Part 2: Is art a spandrel

This follows directly from the 9/19/19 post:

With all of these perspectives of these various facets of our artistic nature, how do we begin to see the object, the gem, whole?

This was the intellectual challenge Susanne Langer set herself beginning in 1942 with Philosophy in a New Key (44), continuing with 1953’s Feeling and Form (45), and finalizing her project with three volumes of Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling (47-49) in 1967, 1972, and 1979.  The first two developed a broad theory of aesthetics based on a theory of symbols and the last presented her view of the biological underpinnings of mind and art.  Rarely cited today, her work seems to have been eclipsed by two developments that took the field by storm during the latter part of her career.  The first began in 1948 with Shannon and Weaver’s book, A Mathematical Theory of Communication (67), and Weiner’s Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine (61).  The ensuing developments in information theory and technology revolutionized our thinking in virtually every area of scientific studies and most areas in humanistic studies broadly defined.  The second development was the transformation working in the life sciences with the discovery of DNA’s structure in 1952.  Three important milestones here would be Jacques Monod’s book Chance and Necessity (53) in 1971 and Richard Dawkins two books, The Selfish Gene(13) in 1976 and The Extended Phenotype (14) in 1982.  Later would come E. O. Wilson’s work promoting a sociobiological approach (77, 78).

The first development, information sciences, gave us powerful tools for studying the brain and its processes and a powerful metaphor of that brain as a machine of logic and information processes epitomized by servomechanisms.  The second development furthered the notion that genes are central to life and its evolution.  This reinforced the view of an organism as a machine, a rule governed series of chemical processes instigated and ultimately controlled by the genome.  More importantly, the gene-centered view of evolution motivated a keen focus on adaptive success.  If a biological feature did not contribute to future adaptiveness, it was at best a spandrel and more likely just noise in the signal.  This led, for example, to the sociobiological study of animal, including human, behavior.  Here beauty and aesthetics, if important, signaled mate robustness, thereby helping to shape the hereditary flow into the gene pool.  To be sure, both developments have contributed mightily to our understanding of human nature.

Yet each had theoretical and so also empirical limits to the furtherance in our understanding human nature and these in the last decade or two have been elucidated in important ways (56). Information machines process symbols regardless of their meaning. Their symbols are abstract enough to be governed by Boolean logic, and that leaves them without particular meaning or import.  In short, they are disembodied and while this abstraction is a powerful tool, it is not commensurate with biological processes.  Such a realization can be found in Lakoff and Johnson’s two books, Metaphors We Live By (42) and Philosophy in the Flesh (43), Varela, Thompson and Rosch’s landmark, The Embodied Mind: Cognitive Science and Human Experience (72), and the writings of Nobel laureate Gerald Edelman and Giuliani Tononi, e.g., A Universe of Consciousness: How Matter Becomes Imagination (24), who used computer simulations powerfully in their research while maintaining the distinction between brain and machine.  Machine and biological (e.g., human) information and meaning, especially when given that the former is derivative of the latter, are distinctly different.

Similarly the limits of the gene centered view of evolution and life have been delineated by those who, once again keeping their theoretical efforts grounded in embodiment, find that a broader and more adequate perspective includes ecological considerations.  This is perhaps most cogently explicated by Susan Oyama in The Ontogeny of Information (56).  She articulates a much different view of life through her wide ranging polemic on various theoretical perspectives and research endeavors focused on understanding the nature of life, and so of human nature, that highlights the error of assuming one way control of life by its genome.  She shows, instead, that life is more aptly conceived as a developmental system, e.g., what is inherited is not just a set of chromosomes but also an ecology and, quite importantly, the history of the genome-environment interaction.  Deeply embedded in her view of biological processes is the understanding that life qua organism is autonomous and, though quite responsive to both external and internal information, engenders its own activity and course of actions.  Oyama as well argues that machine metaphors are both helpful and misleading; the search for mechanical processes such as found in servomechanisms in the brain is one example of how this assumption has both helped and misled research endeavors.  Again, organisms use feedback to guide their actions but their impulses are based more on feedforward and other sorts of autonomous and endogenous processes quite consistent with Edelman and Tononi’s idea of reentrant processing for constructing mental operations (24).

