Art as an Adaptation

In her books What Is Art For? and Homo Aestheticus, anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake made one of the first serious attempts to analyze art as a human adaptation that must have evolved for an evolutionary purpose. She argued that human art shows three important features as a biological adaptation. First, it is ubiquitous across all human groups. Every culture creates and responds to clothing, carving, decorating and image-making. Second, the arts are sources of pleasure for both the artist and the viewer, and evolution tends to make pleasurable those behaviors that are adaptive. Finally, artistic production entails effort, and effort is rarely expended without some adaptive rationale. Art is ubiquitous, and costly, so is unlikely to be a biological accident.

Art fits most of the other criteria that evolutionary psychology has developed for distinguishing genuine human adaptations from non-adaptations. It is relatively fun and easy to learn. Given access to materials, children's painting and drawing abilities unfold spontaneously along a standard series of developmental stages. Humans are much better at producing and judging art than is any artificial intelligence program or any other primate. Of course, just as our universal human capacity for language allows us to learn distinct languages in different cultures, our universal capacity for art allows us to learn different techniques and styles of aesthetic display in different cultures. Like most human mental adaptations, the ability to produce and appreciate art is not present at birth. Very little of our psychology is "innate" in this sense, because human babies do not have to do very much. Our genetically evolved adaptations emerge when they are needed to deal with particular stages of survival and reproduction. They do not appear at birth just so psychologists can conveniently distinguish the evolved from the cultural. Beards have evolved, but they grow only after puberty, so are they "innate"? Is menopause "innate"? "Innateness" is a relatively useless concept that has little relevance in modern evolutionary theory or behavior genetics.

Some archeologists have argued that art only emerged 35,000 years ago in the Upper Paleolithic period, when the first cave paintings and Venus figurines were made in Europe. They follow archeologist John Pfeiffer's suggestion that this period marks a "creative explosion" when human art, language, burial ceremonies, religion, and creativity first emerged. This is a remarkably Eurocentric view. The Aborigines colonized Australia at least 50,000 years ago, and have apparently been making paintings on rock ever since. If art were an invention of the upper Paleolithic 35,000 years ago in Europe, how could art be a human universal? There is evidence from Africa of red ocher being used for body ornamentation over 100,000 years ago. This is about the latest possible time that art could have evolved, since it is around the time that modern Homo sapiens spread out from Africa. Had it evolved later, it is unclear how it could have become universal across human groups.

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