Many anthropologists view art, like ritual, religion, music, and dance, as a social glue that holds groups together. This hypothesis dates back to the early 20th century and the "functionalist" views of Emile Durkheim, Bronislaw Malinowski, A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, and Talcott Parsons. For them, a behavior's function meant its function in sustaining social order and cultural stability, rather than its function in propagating an individual's genes. The social functions postulated for art were usually along the lines of "expressing cultural identity," "reflecting cultural values," "merging the individual into the collective," "sustaining social cohesion," "creating a collective consciousness," and "socializing the young." It is not easy to be sure what any of these phrases really means, and in any case these putative social functions are not easy to relate to legitimate biological functions in evolution.
Primate groups work perfectly well without any of these mechanisms. Chimpanzees don't need to express their cultural identities or create a collective consciousness in order to live in groups. They need only a few social instincts to form dominance hierarchies, make peace after quarrels, and remember their relationships. Humans do not seem any worse at these things than chimpanzees, so there seems no reason why we should need art or ritual to help us "bond" into groups. Human groups may be larger than chimpanzee groups, but Robin Dunbar has argued convincingly that language is the principal way in which humans manage the more complex social relationships within our larger groups.
The view that art conveys cultural values and socializes the young seems plausible at first glance. It could be called the propaganda theory of art. The trouble with propaganda is that it is usually produced only by large institutions that can pay propagandists. In small prehistoric bands, who would have any incentive to spend the time and energy producing group propaganda? It would be an altruistic act in the technical biological sense: a behavior with high costs to the individual and diffuse benefits to the group. Such altruism is not usually favored by evolution. As we shall see in the chapters on morality and language, evolution can sometimes favor group-benefiting behaviors, if individuals can attain higher social and sexual status for producing them. But such opportunities are relatively rare, and one would have to show that art is well designed as a propaganda tool to create norms and ideals that benefit the group. Language is surely a much more efficient tool for telling people what to do and what not to do. The best commands are imperative sentences, not works of art.
A popular variant of the cultural-value idea is the hypothesis that most art during human evolution served a "religious function." Museum collections of art from primitive societies routinely label almost every item a fertility god, an ancestral figure, a fetish, or an altarpiece. Until recently, archeologists routinely described every Late Paleolithic statue of a naked woman as either a "goddess" or a "fertility symbol." Usually, there is no evidence supporting such an interpretation. It would be equally plausible to call them "Paleolithic pornography." The importance of church-commissioned art in European art history may have led archeologists to attribute religious content to most prehistoric art.
In any case, religious functions for art don't make much Darwinian sense. Some anthropologists have suggested that the Principal function of art during human evolution was to appease gods and dead ancestors, and to put people in touch with animal spirits. In his textbook The Anthropology of Art, Robert Layton claimed that the function of Kalahari sculpture in Africa is "a pragmatic one of manipulating spiritual forces." This overlooks the possibility that gods, ancestral ghosts, and animal spirits may not really exist. If they do not exist, there is no survival or reproductive advantage to be gained from appeasing or contacting them. Some artists may believe that making a certain kind of statue will give them "spiritual powers." Scientifically, we have to take the view that they might be deluded. Their delusion, on its own, is not evolutionarily stable, because it costs them time and energy and the "spiritual powers" probably cannot deliver what is hoped for. However, if an individual's production or possession of a putatively religious object brings them higher social or sexual status, then it can be favored by evolution. A person can spend hours hacking at a piece of wood, making a fetish, and telling people about their extraordinary spiritual powers. If others grant the religiously imaginative individual higher status or reproductive opportunities, such behavior can be sustained by sexual selection.
The same argument applies to art that has the alleged function of curing disease, such as some Navajo sand-paintings. Navajo artists could speculate that the human capacity for making sand-paintings must have evolved through survival selection for curing diseases. If sand-paintings were proven medically effective in double-blind randomized clinical trials, they would have a good argument. But the sand-paintings probably have nothing more than a placebo effect. Like "appeasing the gods," "curing disease" works as an evolutionary explanation only if the trait in question actually does what is claimed.
Evolution is not a cultural relativist that shows equal respect for every ideological system. If an artistic image intended to control spirits or cure disease does not actually improve survival prospects, evolution has no way to favor its production except through sexual selection. Evolutionary psychologists should accept ideologies like religion and traditional medicine as human behavioral phenomena that need explaining somehow. This does not mean that we have to give them any credence as world-views. For scientists, science has epistemological priority.
There are important differences between the social functions of art (which may support religious, political, or military organizations), the conscious individual motivations for producing art (which may include making money, achieving social status, or going to heaven), and the unconscious biological functions of producing art (which must concern survival or reproduction). Darwinian theories of the origins of our capacity for art cannot hope to account for all of the social functions and various forms of art that happen to have emerged in diverse human cultures throughout history Evolutionary psychology tries to answer only a tiny number of questions about human art, such as "What psychological adaptations have evolved for producing and appreciating art?" and "What selection pressures shaped those adaptations?" These are important questions, but they are by no means the only interesting ones. All the other questions about art will remain in the domain of art history and aesthetics, where a Darwinian perspective may offer some illumination, but never a complete explanation. We shall still need cultural, historical, and social explanations to account for the influences of Greek and Indian traditions on Gandhara sculpture, or the way in which Albert Hoffman's serendipitous discovery of LSD in 1943 led to the "happenings" organized by the Fluxus group in the 1960s. As we shall see, the human capacity for art is a particularly flexible and creative endowment, and identifying its evolutionary origins by no means undermines the delights of art history, or limits the range or richness of artistic expression.
Was this article helpful?