Part 5: Is art a spandrel?

Art works composed about experience also played a more subtle role in this extension of trust.  Within the family intimate communication could be more freely expressed than without.  This includes sharing of hopes and frustrations, loves and hates, and the wise lore gathered by the elders about life, its necessities and possibilities.  Not all lessons of vital experience are simply expressed through words, even in narratives that verge upon the parable or mythic.  Humans eventually developed the impulse to express the inchoate deeply felt subjective musings on one’s experience, akin to what the Japanese call ‘aware’ or the fleeting nature of life symbolized by the cherry blossoms or to ‘yugen’, the experience of profound feelings.  These are difficult to express for two reasons.  First, these are highly personal and intimate ideas.  One may find a way to express them to someone close but to share them beyond the circle of intimacy is a challenge of a different order.  Secondly, with the development of art not as an expression by the self about the self but as an expression by the self about one’s experience came a new possibility.  The person who made art took on a role different from other pragmatic, practical considerations, and their art work, though based upon personal experience, now conveyed the idea of felt experience in a less personal, more objective way, a way not didactic or organizational or efficacious but, if the artist was both skilled in rendering his ideas in an artistic medium and in composing the art symbol in a culturally competent way, was more a form luminous with being, that luminosity deriving from the internal compositional process interacting with the moment of social and cultural receptivity.  (Consider the modern version of what music becomes a ‘hit’ and what becomes a classic).  Art then became the way one expressed intimate ideas to a wider audience, and this contributed to the creation of powerful subjectively based landmarks that many took on trust, i.e., the artistic or presentational symbol, in the cultural field.

Returning to the first challenge, the cultural field helped to channel symbolic creativity into traditional forms and thereby to constrain the possibilities of untoward creations.  Art in this regard is both a conservative anchor and a dynamic agent of change.  The critical feature here, though, is how these cultural forms and art works in particular operate to promote both behavioral and subjective synchronicity.  Consider first the early arts of dance and music.  Langer called these occurent because they occur in time and then may pass into memory; I would prefer to call them performative, focusing on our active participation in their enactment.  Dance and music were and are participatory in inception and nature.  Their power or virtue, as it were, come from the behavioral and subjective synchronicity they engender in the participants; this is also the power of ritual, which is partially a derivative of these art forms.  Their vitality as art works comes from the participants’ experience of moving forward in time.  Indeed, this is their hallmark where past movements or notes guide not just what comes next but what may come next i.e., some developments feel fit or grammatical while others do not feel fit.  (I will neglect here the modern attraction to cacophonic or awkward forms.).  Dancing and music making, then, when done properly involves ‘feeling the future’.  The participants are flowing or moving in time synchronically.  They share a moment when time flows from the future into the past—that is their communal experience of virtual, vital time.

As humans developed their symbolic capabilities and our umvelt grew to include so many subjective forms created independently of autonoetic experience, we needed new ways to gain accordance in these culturally shared mental compositions.   The evolution of our mental life as it became transformed through our symbolic capabilities posed this challenge:  “What was the other one thinking about when they said or did that?”, because our topics became increasingly less about the concrete immediacy and increasingly more about our virtual abstractions displaced from any current time and place.  We became distracted by what was going on within and so needed new means for organizing our communal minds without.  One key in meeting that challenge was to develop the means for synchronizing our mental processes according to some temporal parameters, whatever they might be.  One way language does is this through tense and mood markers.  As described above, dancing and music synchronize our somatic experiences moving in time.

As our symbolic abilities developed along imaginal lines, thus embracing what came to be experienced as fantasy, mythic, spiritual, religious or something that I will term the ‘mystic realm within and beyond any one consciousness’, our deep culture then included compositions from/of a shared dream world.  Here temporal parameters became elusive yet still necessary if we are all to share in the dream. This may not seem such a challenge to modern minds because we are encultured almost from conception on with stalwart cultural forms that have steadily evolved over 10,000 years and stood explicitly on empirical footing for over 400, and because time for us means well understood natural rhythms and more importantly, what a clock ‘measures’.  As Susanne Langer noted, a clock is metaphysically suspect; what we call time by the clock is actually codified passage that we internalize as a gauge for our utilitarian actions.  Before the ascendance of large-scale civic governance, science and temporal regulation, however, humans experienced life in a less prescripted manner.  The world and time were multi-dimensional and those dimensions varied along cultural lines.  Art provided an important way society could organize and regulate individuals’ imaginary creations into a cultural landscape, i.e., we all shared a dream world, and came to provide the means by which such imaginal forms were kept in mind and memory, i.e., art forms reinforced past orthodox compositions, for the current generation and transmission to the next.

