Part 4: Is art a spandrel?

To be sure, this view describes how art would seem to function today, but consider the human past.  It seems a certainty that over the eons of our recent evolution and the millenia of our prehistory that the human umvelt slowly changed from one dominated by our perceptual-motor engagement within the ambient to one composed from information displaced in time and space.  Indeed, by 100,000 years ago our umvelt would seem to have been composed of imaginal forms that encompassed the great uncertainties of what we now understand as the human condition.  These would include life, birth, death, weather, the rhythms of the sun, moon, and stars, health and disease, family, friendship and conflict, hunger, and plenty.  It also seems a certainty that for our umvelt to transform to one dominated by mnemonic and imaginal forms and for this information to come under the control of symbolic processes, our neuropsychological capabilities developed both the intrapsychic mental landscape supporting the growth of enduring cultural forms and the interpersonal processes whereby cultural forms were composed and transmitted through language and artistic means.  Our minds began sharing virtual forms.

These neuropsychological capabilities, whatever the details of genetic change were that led to newly formed structures along with the re-purposing of older systems, and given the opportunity of an extended altricial period, emerged from the neo-mammalian processes of attachment, bonding and empathy coupled with ever more powerful communicative abilities.  One incipient condition for the evolutionary emergence of art was the marriage between robust conspecific relations that were empowered by very keen empathic abilities and the adaptive processes dedicated to analyzing and accommodating to the exigencies and possibilities of living in a complex and changing world.  The development of symbolic thought in its dual capacity to control subjective information and to communicate that objectively thus enabled humans to solve the problems of living communally.  One of those problems was communal life, and art, both about the self and about the subject’s experience, has helped solve that problem.

Evolutionary psychologist Michael Tomasello has presented us with some interesting ideas about how humans came to solve life’s problems communally in two books, The Natural History of Human Language and The Natural History of Human Morality (69, 70). The essential idea here is that humans, as research by Tomasello and many others has shown, are very cooperative animals, significantly more cooperative than any of the other primates.  Given this powerful proclivity we have developed some high level social abilities involving cooperating to accomplishing complex tasks, role switching so that success was dependent upon group learning and not on any one special individual, and self/other evaluation as to one’s dependability in fulfilling any one role.  Thus, the social features of clear communication, standard protocols and fairness in interpersonal relationships grew to become cultural standards.  In Pierre Bourdieu’s terms, the human habitus emerged (5).

Tomasello has provided us with a very workable hypothesis about how we came to solve our problems communally and how we could regulate communal life.  Given the fecundity of our symbolic capabilities and the complexity of establishing group identity from diverse subjective selves, how are we to understand the creation of this communal mental life to be regulated?  How do we go from a habitus of procedural mores to a deeper culture of conceptual realities when those realities are nowhere in objective evidence?  How do we transmit and transmute that culture for inter-generational learning and ongoing adaptability?  Here we approach the evolutionary significance of art, whether it be a spandrel or a supporting pillar.  Today, after roughly 15,000 years of more or less continual cultural development, we are born into a cultural milieu of great expanse and subtle power.  The rise of agriculture and larger settlements, and the subsequent necessity of increased social organization, began the historical period of civilizations, but what culture came before and how it did, whatever it was, develop?  The evolution of Homo sapiens from its inception say 250,000 years ago to the ending of the neolithic period around 4,000 years ago came with brains capable of symbolic thought and social organization based upon symbolic processes.

When we embraced through our symbolic capabilities not just the practicalities of survival but also the mysteries of the human condition, e.g., birth, death, fate, disease, etc., and our deep need for family and social supports, we began the creation, transmission and deepening development of the cultural field.  Just as our brains map space, time and experience (that is a feature of our mammalian heritage), we also began to map the shared material from subjective musings about life’s exigencies, possibilities, and vicissitudes.  That came to include imaginative material and so began the composition of the deep cultural field, wherein flourished the narratives, beliefs, and mythic ideas about the forces of nature and the limits of life.

This development may have satisfied an incipient intellectual need for understanding and explanation, but more importantly, I think, the cultural field met two challenges.  The first was the need for social regulation of a sometimes all too fecund symbolic imagination by a shared and transmissible group of concepts related to the advance of the cultural understanding.  This established an authority of tradition and limits to what new gods, etc., could be created, because the traditions had stood the test of time.  The second was to ameliorate the distrust or mystery of what was going on in each person’s subjective musings.  So long as groups were organized around intimate social awareness and knowledge, e.g. families, clans and tribes, one could trust another not to be asocial and exploitative.  The ending of the neolithic period came about as agriculture led to larger settlements (28), so that trust based upon intimate knowledge was inadequate.  Metallurgy led to new sorts of tools and, critically, weapons, so that ability to understand another’s beliefs and intentions became a matter of vital importance. Finally extensive trading based especially upon writing brought contact with very different others, and this challenged the deep-seated mistrust of the others.  However, if their cultural field were similar to one’s own, e.g., gods were recognizable, myths spoke of familiar issues, and the habitus of interpersonal relationships were agreeable and valued safety and respect, then a basic level of trust could be extended beyond the intimate group.

For example, many cultures held that a guest or stranger be given a certain amount of hospitality, and that once admitted as a guest that person guaranteed mutual respect and safety.  Violations of these mores were not easily forgiven and if repeated, marked the offending group or individual as untrustworthy and uncivilized.  Other strictures, e.g., trading, marriage, theft, kidnapping, etc. operated similarly.  Some prehistoric art was certainly a cultural signal about group identity and what social mores might operate, just as a person’s individual art signaled something about their identity and social roles. Thus, the cultural field operated to regulate interpersonal and inter-group issues of trust, and art played an important because salient role in this domain.

Art works composed about experience also played a more subtle role in this extension of trust.

to be continued

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