characterizing technologies I wrote this: “The argument here is that art behaviors draw on very broadly useful adaptations— general intelligence, curiosity, inventiveness, imagination, fine motor control— but are so far removed from them that art behaviors count as products of culture rather than as biological by-products” (118). I just noted that art behaviors are connected to creativity, intelligence etc., but there I was not endorsing the view that they are technologies but, rather, rejecting it. The key issue here is the one of distance. If the connection is very indirect and rests only on the most broadly construed adaptations, like general intelligence, the behavior will count as a technology. But with art, specific forms of intelligence, creativity, etc. are directly engaged; art gives immediate and vivid expression to such traits. That is why, despite the connection with intelligence, creativity, etc., I don’t support the technology account.

      • Thank you so much for your reply, both in substance and kindness. In your reply I note that you used the term ‘art behaviors’. I find that term particularly insufficient, just as I find insufficient the term ‘music’. I’m guessing you mean ‘art behaviors’ to include the perceptions, but I’m not quite sure if you mean this or not.

        So, my preference is for terms like ‘artistic perception’ and ”musical perception’, as I find these terms less misleading in discussing the problem of the origin and nature of art. I note that a lot of people who merely are acquainted off-hand with the debate think in terms only of the product of the perception, bypassing any thought of the role of the perception.

        To me the issue is not so much the products of these perceptions, but the perceptual capacities/activities themselves. If merely the ‘inner response’ to some outward art product ( with no outward discernible response to the art product) ‘technically’ counts as an art behavior, then be that as it may. But, I think a terminological distinction between art product and art perception is important in general. Only an extreme paradigm case of a mere ‘inner response’ to art is that of a person whose body is completely paralyzed but who otherwise senses the world as any of the rest of us do.

        I agree with you in thinking that art is not a technology. But, I agree with this only if the term ‘art’ is restricted to art perception, and not allowed to include art product, especially if that product persists external to, and independent of, the body that produces it. Never mind a practical receptacle for water which is fashioned into a form that has no function *within the culture in which it originally is produced*. To me just the colorful abstract patterns painting on it are a technology, specifically for the purpose of viscerally stimulating the general intelligence.

        My impression is that the typical Western mind is so deliberatively utilitarian and language-heavy that it conceives of aesthetic intelligence as virtually alien to general intelligence. I assume that this is how Steven Pinker, in 1997 in How The Mind Works, framed the arts, both product and perception. If that’s indeed how he framed the arts, then I’m very glad he made the observations about language acquisition that he made, else he may have turned out to be a real ‘Vulcan’ along behaviorist lines.

        My nominal uncle was just such a ‘Vulcan’. He was very good with computers and spent his free time programming while his job was doing mostly the same. In more hand’s-on matters he admittedly was like the incompetent cave man trying to invent the wheel, and his efforts at such matters told that story very well on their own. He characterized music as useless, and said that since it is so pleasurable it doesn’t have to be useful. He practically worshipped Spock in the original Star Trek TV series.

        My ‘uncle’ was ‘objective’ to a fault: if we remove the joyous, childlike observer, then we’ve removed the very reason for the protection-istic reserve in which he, like the Vulcans, so prided himself.

        Granted, there ought to be a function and habit for scientific reserve. But, even Richard Feynman’s non-‘Vulcan’ enthusiasm for science got the better of him when, in quite subjective response to his ‘quintessentially sensitive’ artist friend’s bad reaction to Feynman’s language-heavy ‘revelation’ that a flower is made up of chemicals each of which is indifferent to the flower as such, Feynman called him ‘nutty’. In this case, Feynman was no more than a junior ‘Vulcan’ for failing to see the delicate beauties of humanity: he put even the delicate beauty of a flower ahead of his friend.

      • The term “art behaviors” comes from Ellen Dissanayake. The point is that, if we are talking about the products of evolution, these won’t be poems, songs, and paintings, but rather, behavioral dispositions to make and appreciate such things. “Artistic perception” appears to be too narrow. It might be involved in appreciating art, but it does not cover the creation and performance of art, or consider the various historical and symbolic practices art behaviors might encompass.