With this review we can see that the two large theoretical developments that eclipsed Susanne Langer’s work to construct a theory of aesthetics consistent with our biological nature have shifted enough for some of her light to shine through.  Art is, she explains, abstracted feeling, or better, abstracted felt experience.  These abstractions are different from what we usually refer to as ‘abstract’; they are ideas of feelings.  Thus, her two modes of symbolization are discursive, exemplified by language, and presentational, exemplified by art. They differ largely in their compositional elements, language’s lexical units of independent meaning and art’s arbitrary bits of no independent meaning, e.g., notes, colors, lines, etc., and their structure, language’s linearized syntactic open-ended constructions and art’s gestalt forms upon which elements are dependent for their contributions to the work’s import.  Language, she says, carries semantic meaning; art conveys aesthetic import.  This last is an important difference, because while the surface or public structures of both discursive and presentational forms are just that, surface and objective, it is in their deep structures where important differences in their symbolic processes of abstraction are to be found.  Presentational symbols, i.e., art, are vital forms; their deep structure, i.e., import, is a virtual (Langer was one of the earliest to use the word ‘virtual’ in this way) representation of felt life.  This idea is articulated by her early books, Philosophy in a New Key, Feeling and Form, and very concisely in Problems of Art (45).

From this perspective, our understanding of thought and feeling seems enfeebled.  As the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamono wrote, “Man is said to be a reasoning animal.  I do not know why he has not been defined as an affective or feeling animal.  Perhaps that which differentiates him from other animals is feeling rather than reason” (1). (Written in 1954 and cited in Aho in Existentialism: An Introduction 2014). Perhaps this is what William James referred to when he said humans have more instincts and not fewer than other animals (34).  Such a view is decidedly in line with preeminent neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s view that emotion is as important as cognition in our neural operations, as he has explained now in several books,  Descartes’ Error (9) and The Strange Order of Things:  Life, Feeling and the Making of Cultures (11).  And this no doubt motivated Langer to entitle her 3 volume work, Mind: An Essay on Human Feeling.  (As an aside, the research by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman (37) and others shows that even trained academic minds operate more based upon heuristics than logical rules. We feel our way forward even and especially in our intellectual endeavors).

We can now approach the question, ‘Is art an evolutionary spandrel?’ from a quite different direction.

Next section to appear soon.


Prehistoric art: updated timeline

Apropos of my current focus on art as a spandrel (to be continued the next post), the recent 9/14/19 issue of Science News has a brief report on a new find of ancient art in China.  Two bones have been found with distinctively decorative cuts (not the kind found from butchering the meat), a series of straight lines that in one case were rubbed with ochre (see my post on red ochre from 10/13/18) to highlight the work.  These bones have been reliably dated back to 100,000 years ago, and the cuts may have been made by Denisovans who migrated from central Russia to southeastern Asia and the Himalayan region.  The article also includes a summary of other finds suggestive of artwork, the oldest being a shell carved by probably Homo erectus almost a half million years ago in Indonesia.  So our aesthetic sensibility has been evolving (or is it developing?) for longer than Homo sapiens has been extant.

Straight lines rubbed with ochre is not very artistic, I hear some say.  Well, sure, but we are talking the dawn of humanity here.  And sometimes less is more—simplicity is a virtue of much high art.  Consider the famous Japanese rock garden at a Zen temple in Kyoto where simplicity conveys an abstract truth about our experience:


Zen Garden in Kyoto     photo credit:Cquest [CC BY-SA 2.5 (


Now consider two Japanese terms for aesthetic experiences, aware and yugen.  Aware (a-wahr-ay) refers to the feeling of the fleeting fragility of life and experience.  Susan Langer said that we became human when we realized that a life was one single act with a beginning and an end.  That realization underlies, I think, the aesthetic feeling of aware.  Yugen refers to a deep inexpressible feeling felt upon some aesthetic realization of mystery—our being becomes luminous with some complex felt experience.  Plumbing such depths does not come instantaneously; this ability comes over time as one engages steadily with beauty.  We will never know what was going on in the mind of the creature cutting those lines and smearing ochre, but I think a reasonable suggestion is that their ruminations over their artwork were incipient to the new feelings of aware and yugen—these meditations, silent or expressed, around the hearth fire with the shadows dancing around the gathering  were indeed quite important to developing humanity.  Travel on from here only if you must.

Is art a spandrel?

This post starts a series of posts in which I seek to answer the question:


Is art an evolutionary spandrel?  In other words, is art some concomitant or epiphenomenon of our species’ adaptation whereby our genetic heritage changed to promote better survival, e.g., enhanced cognition and memory, and these beneficial changes carried other incidental changes that were not central to our adaptive improvement, e.g., art?  Or is art one of the enhanced abilities that contributes centrally to our fitness?  Pinker and Bloom (61) use the example of blood’s redness as a spandrel resulting from the use of iron in hemoglobin to carry oxygen.  The red has little to do with the improved oxygenation of blood cells that increased survival value.  Gould and Lewontin [cited by Pinker and Bloom (61)] borrowed the word, ‘spandrel,’ from architecture, where two arches form a corner with the ceiling, leaving a triangular space that was later filled with decorative art.  The spandrel does not contribute to the structural integrity of the building though it does allow further modification for decorative purposes.  So my question becomes, “Is art is an arch or pillar supporting human nature or an ancillary decorative feature with small implication for who we are biologically?

