This post starts a series of posts in which I seek to answer the question:
IS ART AN EVOLUTIONARY SPANDREL?
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.