Here we come to the other category of artwork described by Langer.  The first as described above is the performative; the second she called the plastic because they were constructed of material, e.g., paint, stone, etc.  I want to refer to these as ‘artifactual’ because they exist stably in time for anyone’s leisurely examination, in contrast to performative arts that advance and depart without a trace except in memory.  The artifactual arts constitute ongoing reminders of experience both individual and cultural; they help keep past compositions alive in the present.  Consider the earliest known paintings and sculptures found in caves and dating from around 35,000 years ago.  These are representations of powerful animals, e.g., bison, mammoths, etc. and images of humans—the earliest are the silhouettes of hands, rough pictures of humans come a bit later.  The artists clearly wanted to keep the experiences with these animals present in the minds of others, whatever any other motives operated for their production, such as spiritual or religious or magical purposes.

As the cultural landscape was filled in, i.e., the shared imaginary forms came to compose an ongoing tradition, these early artifactual artworks, and to some unknown degree performative art as well, began to serve religious purposes and our cultural world became populated with gods and other mystical forces.  When oral narratives extended this tradition through myth building, art became increasingly a means to reinforce the understanding of the gods and their stories, to make concrete and immediate what was extant only in the minds of the people, and to anchor these conceptions in the history of the group.  This purposiveness, i.e., to keep virtual ideas extant, conserved, and socially/psychologically salient, continued and grew in ancient to modern times.  Walk through almost any art or archeological museum or religious building and marvel at how much of the art work before the Renaissance was given over to religious imagery.  For the Christian tradition consider how the surfeit of madonna-babe pictures and of crucifixion pictures served to reinforce and extend key narratives that played an important part in the religious milieu consequent events such as the Inquisition and Jewish pogroms as well as holidays such as Christmas and Easter.  Other traditions, e.g., Islam, Hindu, Buddhist, etc., have similar art-narrative interactions.

From this perspective, then, the early Paleolithic art laid the groundwork, alongside the utilitarian habitus of tool-making, cooperation, and social regulation, for the cultural growth based upon the shared subjective structures of deep culture.  As an aside, the hand silhouettes would seem to be an early manifestation of art as making special, i.e., the subject making art about the self, while the paintings and sculptures of animals would be a manifestation of what we today call the fine arts, i.e., the subject making art about the self’s experience.  Again, art, including mythic narrative and drama as well as artifactual artwork, enabled the sharing of material information that would otherwise be lost in time.  Art rendered the elusive and ephemeral experiences in accessible form.  It continues to do so today, though no longer constrained by religious orthodoxy.

Returning to the two challenges of art, the social regulation of individual’s symbolic fecundity and the extension of trust so that delicate musings could safely be shared beyond one’s intimate circle, we find another feature of art making that is critically important to the modern mind.

Last part coming up next.

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

Partial review: The Encultured Brain

Sometimes quantitative assessments lead to important ideas.  I have been enjoying later chapters in my new book, The Encultured Brain: an introduction to neuroanthropology, edited by Daniel Lende and Greg Downey.  Their early chapters giving synopses of later chapters to introduce the rest of the book seemed more a marketing ploy for yet another new academic discipline (worthy, yes, but do we really need a new term for every time we do cross discipline thinking?)  Their chapter on “Evolution and the Brain” was, however, magnificent, and later chapters by others have so far been very interesting.  So consider this list of findings from their brain evolution chapter.

  • The biomass of humans is 8 times that of all the wild terrestrial vertebrates, i.e., we are successful replicants. (Also I remember von Neumann’s estimate that each human body has about a tablespoonful of genetic material in all its cells that control the soma).
  • The genus Homo appeared around 2,000,000 years ago with a sudden increase in brain volume that then slowly increased until 500,000 years ago when another surge in brain size appeared.
  • Human encephalization (the concentration of nervous tissue in a brain, i.e., head) is 5-7 times what would be predicted based on a mammal of our size.
  • As the neocortex evolved to dominate lower brain structures, specialized cortical fields developed that facilitated complex processing and inter-connectedness throughout the brain. Early mammals have 15-20 cortical fields; humans have maybe 150.
  • Larger areas both evolved later and mature more slowly.
  • Our brains have continued a mammalian and primate trend in lateralizing so much that some scientist refers to us as the “lop-sided ape”. (In addition, remember that males and females have relatively different patterns in our connectome with males showing more connections within hemispheres and females more connections between hemispheres).
  • Birds, fish and reptile brains grow throughout their life spans (neurogenesis or generating new neurons) but mammalian brains finish up neurogenesis relatively early.
  • Our brains triple in volume after birth while other primate brains only double.
  • Finally our post partum brain growth comes despite pervasive neural pruning in the first years of life; the estimates are that the adult brain has only 20-80% (quite a range, I know, but you get the idea) the number of neurons present at the peak early in life. Neurons survive because they become integrated into functional circuits; if they stay isolated, they die off.


All of these are pretty amazing and all support the idea that our brains are shaped, as Gerald Edelman maintained, first by genetic information and then in very large and important ways by experience.


