None of the standardly proposed "functions" of art are legitimate evolutionary functions that could actually shape a genetically inherited adaptation. As Steven Pinker has observed,
Many writers have said that the "function" of the arts is to bring the community together, to help us see the world in new ways, to give us a sense of harmony with the cosmos, to allow us to appreciate the sublime, and so on. All these claims are true, but none is about adaptation in the technical sense . . .
If this is right, then what are we to do? The human capacity for art shows evidence of adaptive design, but its function remains obscure. Perhaps we need a broader view of art, inspired by more biologically relevant examples.
There are two strategies science can take in trying to understand the evolutionary origins of art: top-down or bottom-up. The top-down strategy focuses on the fine arts and their elite world of museums, galleries, auction houses, art history textbooks, and aesthetic theory. The bottom-up strategy surveys the visual ornamentation of other species, of diverse human societies, and of various subcultures within our society. In this broader view, the fine arts are a relatively unpopular and recent manifestation of a universal human instinct for making visual ornamentation. Most scientists, being anxious to display their cultural credentials as members of the educated middle class, feel obligated to take a top-down approach. There is a temptation to display one's familiarity with the canon of Great Art, to counter the stereotype that scientists are so obsessed with truth that they have forgotten beauty. One may even feel obliged to start with a hackneyed example of Italian Renaissance sculpture, as I have done in this chapter.
But what if we step back from the fine arts and ask ourselves what engagement ordinary humans have with visual ornamentation, once they step outside the dim museums of Florence and return to their real lives. Our opportunities to appreciate the fine arts typically arise during vacations and weekend trips to local museums. But visual ornamentation surrounds us every day. We wear clothing and jewelry. We buy the biggest, most beautiful houses we can afford. We decorate our homes with furniture, rugs, prints, and gardens. We drive finely designed, brightly colored automobiles, which we choose for their aesthetic appeal as much as their fuel efficiency. We may even paint the odd watercolor. This sort of everyday aesthetic behavior comes quite naturally, in every human culture and at every moment in history.
There is no clear line between fashion and art, between ornamenting our bodies and beautifying our lives. Body-painting, jewelry, and clothing were probably the first art forms, since they are the most common across cultures. Nor is there a clear line between art and craft—as William Morris argued when founding the Arts and Crafts movement in Victorian England. Fine art may be strictly useless in pragmatic terms, while good design merely makes beautiful that which is already useful. When we address the evolution of human art, we need to explain both the aesthetic made useless and the useful made aesthetic. We shall see that even apparently pragmatic tools like Homo erectus handaxes may have evolved in part through sexual selection as displays of manual skill.
In this chapter I take a bottom-up approach to analyzing the evolutionary origins of art, ornamentation, and aesthetics. This makes it easier to trace the adaptive function of these seemingly useless biological luxuries. As we have seen, most of the visual ornamentation in nature is a product of sexual selection. The peacock's tail is a natural work of art evolved through the aesthetic preferences of peahens. We have also seen that some of our bodily organs, including hair, faces, breasts, buttocks, penises, and muscles, evolved partly as visual ornaments. It seems reasonable to ask how far we can get with the simplest possible hypothesis for art: that it evolved, at least originally, to attract sexual partners by playing upon their senses and displaying one's fitness. To see how this idea could work, let's consider an example of sexual selection for art in another animal species.
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