The Frontal Cortex

The Evolution of Art

I like this just-so story. Here’s Natalie Angier:

Art, she [Ellen Dissanayake] and others have proposed, did not arise to spotlight the few, but rather to summon the many to come join the parade — a proposal not surprisingly shared by our hora teacher, Steven Brown of Simon Fraser University. Through singing, dancing, painting, telling fables of neurotic mobsters who visit psychiatrists, and otherwise engaging in what Ms. Dissanayake calls “artifying,” people can be quickly and ebulliently drawn together, and even strangers persuaded to treat one another as kin. Through the harmonic magic of art, the relative weakness of the individual can be traded up for the strength of the hive, cohered into a social unit ready to take on the world.

Personally, I much prefer this hypothesis to Geoffrey Miller’s theory that art emerged from the pressures of sexual selection, as a way for males to show off their snazzy cognitive skills. (One reason I dislike this theory is that it turns female artists into spandrels, their artistic talents just a side-effect of the real adaptation happening in the male mind.) The problem, of course, is that it’s not clear how the “art as solidarity” hypothesis could disprove the “art as a peacock tail” hypothesis (or vice-versa). That said, Dissanayake’s theory does hold out the tantalizing possibility that, way back in the Pleistocene era, proto-humans were busy developing two forms of community building: religion and art. (David Sloan Wilson is quoted in the article as saying that “the only social elixir of comparable strength [to art] is religion”). My own question is why humans needed both forms. What social role did religion fulfill that art could not? And why did we need art once we had a unifying god? If both cultural institutions evolved to bring us together, then do they bring different aspects of us together?


  1. #1 Moopheus
    November 27, 2007

    “That said, Dissanayake’s theory does hold out the tantalizing possibility that, way back in the Pleistocene era, proto-humans were busy developing two forms of community building: religion and art.”

    This suggests that they developed separately from different motivations, but of course that isn’t necessarily the case. Early religion and early art probably had very similar roots: enhancing the survival of the tribe (increasing fertility and the success of the hunt) by the application of sympathetic magic. Early practitioners probably would not have made a real distinction between these activities.

  2. #2 DaleP
    November 27, 2007

    I agree that there might be no distinction between religion and art in the Pleistocene. The elaborate verbal development of religion today likely hadn’t happened yet. What we call art could have been one form of what we now call religion, and vice versa.

  3. #3 agnostic
    November 27, 2007

    Here’s an easy test: what personalities do artists tend to have, and how to those who know them tend to perceive them? If they tend in the direction of bragging, competing, egomania, etc., then the showing off hypothesis is correct, not the solidarity one. If they tend in the direction of humility, compliance, and concern for others’ enjoyment, then the reverse.

    Depends on what types of art you’re talking about — high art is obviously due to competition and egomania, folk dances due to solidarity.

    And if that means female high artists (mostly novelists) are spandrels, well, that’s fine. Who says your worth or the merit of your work diminishes if it’s spandrel-like? You could spin it the other way, though, and say that female high artists and scientists are engaging in female-vs-female competition: they want to honestly signal their brains and work ethic to brainy, hardworking males, since there is assortative mating for these traits.

  4. #4 colin
    November 27, 2007

    Your entirely missing the fact that art is a form a of communication. There are some things that are better communicated through art then through typical vocal language. Obviously, drawings are useful for showing something visual, but art is a way to communicate emotions (dance can be joyful, invigorating, or used as means for storytelling).

    Art probably arose entangled with language rather than just a “peacock’s tail” or simply a means for social bonding.

    Religion too is more than just a means for social bonding. It serves as an social norms enforcer: “Don’t covet they neighbor’s wife” is preached mainly because you don’t want that other guy coveting your wife. However, if you can get away with it yourself without any loss of status or face, hey why not?

  5. #5 Pawlie Kokonuts
    November 27, 2007

    Funny. As I was reading the beginning of the quotation you cite, I rather instinctively felt: why, that sounds like religion! In the final analysis, I don’t see the benefit of splitting the two. Why can’t they be twin components of the same human need to connect, to commune?

  6. #6 Luna_the_cat
    November 28, 2007

    And why did we need art once we had a unifying god?

    Just like to point out, monotheism is, as far as we can tell, a very late player to the stage. All the evidence that we have for ancient/”primitive” religions involve aspects of pantheism, animism, polytheism, and/or ancestor worship.