Our connectome with many systems lit

Now Lende and Downey quote two well known neuroscientists (Cosmides and Tooby) that “our modern skulls house a Stone Age mind,” and I have no qualms about that because I think a Stone Age mind was actually a pretty good one (some politicians today cannot manage even that level of intelligence).  They also point to the remarkable and wonderful development of our social capabilities and find that we are drawn to social interaction for “intrinsic emotional rewards” and not just self-interest for our genes’ continuation.  And they recognize that the true power of human intellect, while derived from our rather different brains, is really due to the “synergy of many brains.”

Neuroanthropologists, as best I can see with my limited exposure, treat culture as part of our extended phenotype, i.e., culture is not an acquired overlay but is rather an integral component of the human Umvelt.  It is a direct outgrowth of our biological roots of empathy and symbolization (though I do not see anything here about art).  More to say later but I need to get to my farm work. Oh, one more recommendation for this book—the lists of references yield a lot of gems.  Travel on.

The heirs of Wolfgang Kohler


Wolfgang Kohler

This is Wolfgang Kohler who had a remarkable and distinguished scientific career in Germany and then America where he went to elude Nazi authorities. He was one of the founders of Gestalt psychology and coined the phrase, “The whole is different from the sum of its parts.” He understood the methodological and theoretical limits of introspection and behaviorism, and he studied chimpanzees for awhile early in his career. Thank you, Wikipedia. I refreshed my memory there because his name came up in two very different books.

I have finished re-reading Edelson and Tononi’s How Matter Becomes Imagination, and Kohler is mentioned at the very end. They discuss the necessity of incorporating values and emotions into our theories and experimentation for neuroscience if we are to understand consciousness. They conclude by citing the title of Kohler’s 1938 book, The Place of Value in a World of Fact. Their stance, especially Edelson’s, that the brain is not a computer is noteworthy in this regard. Their analysis focuses on language as a necessary condition for what they call ‘secondary consciousness’. Their ‘primary consciousness’ is what I would call sentience, and while they acknowledge that our minds are embodied in social animals, their analysis slights this facet by neglecting empathy and kinesic communication to focus on linguistic symbolization.

Now contrast their approach with that of Frans der Waals who focuses on empathy and social relations and shows a high level of consciousness amongst the simians at least. I am now deep into his newest book, Are We Smart Enough to Understand How Smart Animals Are?, and he mentions Kohler many times because Kohler advocated getting to know the species by observing and working with them based upon their natural, ecologically driven behaviors. Der Waals says at one point that a human giving human tests to children and chimpanzees in order to compare their intelligence, saying they had treated them the same, is like throwing a cat and a fish in a pool and saying they had treated them the same. Kohler was early on, say 1913, a proponent of species specific talents requiring sensitivity for studying their particular intelligences. One of the great pleasures of reading this book is der Waals’ incredible knowledge of different animals’ different behaviors and what these indicate about their cognitions.


Der Waals highlights another early scientist, Jakob von Uexkull, and his concept of the Umwelt, i.e., “the perceptual world in which an organism exists and acts as subject” (from Wikipedia). The umwelt is the beginning of signifying functions for the organism. In vertebrates the sensorium or ambient of its ecological niche is different from their umwelt which is transformed by the values placed upon or interpreted from the sensorium. Important, yes? Our umwelts differ from that of chimpanzees or bonobos not in our consciousness of others but in the prominence of our conspecific relations (this from der Waals). Mammalian umwelts differ from those of non-mammals by the prominence of social relations in general.

This is one motivation for my concept of the MEMBRAIN, that part of the brain that processes social communication. Within each MEMBRAIN a self gazes upon an umwelt filled with social objects, procedures and autobiographical memory along with information from the sensorium. With the advent of symbolic capacities the umwelt depends less upon ambient information and more upon information generated within through symbolic control. The common factor in all of this is conspecific relationships.

These two books are both excellent and quite different from each other because the science behind them is quite different. Edelson (now deceased) and Tononi, who have probably forgotten more neuroscience than I will ever know, examine brain functioning from a high theoretical perspective from where they can see neural systems energize, organize, and flow as conscious processes arise to facilitate adaptive mentation. They are quite positivistic in orientation and exemplary in their understanding of the limits such an approach meets. For example, they say that art results from consciousness but that studying the brain does not contribute much to our aesthetic understanding; they say that such contemplations yield only “trivial” contributions. Amen (and someday I might discuss this in terms of a book, Biopoetics).

Der Waals, on the other hand, studies animal behavior through observation of the species in a more natural ecological setting and through experimental designs based upon our current understanding of the animal’s umwelt. In his discussion of animal research we see the power of life as it is manifested in mental control of adaptive processes and the biological roots of our humanity. Travel on.