      • I’m afraid my brain finds all these distinctions almost to vague too begin to grasp. ‘Technology’, ‘adaptation’, ‘by-product’, ‘culture’, etc..

        My sense is that art is encompassing of all of human behavior and perception, so that art alone constitutes both the highest possible reaches of technology and the deepest depths of adaptation. It’s like the bread that holds the sandwich together as a sandwich, and even imbues the non-bread middle substances with their integrated qualities.

        I don’t see how adaptive a human culture could be if no one in it had any aesthetic sense about anything. I think such a collection of humans could not even survive by their own devices, like something far worse than a population of those really tiny dogs if left out in all the wilds of Earth. I can imagine some populations of such dogs finding niches in some ecosystems in which to persist. But, my sense is that even such dogs have some measure of aesthetic perception however different from our own.

  3. When does a ‘utilitarian’ adaptive function blend into art-and-aesthetic? To simply draw a perfect cube or a most efficiently proportioned rectangle is an act of visible perceptual language: not mere reference to these exact shapes by way of…words or hand signs; but direct, pre- and, even, post-referential behavior. What good is language if reference is supposed to make the simple and deep joys of direct intelligent perception either obsolete or non-adaptive?

    There is no simple or hard edge where the most easily authenticated adaptive functions begin or end and the supposedly ‘purely aesthetic’ functions end or begin. There necessarily is a spectrum here, not a treasure shelf for one and a garbage can for the other. So, there is bound to be a host of functions which, despite their being directly adaptive, are so in such a profound way that they scale off, one behind the other, into an infinity point of a good sense which makes the most brute kind of adaptive functions even worth calling adaptive.

    I observe that the world of sounds is divided into at least four kinds, or what I call the ‘four T’s’: tone, time, intensity (decibels), and what I’m calling articulation.

    Articulations are the ‘tonally indifferent’ kinds of sounds, including everything from various hard and soft clicks (/t/, /k/, /p/,) rushing sounds of air (/h/, /f/, /s/), ‘fuzzy’ sounds like buzzes (/z/), softer actions (/g/, /b/), and bangs, booms, slaps, tears, shatters, etc..

    What I find most curious about these four kinds of sounds (tone, time, intensity, and articulation) is the special relationship between tone and articulation. I would say that the two necessarily are sublimated within time and intensity. But, in terms of my perception of articulations, their tonality generally is absent or, at least, very muted. So, whether by the nature of sounds, and thus by human audition, or by human audition alone, there seems to me a striking difference with human audition between tones and articulations: they are perceived almost as mutually exclusive.

    When I was ten, I was quite surprised to discover that audio speakers produce human speech and song not by some suite of means—with each basic kind of sound produced by a separate special means—but all of them, and together, by the vibration of a felt cone. Prior to that discovery, I had assumed that the vibration of that cone could take care only of what I felt to be the specifically vibrational (clicking, popping, and buzzing) sounds. After all, I was well aware that my ability to produce other kinds of sounds required other elements besides what I felt was require for these ‘vibrational’ sounds. To produce tones, I had to open some wonderful thing in my throat; to produce wind and rocket sounds, I had to push actual air out of my lungs and through my mouth; and, to produce any sounds in a loud or quiet degree, including booms, crashes, yells, and very quiet speech, I had to take special strenuous or relaxed effort to do so.

    I hold that the normal structural core of speech language is monotonic articulation. This core goes a long way to explaining why the speech voice of Computer in the original Star Trek TV series is perfectly intelligible despite being basically monotonic and mono-rhythmic. It also goes a long way to explaining the boredom, incomprehension, and failing grades of many students when expected intellectually to attend to the endlessly tonally muted and consistently over-specified vocal communication behaviors of professional academicians—behaviors produced in a language that these students otherwise generally can follow.

    So, human musical sense largely is concerned with tone. As a consequence, the bulk of human crafted musics centers on the tonal comparatives within time and intensity. Articulation in such musics generally is more a byproduct than an intended feature. And, to my dismay, virtually never is featured the gloriously sparkling sounds of glass explosively shattered into the bottom of a heavy empty metal receptacle; the closest thing to that glory being the hard crash of cymbals—which to me barely compare even to the sudden explosive crashing of waves on a rocky shore. The vocals of an individual human can make a fair similitude either to those waves or to those cymbals. But, the massively distinct echoing of the explosively shattering of glass is strictly impossible for one person to vocalize.

