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Potential Evolutionary Origins of Artistic Sense

  1. May 18, 2009 #1
    A post in another subforum brought to my mind the question of where artistry and the appreciation of it came from evolutionarily speaking. What is the biological impetus to find inanimate things pleasing to the senses?

    So far the best I have been able to come up with is sexual selection. Many animals attract mates through "pleasing" of the visual and auditory senses. Early humans, finding themselves with dexterous hands, may have began creating decorations of various colours and patterns for their bodies to attract mates (I'm fairly certain there is plenty of evidence of this so "may have" is probably too weak). Those with greater talent for creating such decorations would have been fairly intelligent and possessed of greater skill sets so more capable of survival. Natural selection would then favour those with artistic talent and those who appreciated it.

    Music is another art form that it took me a little while to think on. As animals may "sing" to one another to attract mates humans may have aswell. "Singing" was probably one of the earliest vocal means of communication. The more vocal articulation the greater the potential of the singer and the more vocal articulation the more advanced the capacity for communication.

    Is anyone aware of any papers or articles with similar theories? And what does everyone think?

    I find it an interesting idea that artistic talent and its appreciation could have been key in our species evolution.
  2. jcsd
  3. May 18, 2009 #2
    Different attractive characteristics in animals such as colorful bands are innate and determined by the genes directly.

    In human cultures, tattoos, and piercings were aided by other humans to match the social norms at the time, the same force that compelled the hippies generation to have long hair. Today that trend is gone and is replaced by Paris Hilton mania. To be accepted in her circle you have to wear what she wears, otherwise you will be looked down upon.

    Today, we have many social forces that define what is cool or not. But in the small tribal cultures, there was only one force, and one trend you had conform to. And if you attained a higher status, you became a more desirable mate.

    Also there are too few artists, and musicians compared to the whole population. It seems it's just well within allowable tolerances.
    Last edited: May 18, 2009
  4. May 19, 2009 #3
    They are generally determined by specific genes yes. We are as of yet unsure of the role that genetics plays in intelligence. Sets of genes may well be determining factors in the creativity and intelligence of a human being.

    There are relatively few that are famous but I think you will find that a rather significant percentage of people have at least minor creative talents. In this day and age there are far more ways of keeping oneself occupied so fewer people are likely to discover and cultivate their minor creative talents. Also singing used to be a far more common practice (good or bad) than it is now though you will still find people singing to themselves and going to karaoke bars.

    There are certainly competing skill sets. Not everyone will take a mate or be able to attract a mate who is possessed of certain skill sets so those that are artistic, physically fit, good with their hands, ect. will all find thier niche.
  5. May 19, 2009 #4
    true, but there is so much more that goes on in selecting a mate, from pheromones, to biased and unbiased perception of an attractive mate, for long term or short term etc,
  6. May 31, 2009 #5
    I don't think a capacity for art was ever selected, rather it was the capacity for the raw elements of art that actually more directly apply to other things that would have been selected since they provided an advantage. A nice, symmetrical arrowhead within certain tolerances of thickness and smoothness on a straight shaft with evenly spaced fletching at the back is much more easy to hit and penetrate the target with than some crude, irregular stick. If you can make that arrow, you can also make a little Kachina, or bear fetish, and, with more practice, the Mona Lisa.

    Art is pretty much worthless compared to necessities like food, water, clothing, shelter. The ability to form things like straight lines, smooth curves, and to create specific shapes and textures, would have been selected for its applicability to acquiring food and water, and constructing shelters and clothing. In other words: tool and weapon making. Appreciation of the aesthetics of line, form, rhythm, color, and texture would just be an epiphenomenon of the appreciation of its functionality. So, if there was a mutation that resulted in increased enjoyment of things like line, form, rhythm, color, texture, and composition, it probably didn't stick around because it allowed for increased enjoyment of those things, but because it promoted better tools and weapons.
  7. May 31, 2009 #6
    This certainly makes sense. I wont argue that. I am just wondering at alternative theories that may better explain it.

    For instance what is the biological impetus to create something superficially attractive? Creating a useful tool will aid in survival but why decorate it? And why desire or covet a beautiful tool over one that is simply useful? If the selection is based on utility wouldn't the preference be for more useful tools over more beautiful tools?

    Art, particularly music, has a rather strong effect on the brain from what I understand. I have been trying to find an article somewhere that specifically discusses the effect of art on the brain but haven't found anything yet. Artistic appreciation though would seem to be right brain activity while appreciation of utility would seem to be a left brain activity. Going back to the base of the theory in my original post sex seems to be right brain activity.

