tl; dr. You and me baby ain't nothin' but mammals, who happen to have millions of years of shared adaptive preferences for beautiful, artistic displays - displays that demonstrate ingenuity, are discernibly authentic, and took some sweet time to produce.
If there is one thing that we humans do best, it is developing novel ways to satisfy our wants and desires. In recent history, capitalism has greatly highlighted this fact with Hostess Cupcakes and Range Rovers, but our ancestors have been actively satisfying desires in original ways for hundreds of thousands of years. We craved more food and came up with agriculture, we sought competition displays and came up with sport, and we demanded easier access to reproductive cells and came up with sperm banks. With our physically average bodies and superb intellect we have been able to manipulate the resources around us to a multiplicity of our desired ends. When it comes down to it, if there is a demand, someone figures out a new way to supply it. Why we supply something is easy part - because we demand it. But why we demand something – now that is a more interesting discussion. This paper will explore this concept of demand-driven innovation by discussing the ultimate explanation for a distinctly human demand, a demand for beauty and the arts.
Art is to demand for beauty, as chocolate cake is to demand for sweet. Starting with the latter, it is quite clear why we evolved a preference for sweet. In the ancestral environment sweet singled high sugar, high energy foods. Anyone with a “sweet” preference clearly gained an evolutionary advantage over those who did not prefer high energy foods. Thusly demand for sweet is clearly an adaptation, i.e. “a change that occurs by natural selection and leads to improvement in reproductive success.” The adaptive benefits of a demand for beauty, however, are not quite so straightforward. No ancestor ever got through a cold winter thanks to his cave painting, and no mother ever fed her child with a beautiful sunset.
Before we get too far, it is important to remember keep separate the extensions of preferences today (like cake or art films), from their extensions in the ancestral environment. In modernity, anyone with too strong a preference for cake might become obese and be at a disadvantage in the reproduction market. Similarly, no one is arguing that art film critics have an evolutionary advantage over Spiderman fans. But remember, even though an obese cake-lover might not have an evolutionary edge today, that sweet tooth served his berry-seeking ancestors quite well during the course of human evolution. But can the same be said for a “taste” for beauty? Was there ever a point where an appreciation of beauty was such an adaptive advantage that it spread through the entire human gene pool? Is the preference for beauty really an evolutionary adaptation?
Once Nature had set up men’s brains the way she has, certain “unintended” consequences followed – and we are in several ways the beneficiaries.
Some evolutionary psychologists believe that art is not a true biological adaptation. As in much of evolutionary psychology, there are often multiple explanations for the prevalence of any one modern behavior, and explanations for our demand for beauty is no different. Developing an infallible evolutionary explanation is often impossible. Adding to the uncertainty of any explanation is the fact that while “behavioral activities are directed by nervous systems, and nervous systems are structures,” there may be thousands of underlying structures controlling a signal behavior. Furthermore, any one structure may be involved in a multiplicity of behaviors.
These complications are what give rise to behaviors and traits that are known as “by-products”. Evolutionary by-products are “characteristics that do not solve adaptive problems and do not have to have functional design.” In the words of Steven Pinker:
The mind is a neural computer, fitted by natural selection with combinatorial algorithms for causal and probabilistic reasoning… It is driven by goal states that served biological fitness in ancestral environments… That toolbox, however, can be used to assemble Sunday afternoon projects of dubious adaptive significance.
With Pinker’s paradigm in mind, could beauty and the arts just be an evolutionary byproduct, a “Sunday afternoon project”? Could Beethoven’s Fifth and van Gogh’s Starry Night just be “cheesecake for the mind”?
Under the byproduct viewpoint, arts are basically to humans what the orange spot was to Tinbergen’s gulls, i.e. a “supernormal stimulus.” For example, it is posited that primate color vision developed in order to recognize ripe fruits. If this is the case, along with our color vision we should have psychological mechanisms that are stimulated by, or drawn to, those brightly colored fruits. Is it possible that brightly colored paintings are merely acting as a supernormal stimulus to our evolved fruit gathering mechanism? Perhaps. After all there must be thousands of “beautiful” paintings of fruit baskets hanging on museum walls.
But if beauty is just a side effect of our type of color vision, shouldn’t other primates with similar visual systems be able to identify, i.e. be stimulated by, aesthetic beauty? That is in fact, not the case; “Rhesus monkey visual systems are so similar to ours that they are often used by neuroscientists as experimental models for human vision. Yet they show no hint of the aesthetic preferences that we might expect as side-effects of having our sort of vision.”
While plausible, the byproduct explanation lacks when explaining why we call such vast array of different things “beautiful”. A beautiful painting might be a bright visual stimulus, but what about a beautiful poem, a beautiful landscape or even a beautiful math theorem? Surely the term beauty would not have such pervasive applicability if it were a side affect of fruit consumption.
