Brain: The Gift op the Planet
If art is the gift of the brain, then to really understand art we need to understand the brain—a route that will take us far afield from looking at a Manet (figure 2.11) with your friend while visiting the Musée d'Orsay on the Rive Gauche on a fine
2.11 Edouard Manet, The Fifer (1866). Musee d'Orsay, Paris. A small boy dressed smartly in a military uniform piping a shrill tune, yet it took a lot of fish oil to see and hear him.
spring day in Paris. We all recognize this picture as a small boy decked out in fine military garb proudly tooting away on a shrill fife. We all "see" this lad, but we also "hear" him and, in the most human reaction of all, we try to understand what this is all about. All art is effortlessly parsed by humans into modules of thought, yet no other being even comes close to this type of cognitive analysis. "Elementary," Sherlock Holmes might have deduced. Yet the many complicated steps involved in arriving at that conclusion are anything but elementary. Here we will probe the most fundamental chemistry of organic creatures and discover how this relates to the evolution of the brain—the brain that understands Manet at the Orsay.
In the African crucible of human creation, God reached down into the mud and from it created a man and a woman. Every one of us is, in a very real way, a child of the earth. Even though much of our knowledge of the process of evolution is based on fragments of information and inferential logic, it is possible to make some very precise scientific conclusions about the human past and, more importantly for our understanding of art, see how those conclusions are related to understanding Manet.
Life on earth for the first 2.5 billion years consisted of blue-green algae drifting around in proto-oceans. Then, about 600 to 500 million years ago, something wondrous happened. Over time, algae reacted to sunlight—photosynthesized—to produce proteins, carbohydrates, and lipids which were rich in fatty acids (called docosahexaenoic acid or DHA). The basic forms of life (phyla) known today appeared. But the real importance of reducing billions of years of evolution to a few lines is to establish that all complex organisms evolved in an Omega3- or DHA-rich environment (see Crawford, Cunnane, and Harbige 1993). During ensuing cataclysmic climatic and geological changes in which large land masses appeared, DHA was still readily available in fishes and shellfish found in lakes, streams, and seas. For our discussion of the evolution of the brain (and hence of imagery and art), DHA is the most important fatty acid used in photoreceptor and synaptic actions.
Returning to figure 2.2 we note that, about 200,000 years ago, there was a palpable increase in cranial size. To give some perspective on this astonishing cerebral enhancement, consider the fossil evidence of the Australopithecus whose cranial capacity remained at about 500 cm3 for over 3 million years. The genus Homo cranial capacity doubled from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens in 1 million years. The expansion, according to Crawford et al. (1999, 2001), may not be explained by expected Darwinian progression toward modern intelligence but by the rich source
of DHA from the lacustrine and marine food chain that was being used by early hominids. To which I might add, the overall dietary changes experienced by early humans. The ingestion of seafoods (abundant in Omega3) by people who lived near lakes and rivers is correlated with expanded brain capacity. The inference is drawn that they are causally related. Of course, changes in brain size and functionality were caused by a multitude of factors such as climatic changes, genetic accidents, and dietary changes including (but not limited to) eating fish from the sea. The idea that the ingestion of seafoods is related to cortical development is supported by current organic studies in which DHA has been shown to be a nutritional component and is important in vascular development, a prerequisite for cortical development.
"The Brain Must Come First"
Further evidence for the importance of a seafood diet (to provide what nutritionists call long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids) for brain development may be found in the complex migratory colonization of Australia, and later Tasmania and New Guinea, from the Wallacean Islands. To mount such an operation required an advanced brain. These early peoples' overland pathway followed along the coast, an anthropological observation of considerable interest. And one can easily imagine people combing the seashore and streams for readily obtainable small crustaceans, and other animals from the marine food chain, rich in Omega3.
Crawford et al. (1999) astutely comment on the importance of these concurrent events: "We consider this association not accidental nor coincidental, but a reflection of the dramatic influence of brain specific nutrition on the evolutionary process. We do not accept the postulate that H. sapiens a priori evolved a large, complex brain, then began to hunt in order to maintain it—the brain must come first" (p. 5). And, in order for the brain (whose gift was art) to come first, there had to be a proper diet abundant in docosahexaenoic acid. (Perhaps the old adage about fish being "brain food" is true.)
Intellectual changes were necessary not only for developing all the skills necessary to build seagoing vessels, but for humans to become consciously AWARE, in the full sense of the term. Knowledge of the organic and biochemical reasons for the expansion of the brain helps us understand how modern humans had the necessary cerebral machinery to image and produce art—an endowment akin to imagining and building boats. There is one final factor in the formula that makes the type of computational processing of visual information, language, and abstract representations of reality possible: how the brain works vis-à-vis its evolutionary history.
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