To be sure, I use this evolutionary question not so much in a technical sense and more as a rhetorical device to explore how we think about art, human experience, and our biological nature.  The past few decades have seen increased efforts at understanding how Homo sapiens developed a sense of aesthetics and the production and appreciation of art. Some scholars have focused on sociobiological issues. Bioaesthetics(8) yields a broad survey of recent assays from this perspective. The Origins of Music(74) focuses specifically on this genre as music does seem to be a privileged art form.  Some focus on how our brains do art.  This is especially so with music, where several books examine the neurological underpinnings of musical composition, performance and appreciation.  Fine examples are Music, Language and the Brain(58) and This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession(50).  Others have focused on other art forms.  Notable neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran suggests one hypothesis about how the brain does visual art in a chapter of The Telltale Brain(62) and incidentally asserts that art does not contribute to survival value.  Nobel laureate in medicine Eric Kandel focuses on visual art and the neurological systems involved in its initial processing in his book, The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind and the Brain, From Vienna 1900 to the Present(39). Dr. Kandel also treats the issues involved in seeking to understand art scientifically in Reductionism in Art and Brain Science: Bridging the Two Cultures(40).

Clearly understanding human art involves many perspectives.  Archeological efforts have so far discovered artistic artifacts dating back at least 100,000 year ears ago and one claim has been made based on a design etched on a clam shell dating back 500,000 years ago.  A bone flute from Central Europe is dated to around 44,000 years ago and suspected to be the product of our cousins, the Neandertals.  Reconstruction of its presumed acoustic properties suggests that it was skillfully made with knowledge of its musical properties (75). During this Paleolithic period cave paintings, sculptures and decorative objects became more prevalent.  In a related development humans (of one sort or another) began ritualized burials around 300,000 years ago and at some point these included artifacts, including tools and sculptures; such findings must also be figured into our historical understanding.  Going through history and the expansion of art in Neolithic and classical times, we come to our modern era where art is ubiquitous in all human cultures, the study of which led Ellen Dissayanake to call us Homo aestheticus (23).

With all of these perspectives of these various facets of our artistic nature, how do we begin to see the object, the gem, whole?

Stay tuned for the next installment sometime in the near future.  Until then, travel on.

Cortical chauvinism

Long ago in my previous life as a fifth grade teacher right after college, I read a good many classics in early neuroscience and linguistics, books by A. R. Luria, L.S. Vygotsky, Karl Pribram, Noam Chomsky, Eric Lenneberg, etc.  And reading and talking to some others I thougt then that much of our thinking was distorted by cortical chauvinism, i.e., we thought that our cortex does everything important and lower neural structures were beneath us humans.  I understood two reasons for this narrow-minded view.  First, and most understandable, were the technological challenges of studying and understanding subcortical structures.  The cortex was more available through EEG and experimental studies of higher functions especially when combined with clinical studies following strokes, e.g. aphasias, etc., and trauma, e.g., Phineas Gage.  Subcortical structures were and are much more difficult to access unless we use other animals for our studies, and this brings up the second reason for cortical chauvinism.  Even back in the 1960s we thought that our minds were oh so special and that this was due to our remarkable cerebral cortex, which led to the assumption that we could learn little of the human mind by studying other animals and lower neural structures.

Thankfully these days have seen many of those myths about our specialness revealed as ignorance and we have developed quite powerful techniques for studying the entire brain. This includes the brains of our own species but also now we can study the brains of other animals and understand more about our own. Shining examples of our progress here include the work of Jaak Panksepp (of course), Frans der Waal (of course), and many others, e.g., Antonio Damasio, Michael Tomasello, Jean Decety, and many, many more.  (Damasio points out the case of Phineas Gage who suffered subcortical brain injury (also involving a little cortex) who recovered virtually all of his cortically based intellectual functions yet was extremely disabled because he could not focus or make anydecision—see post 12/9/18).