At the mid point between art as a by-product and beauty as an adaptation, we stop at Nicolas Humphrey and his seminal 1973 paper, The Illusion of Beauty. Humphrey argues that man’s concept of beauty is an unintended consequence. However Humphrey begins to depart from Pinker’s strictly by-product, “cheesecake”, philosophy when he examines beauty as a motivation for practice.
Humphrey describes the fundamental source of beauty as “likeness tempered with difference” and “all beauty may by a metaphor be called rhyme.” For Humphrey, we find beauty in slight variations in pattern - like complimentary shades of green in an arboreal landscape. His argument claims that this attraction to rhyme is a by-product of the adaptive functions of classifying. Humphrey then, however briefly, posits an adaptive role of beauty - “through the experience of beauty in works of art we learn to learn.” In other words, according to Humphrey, we find things beautiful that drive us to practice classifying. For instance, by finding poetry beautiful, one begins to practice and learn the subtleties of language. Understanding subtle distinctions in language and demeanor is a skill of paramount necessity in social settings. Certainly someone who has a propensity to practice these distinctions would have a clear advantage in such social situations.
While on the cusp of acknowledging beauty’s adaptive benefits, Humphrey still says, “man-made beauty is a lie…Beethoven merely capitalized on a human faculty which was developed for quite other reasons.” However, in a seeming contradiction, he simultaneously acknowledges that men benefit by studying “beautiful” works of art like Beethoven. He also argues that psychologists today could understand more about the learning process by understanding what attracts us to beauty. But if Humphrey acknowledges that attraction to beauty facilitates learning, and if the ability to learn correlates with higher fitness, does it not follow that any ancestor who had the ability to discriminate “beauty” from “non beauty” would have a higher capacity for learning and thusly evolutionary advantage over those who do not?
Beauty is an adaptive effect which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment
Understanding how behaviors like tool use or preferences for sweet gained an evolutionary advantage requires little imagination; understanding why those with an eye for beauty left more progeny than their competitors, however, requires slightly more. In the years since Illusion of Beauty, advancements in the field of evolutionary psychology have given us more thorough explanations for our demand for “beauty”. Individuals like Denis Dutton and Geoffrey Miller have contributed greatly to the search for an ultimate explanation for beauty. Examining their two viewpoints in conjunction provides a clear explanation on how an eye for beauty allowed our ancestors to thrive.
Denis Dutton has devoted his career to providing a deeper understanding of aesthetic beauty. While Dutton considered himself to be primarily a philosopher, he clearer understood the guidelines for explanation in biology; “an explanatory hypothesis for some emotion or cognitive faculty must begin with a theory of how that faculty would, on average, have enhanced the reproductive chances of the bearer of that faculty in an ancestral environment.”
In the words of Dutton, "Beauty is evolution’s way of arousing and sustaining interest, fascination, obsession in order to encourage us to make the most adaptive decisions for reproduction and survival.” Consider a few things we consider beautiful. For starters, imagine this stereotypical beautiful landscape painting. This work of art has mountains across the skyline, a foreground of low lying grasses with a few small animals, trees with branches closes to the ground, and a small lake in the distance with winding path leading us to it. This imagery clearly imitates the ideal Pleistocene savannah in which we evolved. Developing an attraction to this exact scenario would give our ancestors the greatest odds of survival and reproduction. This preference evolved in the savannah, and has spread through the entire human gene pool. In support of this theory, Dutton points out that this exact scene is regarded as beautiful worldwide, even in cultures that do not have such landscapes.
Next consider a newborn baby. While one is surely most attracted to his own child, it is nonetheless quite easy to find a cute baby. We consider babies beautiful, not because of cultural inundation of cherubic figurines, but because making babies beautiful was nature’s way of sustaining our interest (i.e. investment) in them. In other words “Evolution’s trick is to make them beautiful to give you the pleasure of just looking at them.” Evolution could not make babies or landscapes taste pleasurable like it did to apples and other sweets, so their visual aesthetic does the job instead.
Dutton, however, only answers a part of the story. He is correct that beauty helps us “make the most adaptive decisions for reproduction and survival”, however it is Geoffrey Miller that reminds us that the number one thing species should be “aroused by” and have a sustained “interest, fascination, [and] obsession” for is good genes. In a sexually reproducing species, the only way to succeed evolutionarily is to find a good mate. Furthermore, if these offspring are going to survive, this mate must be of high genetic quality. The potential mate is going through a very similar strategy, and wants to be similarly assured of genetic quality.
Sexually reproducing species throughout the animal kingdom face this same problem of garnishing and sustaining a mate’s interest. Most commonly in mammals, the male is the one doing most of the convincing. In order to advertise their genetic fitness, many males develop extravagant fitness indicators, of which the principal example is the peacock’s tail. The tail serves no other purpose other than advertising to the female that he is so fit that he can afford to commit energy to this large, costly tail. These tails are examples of Zahavi’s handicap principle for fitness indicators. The principle states that in order to be reliable a trait must have high enough costs that competitors of lower fitness could not imitate it. In short, these fitness indicators allow peacocks with good genes to differentiate themselves from competitors.