    As for what we needed religion for: once humans got to the point that we both remembered and anticipated misfortune, it became tremendously more comforting to think that something, somewhere, somehow, was actually in control of these events — because that means that you can influence these events yourself, if only indirectly, by propitiating or otherwise influenceing those powers in control. If misfortune is just a thing that happens completely randomly, and it’s just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, then NO-ONE and NOTHING has control over it, and there is nothing you can do about it except deal. That is rather more terrifying than thinking that there is an unknown power out there doing things for its own reasons, but which you might convince to cooperate with you.

    Art…doesn’t do that.

    Given that much of our psychology is about convincing ourselves that we are in charge of the things that happens to us, one way or another, I would say that this is a coping mechanism and a need.

  7. #7 Luna_the_cat
    November 28, 2007

    It actually just occurred to me — also, I think that there is a very good argument that social interaction was one of the major driving forces behind our runaway brains. Intelligence gives us tools to cope with competition and conflict with each other without destroying the group, which gives us strength against outside threats. Yes?

    But, a primary component of social interaction is the ability to understand what is going on in the minds of those around us. “Theory of mind”, an understanding of intentionality, and empathy all play a role. It’s my thought that as we developed more and more of both the ability and the imperative to understand mind at work in the primary component of our environment — other people — it became almost an inevitable spillover to seeing mind and intentionality at work in the rest of the environment as well, including things like the weather.

    And propitiating whoever/whatever is stronger than you so that it doesn’t beat the tar out of you when you get in its way has a very long evolutionary history.

  8. #8 McFawn
    November 30, 2007

    What’s interesting about these methodical “studies” is that their outcomes are still utterly subjective. For instance, in the NYtimes article, Dissanayake believes the interaction between mother and child is the source of aesthetic pursuits. The article describes her watching mothers and children for “hundreds of hours,” coming finally to the conclusion that “These operations of ritualization, these affiliative signals between mother and infant, are aesthetic operations, too” This claim, while fascinating, is in now way dependent on the “hours of study”–it is a purely subjective reading of what goes on between a mother and child, and what art itself is.

    And the idea that art has evolutionary import–and just what that import is– again is a claim that can neither be supported or refuted by science. Dissanayake claims that “artifying” helps strengthen community bonds, and this is of critical for the survival of a species.

    But it would be just as easy to say, and find evidence for, the idea that the purpose of art is to isolate and disarm a group of humans unfit for the more critical functions of society–hunting, gathering, finding shelter, etc. The “artists” were the physically inferior and emotionally dissonant members of society that, in their ineptitude, threatened a groups’ survival. Rather than simply culling them, “art” was created to keep them too busy to interfere with the hunt. I could watch artists for “hundreds of hours” and find “evidence” just as solid for my claim as what Dissanayake found for hers!

  9. #9 EK
    December 13, 2007

    I agree with the comments regarding art as a form of communication. I think it is attractive to believe that art in it’s earliest forms was a way of communicating first between living individuals and secondly between generations of individuals within a community. Societies have used symbols both in language and in the physical to convey a message. Sometimes that message can have explicit meaning in terms of societal bonding or in terms of economic trade (to name a few).

    I think that art at a neurological level arose out of the shear plasticity of the associative capability of the CNS. I would expect that the when the CNS developed the plasticity to start to combine and recombine the building blocks of language it also did the same for art. That these two phenomenon in human development arose out of the same parallel developments within our nervous system.

    During evolutionary development human brains developed a unique process of solving problems. Human brains after this shift in evolution were now able to discover novel solutions to the same sets of problems that genetics and evolution provided the solutions for. Humans could now break free from the ridged evolutionary ingrained solutions to life and now begin to process solutions in relatively real time. This change in processing allowed a whole new set of behaviors to be exhibited never before seen on this planet. Of those art and language developed.

    Often with the value of science in our society there is often a stigma associated that art does not hold the same intellectual characteristics that perhaps science does. However, there is no doubt in my mind that scientists harness the same process when that artists do when developing new and novel theories, experimental techniques and interpretations of the results. During this process the brain is doing the same thing that artists do, which is to combine and recombine different ideas/concepts in order to find the one that best fits the solution. However, when a scientist does this he is trying to find generally discover a reproducible/predictable phenomenon. While the artist is simply trying to find the produce the physical equivalent through his/her art of the idea in their brain.

    As humans have developed, the complexity of our society has changed, the role of art has not. While the actual meaning of any art is highly contextualized in the culture of its creation and interpretation. It still serves the basic means of conveying messages and representing everything that is possible of the human mind.