    Akin to massive parallel processing, this massive distinction so exemplified by explosively shattering glass is what most sets music apart from language. When one person normally speaks, the sounds generally blend together, so that only by careful and dispassionate observation can they at all be distinguished properly.

  4. What is the sense of beauty, really? And, what does it have to do with anything? If you find those two questions ‘logically’ challenging, then I suppose you’ll also find challenging the question of what good is a childlike sense of play.

    Imagine the eminently objective, utterly alien, fictional ‘Martian scientist’ is viewing the Earth up close for the first time. He has selected a piece of Earth at ‘objectively indifferent’ random, and happens to have selected a one-mile-square bit of deciduous forest in late autumn. He sees all the trees utterly bare, and all the leaves scattered on the ground. He cannot know, up-front, that leaf-hood implies tree-hood. Even if he is willing to admit that trees and leaves may go together somehow, that cannot tell him in what way they do go together. For, for all his proverbially non-aesthetic rational powers of observation are concerned, there is as yet no appearance of any actual connection between trees and leaves; much less is there any reason, in his eminently rational mind, for why there needs to be a connection between them, or what purpose or potential they serve for each other or for anything else. According to his alien objective-hood, he does not yet know even that trees, as such, are alive. So, when he sees a bird that happens to soar into his view, he does not think that it is anything more than an inanimate object lofted in the wind, or some automated flying machine made by an as-yet unidentified fellow ‘Martian scientist’.

    It may seem to us that this ‘truly objective’, fictional Martian scientist lacks nothing by which to understand what he sees on this randomly selected bit of Earth. But, I think that the fact that we imagine him to have no aesthetic sense actually hints at our own lack of objective understanding of our own aesthetic, and otherwise ‘subjective,’ senses. These ‘subjective’ senses include everything from a sense of taste, sight, and color, to our senses of beauty or wonder, inspired excitement, and mind-blowing awe.

    I propose that beauty, or aesthetic pleasure, is one of the primary ways we understand things beyond the current limits of our conscious knowledge. A main warrant for this proposal is that everything is connected: not only is all the non-living world connected, we are connected to it. In fact, if we had no connection to the world outside our minds, we could never interact with it, never perceive it, never learn about it—never, even, assume that it exists or is real. So, our sense of beauty, and the very ability to have a sense of beauty, has something to do with our ability to perceive the world.

    Prior to any knowledge of the laws of their formation, we appreciate the beauty of snowflakes. Prior to any knowledge of the human utility of leaves or wind, we appreciate the wonder of autumn leaves scattered in the breeze. Only a pure Vulcan could simply think that to yet know of no utility for a given form means that that form ought to be impossible to appreciate. For, it can be reasoned, that only by some immediate appreciation of a thing, independent of any conscious knowledge of its utility, can a complete ignorance of any of its utility both honor a knowledge of a thing and have the potential to raise our view of that thing to a level of…a sense of both its purpose and its potential.

    It is said that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. I propose that the reason nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution is simply because nothing in the cosmos, either in or out of biology, makes sense except by way of some integrated natural hierarchical order or organization. In other words, ‘evolution’ is just another word for the presupposition that things have a hierarchical order of dependence, and are not just so much seemingly random placement of leaves. So, is said that one of the marks of a good theory is its simplicity: the economy with which it organizes, or subsumes, the knowledge of its field of study.
    Of course, simplicity, in itself, does not guarantee that a given theory is a good one. The simplest theory to account for why there are leaves on the ground is that there are leaves on the ground. Such a theory explains nothing, but merely takes things at face value, un-interpreted and unappreciated. It is joked among mathematicians that the proper way to describe seeing cows on the ground, as you look down at them from a window seat on an overpassing airliner, is that “I see what appears to be the tops of cows.” But, there is a universal aesthetic sense that the world has some kind of hierarchic unity; that it is not just so much scattered leaves in the wind, or grains of sand loose on the beach. So, in fact, in order for simplicity to be a mark of a good theory, the theory must also have some actual dynamic structure to reflect the sense that the world itself is a dynamic structure.