A fitness indicator does not have to be a physical trait. Some displays, like the male bowerbird’s nest, are what are known as extended phenotypes. The bowerbird’s nest is a reliable indicator by virtue of the difficulty and high costs associated with its production – the nest contains month’s worth of effort, construction and resource gathering. Low fitness rivals are simply unable to spend that much on their nests and still survive, and are therefore unlikely to ever pass on their low fitness genes.
For humans, reliable fitness indicators are of utmost importance. For one, due to concealed ovulation in human females, most offspring are the products of longer-term relationships. Thusly, if your goal is reproduction, sustaining a mate’s “interest, fascination, [and] obsession” over a long period of time is of key to reproductive success. Furthermore, humans are a largely monogamous species subject to mutual mate choice. While the norm in the animal kingdom is for males to flaunt their fitness, and females to be choosy, in most long-term human relationships, males and females are of equal choosiness. This causes pressures by both sexes to both produce reliable indicators, as well as be able to discriminate the legitimacy of the other sex’s indicators. This dual-sided arms race between innovation and discrimination is most likely how art began to appear in the evolutionary record.
As is the way of human beings, we are constantly coming up with novel ways to supply our demands, and a supply for the demand of reliable fitness indicators is no exception. In the words of GF Miller, “When we talk about the evolution of art, perhaps we are really talking about the evolution of a human tendency to make material objects into advertisements of our fitness." Just like the way that at some point in their history high fitness bowerbirds began to produce extravagant nests, at some point around 1.6 million years ago, man began creating works of art. These “artists” were not producing the art for its own sake, but rather to differentiate themselves from lower fitness rivals; “the fundamental challenge facing artists is to demonstrate their fitness by making something that lower-fitness competitors could not make, thus proving themselves more socially and sexually attractive." These first examples of hominid artistic displays were finely crafted, non-functional, Acheulean hand axes. Being able to produce one of these fine hand axes were displays of intelligence, motor control, planning ability, conscientiousness, as well as spare time. As division of labor was across sexual, and not functional, lines these hand axes allowed some males to differentiate themselves in an undifferentiated world. In other words, the ability to produce hand axes became an extended phenotype of our ancestors - as subject to sexual selection as the bowerbird’s nest.
The male production of artisan hand axes was only a part of the story. Equally important in the origins of art was the discernment of females. While the physical demands of stone tool production may have prevented female hominids from producing hand axes, it does not mean they lacked the cognitive capacity to do so. The mental processes for identifying a well-made hand axe are highly correlated to, if not identical to, those for producing the axe. In many cases in the animal kingdom it may be more beneficial for a male to dupe the female with a low quality indicator (thereby reaping the mating opportunity with low cost), however in humans, males should desire females with excellent discernment capacities for the sake of both their daughters and sons; "The peacock does not need the peahen's appreciation of a good tail—he needs only the tail itself. But for men to make good art, they must embody the same aesthetic discrimination as women. While decorating themselves, they must be able to access the same aesthetics that women will use in judging their decoration. Given this twist, the runaway aesthetic theory predicts sexual similarities."
It was not necessary for hominids to favor great artists over great hunters or great mothers. It was necessary only for them to favor those who showed taste and talent in their everyday self-ornamentation over those who did not, all else being equal.
So what is art? There is sculpture and painting, play and poem, music and dance. Furthermore there are not only these classic genres; but there is also the art of war, of sex, of cooking, of business, and more. Accordingly, human capacity for the appreciation of “art” cannot be reduced to any one sensory stimulus, or preference for any one behavior. At its core, we appreciate art because our ancestors developed a preference, not for art in and of itself, but for the talent, discrimination, and taste required for its production and consumption. In short, artistic supply is human ingenuity’s response to our demand for things done well, our demand for beauty.
Postscript: So this was first update/post is years - been meaning to share with many of you and remembered that .html is so much sweeter than .docx. This is one of my favorite papers from my time at Amherst College - a place where I could not stop digging deeper on perhaps the most fundamental question(s) - "where do we come from and why do we do what we do". The straight lines of supply and demand didn't do it for me, nor did the (absurd?) assumptions of complete rationality in game theory. Through curiosity and serendipity - my entire world view was re-examined and shaped by the discovery and exploration of evolutionary psychology and human origins. While I no longer have the luxury of exploring the topic in a structured manner with amazing professors on a daily basis - ev psych remains my intellectual passion and applying its lessons and principles influences nearly all facets of my personal and professional life - design, development, dating, networking, sales, management, friendship and of course, aesthetic appreciation. For disclosures sake, I've downgraded this posts academic viability by removing the footnotes and adding the Bloodhound Gang reference (while I may miss writing papers like this who in the world thinks back and has found memories of writing a bibliography. woof.) but am happy to clarify, share sources, and hopefully - discuss with you.