'The highest possible stage in moral culture is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts'
Art and Evolution
1. Art is aimed at influencing the minds of an audience, and may therefore be called a form of cognitive engineering.
2. It always occurs in the context of distributed cognition.
3. It is constructivist in nature, aimed at the deliberate refinement and elaboration of worldviews.
4. Most art is metacognitive in its role—that is, it engages in selfreflection, both individually and socially.
5. The forms and media of art are technology-driven.
6. The role of the artist and the local social definition of art are not necessarily fixed and are products of the current social-cognitive network.
7. Nevertheless, art, unlike most conventional engineering, is always aimed at a cognitive outcome.
Viewed in an evolutionary context, art originated in the earliest stages of hominid evolution, the so-called Mimetic phase. Newer forms have been scaffolded onto the older ones, and as human beings have evolved complex languages and technologies, artists have developed new forms that contain within them all the elements of our evolutionary history.
Every newly evolved artistic domain has a unique combination of these elementary components. Surveyed as a whole, the domains of art ultimately reflect the entire evolved structure of the human cognitive-cultural system. The challenge to cognitive scientists and neuroscientists is to develop a methodology that will allow them to fathom the abstract amodal processes of large-scale neural integration that transform the complex representations imposed by artists on their audiences into meaningful experiences.
The ultimate engine of art, and the common force that makes art so distinct in its cognitive style from science, is mimesis. Therefore the genesis of art will not be understood, even in principle, until the neural and cognitive principles and mechanisms of mimesis are better understood.
Canadian psychologist, neuroanthropologist, and cognitive neuroscientist at Case Western Reserve University
Art and brain: the relationship of biology and evolution to art.
Visual art, as with all other arts, is spontaneously created only by humans and is ubiquitously present to various extents in all societies today. Exploring the deep roots of art from cognitive, neurological, genetic, evolutionary, archaeological, and biological perspectives is essential for the full understanding of why we have art, and what art is about.
The cognitive basis of art is symbolic, abstract, and referential thinking. However, archaeological markers of symbolic activity by early humans are not associated with art production. There is an enormously large time gap between the activity and the appearance of sporadic art by early Homo sapiens, and another large time delay before appearance of enduring practice of art.
The aesthetic aspect of art is not considered to be the initial impetus for creating it. Instead, archaeological markers suggest that the early beginnings of art are associated with development of stratified societies where external visual identifiers by way of body ornaments and decorations were used. The major contributing forces for the consistency in art-making are presumed to be the formation of socioculture, intragroup cooperation, increased group size, survival of skillful artisans, and favorable demographic conditions.
The biological roots of art are hypothesized to parallel aspects of our ancestry, specifically animal courtship displays, where signals of health and genetic quality are exhibited for inspection by potential mates. Viewers assess displayed art for talent, skill, communicative, and aesthetic-related qualities. Interdisciplinary discussions of art reflect the current approach to full understanding of the nature of art.
Art and Evolution
In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term meme. Memes are identifiable cultural units; they are units of cultural transmission or a single unit of imitation. Examples of memes are ideas, catch phrases, and clothing fashions. Any catchy tune, memorable work of art, or striking idea is a meme. According to Dawkins, just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process that can be called imitation.
Perhaps the arts are memes that not only survived but also successfully co-evolved with the genes predisposing humans to creativity. “A painting is a meme of rare complexity or, rather, a complex synthesis of memes that are transmitted and propagated by the painter’s brain…from the work of one painter to another”. Art memes would have provided man’s ancestors with an abstract tool with which to navigate and understand their surroundings.
Today, art memes fully exploit the brain’s capacity to create and imitate. Over several million years, the human brain evolved to become the artful brain that it is today. Natural selection secured the genes—and memes—necessary to survive in a particular environment, and thus, overtime, perhaps the hard-wiring of the human brain, changed in response to art. Genes and memes provide an architecture that supports the brain, which in turn expresses an innate predisposition for creativity and imitation. In short, humans are gene-machines and meme-carriers, and perhaps art emerges as an interplay between the two.
Evolution and art, or in a broad sense science and the humanities, can be seen as an interdependent system rather than polarized views in disagreement. The English physicist and novelist C.P. Snow proposed that these “Two Cultures,” science and the humanities, increasingly are becoming isolated from one another because of a lack of communication. This surely does not have to be the case. The biologist Edward O. Wilson has replied to C.P. Snow’s lamentation by sketching a solution, a process he termed consilience. Consilience is the uniting of knowledge, the concurrence between two inductions drawn from different disciplines to create a common groundwork for explanations.
In other words, as humans we strive for universal truths about the world, though the means by which we arrive at such truths range from paintings to formal mathematical proofs. Knowledge is a system of interconnected truths that can be ultimately abstracted across disciplines. The universe, as Newton said, is not just orderly but intelligible.
The time has come for the borders between seemingly opposed fields to be blurred, if not torn down, though the process has begun. Science is investigating what gives humans an artistic capacity, while pieces of art give science a comprehensive portrait of the brain at work. Such an interdisciplinary approach surely will be humanity’s most successful attempt at relating the microscopic happenings of the world to the macrocosm of human behavior. In a sense, science becomes art when it relies on imagination to progress into the previously unconsidered, while art becomes science when it reveals subtle truths about the material world. Art produces instructive imaginary worlds and science tests theories for contact with reality—both views seem mutually inclusive. The result is a meme—the meme—that drives our culture forward.
Art and Human Evolution
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.
But now consider these same behaviors from the perspective of the Martian anthropologist. How exotic and bizarre they must appear to be!
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.
Professor of Philosophy at the University of Auckland; the author of The Artful Species: Aesthetics, Art, and Evolution