A couple of ancillary developments have furthered our better understanding.  Back in the days of cortical chauvinism, many thought that our intellect was powerfully rational, even logical. Scientists like Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman have showed how hollow that claim to a powerful rationality is, and many, like Jonathan Haidt and Antonio Damasio have shown we mostly form our opinions and then devise a rationale for them, e.g., Haidt’s description of our minds’ functioning as an intuitive dog wagging a rational tail. In Moral Tribes Joshua Greene shows how our moral principles are also thinly constructed and compares our rationalizing our moral stance to a stroke patient’s confabulatory renderings trying to explain their strange reality.

Another development would seem to leave behind the old notion of our higher cortical centers controlling the lower emotional centers in favor of understanding the remarkable interplay in 3 dimensions:  up and down between horizontally organized neural structures, e.g., cortical hemispheres, limbic system, basal ganglia, etc.; back and forth between anterior (descending) and posterior (ascending) systems at various levels; and within this back and forth interplay between processing organized into dorsomedial and ventrolateral systems.  (This last will need further explication below).  Notice I did not mention coordination between left and right hemispheres; while our conception of this has also evolved I want to address this in a later post because my ideas here are well outside the boundaries of orthodox thinking.

Consider the connectome (see posts 1/10/15 & 8/2/16) not just as it appears cortically but in the whole of the brain.  I read one of the grand visions of this in Edelman and Tononi’s book as they explained re-entrant processing (see post 7/7/16).  As different systems interact up and down, back and forth, medially and laterally (and I suppose left and right), the input from one is recalibrated through further processing and returned to its source (a very relative term here) to enhance or diminish the neural patterns and forms currently in process. Yes, the cortex does inhibit subcortical centers but this inhibition can result in diminishing a pattern, e.g., anger modulation, or in enhancing a form, e.g., sharpening the figure out of the ground or permitting a positive emotion to grow stronger.  We now know that GABA, a widespread inhibitory neurotransmitter, plays such a complex role, even as its counterpart, glutamate operates as a ubiquitious excitatory neurotransmitter.  Ponder the connectome from this perspective for a short moment and you will understand why I think an estuary is a very apt metaphor for our brain.

Finally, back to the dorsomedial/ventrolateral organization. Lateral is along the sides of the brain or the outer surface and medial is inside more down the midline.  Several research lines have coalesced into the dual loop theory, as it is sometimes called (please revisit post from 2/11/16). Now Joshua Greene in his book, Moral Tribes, proposes a dual process model for our moral decision making. Simply put, simple decisions involving oneself and one’s own tribe can be done quickly and routinely through a station in the medial system, the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex, while more difficult decisions are better resolved through a slower, more reflective process involving a station in the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex.  These more difficult decisions typically involve us vs. them, i.e., a conflict between the values of two different tribes.

The lateral loop operates more reflectively because, as the great Antonio Damasio puts it, it operates with ‘as-if’ situations that involve less immediate personal involvement.  I intentionally used the word ‘stations’ for both the ventrolateral prefrontal and the dorsomedial prefrontal cortical areas to signify their many connections up/down, back/front, and medial/lateral. They are interconnected with posterior cortical areas via long nerve tracts, i.e., fasciculi, and with the limbic system through a variety of connections and loops.  Remember Tversky and Kahneman’s idea that we think fast by using heuristics and slowly by reflective analysis.  Following Greene, I wonder if heuristics are likely more associated with the dorsomedial system while reflective considerations more with the ventrolateral.  Our brains operate importantly upon two dimensions; one is old/new through the hippocampal system and the other is variant/invariant through several different systems.  Their heuristics, Bourdieu’s habitus, vocabulary of meaning-sound mappings, and others are more invariant and will be found to be supported by the dorsomedial loop. Novel analyses, modulating habitual and skilled cultural actions, and the subtleties underlying individual performance, e.g., playing a sonata with passion, are supported by the ventrolateral loop.  Both loops involve back and forth and up and down integrations.

Viewing the connnectome through the prisms of these three neural dimensions, up/down systems, back/front systems and dorsalmedial/ventrolateral systems shows how incredible brain functions must be to engage in the old/new and variant/invariant features of human cultural behaviors.  Yes, our cortex is really magnificent but let’s not be chauvinistic here:  that magnificence depends upon the connections with subcortical and autonomic systems.  To purloin Daniel Dennett’s critique of consciousness as a Cartesian theatre, nothing cortical could play without the subcortical stage, props, lighting, etc.  Indeed the cortex alone would not foster much of any significant activity without that stage.  Without the whole embodied system a mind would be sleeping emptily.  The estuarine brain really is a sort of muddy mix of salt and fresh water enlivened by a phantasmagoria of vital activity, and that is what makes it and conscious animals (& there are so many more even without a cortex similar to ours) so special.