    The dynamic structure of a theory is what is called its explanatory power. It is one thing to propose the theory, say, that the ostensible statement of the Liar Paradox is not an instance either of an actual lie or of an actual truth. It is another thing to explain how that theory makes sense: how it holds up under its own weight and, if so, how it potentially holds up under the added weight of related considerations—how that theory helps us unify our understanding of other things.

    So, the question of what, exactly, is the unifying principle of the world, is a question driven by a sense of things below which we have some vague sense of yet other, more basic, things. To admit to seeing what appears to be the tops of cows is to admit to knowing something of cows beyond what is seen of them from far above at a window seat in an airliner. In fact, to admit to seeing anything, at all, is to admit that ‘the world’ is made up not just of things like rocks and trees, stars and planets, and chemicals and subatomic particles, but also of the ‘subjective’ observer: the knower, the appreciator. The question is, what does the knower basically appreciate, and in what basic ways?

    A childlike sense of play may be described as the exercise of the complex cognitive depths to which an individual’s autonomous pleasure at productive autonomy coheres with that individual’s productive autonomy. On this view of play, aesthetic pleasure, or beauty, even at its most lofty, has something in common with a fundamental sense of play.

    I explain a sense of beauty partly as the state of identifying with realized possibilities in excess of their banal utility. You see a pile of colorful leaves, and you as much as revel in their beauty. But, how do you then explain your sense of the difference between a lofty sense of beauty and a childlike sense of play? You sense the difference, and you might even say that that sense is itself an instance of aesthetic appreciation. But, what if you as yet have no conscious knowledge of what that difference amounts to, how it is related to anything else such that you get a sense of what that difference means for play, for beauty, and for other things besides. Is childlike play a form of lofty beauty, or is it the other way; or, is there a third, better, account of their seeming connection? I shall try to answer these questions by first going around them to something that I think may be deeper:

    To be a limited, but potentially ever-discovering observer, it can be reasoned, means that we begin with a core default set, or economical minimum, of knowledge—like a seed ready to sprout—and that, as a consequence, we face a world that at first seems mainly to be a maelstrom of forms, un-interpreted, or minimally interpreted. But, if everything is connected, then no form is utterly and forever alien to any other: they all are connected. And, so, our main power of interpretation of our world is of the immediate interpretation of patterns, or structures, with respect to one another, and this on the basis of our core default set. In fact, our ability to experience paradox, such as the Liar Paradox, is to experience an implicit connection between two seemingly irreconcilable points of view of the same thing. The problem with the experience of paradox is our inability readily to understand the connection between the two conflicting points of view, even while we readily see the central subject of the paradox more-or-less simultaneously from both points of view. Our vague sense that both points of view are connected, while forcing us to experience the paradox, constitutes, I think, part of a ‘universal grammar’ of our aesthetic, and otherwise ‘subjective’ senses.

    So, in order for us to discover any utility for any form which we have newly identified, we first must be attracted to that form. In the case of the ostensible statement of the Liar Paradox, I would say that our attraction is not caused by the sense of paradox, but by whatever unifies the conflicting points of view of that ‘statement’. The sense of paradox is caused by our sense of there being a connection between those two points of view. But, so long as we have not at all identified what constitutes that connection, we remain with the sense of paradox.

    So, for anything to which we are attracted, how shall this attraction be economical besides having a root in common with the potential attraction to all forms? In fact, that’s how I explain the power of a sense of beauty to inspire every good thing that it ever inspires.

    Again, it can be reasoned that to be a limited, but potentially ever-discovering observer means that you begin with a core default set, or economical minimum, of knowledge. And, if everything, including you, is connected, then no form is utterly and forever alien to any other: they all, including you, are connected. As absurd as it may seem to the ‘Martian scientist’, who is a conscious-knowledge chauvinist, I propose that aesthetic sensibilities, akin to a childlike sense of play, is a kind of universal grammar by which you understand things independent of any conscious knowledge of their pragmatic benefits or utilitarian purposes—an understanding of things of which, even, you nevertheless yet have no conscious knowledge.

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