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?