    This looks like an interesting book related to the topic...
    http://www.cognitivepsychologyarena.com/books/Neuropsychology-of-Art-isbn9781841693637 [Broken]
    Too bad its so expensive.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  8. May 31, 2009 #7


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    My feelings mirror those of zoobyshoe. We were selected to prefer certain things: symmetry in a mate's face or a pattern that 'works', for example. Art then co-opts those preferences to give us the pleasure that we were selected to receive in these other situations.

    Were we selected differently, our art would be different.
  9. May 31, 2009 #8
    My suggestion goes like this: The biological impetus to create something attractive was just a random mutation. Random mutations happen all the time. This alleged mutation happened to be very useful because, for example, a more esthetically pleasing arrow (straight, symmetrical) also works better than an ugly one (crooked, unbalanced). Or: a smooth, supple, soft animal hide, one that feels more pleasing to the touch, also happens to be more versatile and easier to make into clothing and pouches to hold gathered nuts. A typee with a more regular, pleasing shape also happens to both stand up to the wind better, and retain heat from the fire better. A wooden club with the bark removed and shaped to fit the hand is much easier to handle than a rough-textured one that catches on your clothing or on bushes, and has a knot sticking out where you want to grip it. In other words, simply by following an instinct to make things that are more symmetrical, more regular, more balanced, smoother, more esthetically pleasing in a basic way, they also ended up with tools and weapons that worked better. People with the "esthetic" mutation survived in a pinch because they had better tools and weapons, and they passed their genes on.

    As for decorating things: 99% of what we in western culture mistake for "decoration" when we look at pictures of primitive tribes or ancient burials is actually not decoration: it's symbols of status or religious iconography. Every feather in the "war bonnet" of a Sioux chief represented some particular achievement in battle, usually an act of bravery. A necklace worn by a girl might represent her clan affiliation or it might advertise that she has been initiated into the "Acorn Society", (which would be a kind of woman's club where you learn every possible way of preparing acorns for eating, but also a lot of acorn lore, which would be a bunch of stories concerning the adventures of "Acorn Girl", each of which has a moral which teaches the girl what behavior is acceptible). Anything that seems "decorative" that is dug up anywhere in the world is actually much more likely to be religious or a symbol of status.

    In all cases ancient artwork that just looks like artwork, that seems to have no utilitarian purpose, was religious. (This is the reason there was a prohibition among the Hebrews against "graven images": it was understood they were the religious paraphernalia of other religions serving other gods.)

    These status and religious symbols would have been artistically fashioned according to the same mutation that causes early man to prefer regular, uniform, smooth, balanced, symmetrical things in general, and even more so since they were made to express and elicit religious "awe".

    [Now, on a side note, I have often entertained a variation of this train of thinking: it has often occurred to me that this preference we have for regularity might actually be a kind of flaw, that it is actually a form of OCD or irrational insistence on sameness such as you find in exaggerated form in autistic people. Neanderthals, who were around for a lot longer than we have been, might have experienced everything as quite beautiful exactly the way it was, with no irritation at things that were irregular or not lined up according to increasing or decreasing size, etc. We might entertain the notion that Neanderthals neglected to make pyramids, not because they couldn't, but because they had no dissatisfaction with apparent natural 'irregularity' that would prompt them to do so. By this reasoning art and technology would have been the result of a 'bad' mutation, one that compromised the proper functions of our "satisfaction" circuits. Think: Adam and Eve acquiring the "knowledge of good and evil": "Hey, I'm naked, and I'm not OK with that!" For this new mutation life was constant toil because everything suddenly bothered them, so they made better tools, took more control over their food supply, made better shelters, etc. The result was that the "dissatisfied" mutants were much more likely to thrive and pass their genes on.]
    There's a lot of titles at Amazon if you search "music and the brain". I've only read "musicophilia" which is merely a collection of "tales" as it were, but a really fascinating read. Most of these titles are available used, fairly cheap. There are also inexpensive titles if you search "art and the brain", but I haven't read or researched any of them.
  10. Jun 1, 2009 #9
    This would seem to suppose the pre-existence of the ideas to be attached to the decoration. That there was an idea to be expressed and then the skill to express it was developed. Why not the other way around? It would seem to me to be more likely that primitive artistic skill came first and was originally used for much more basic expression. Many primitive cultures still decorate themselves with symbols for things as basic as "virility" and "fertility". Song and dance are still used in basic mating rituals.

    I don't disagree. I only theorize that artistic skill and appreciation may have developed more directly out of mating practices than utilitarian tool making practices. This would seem to create a stronger correlation between aesthetics, pleasure, and sexual success than if we place utilitarian survivability before artistic ability. I suggested that artistic skill may have spurred greater utilitarian development but this was really secondary to explain versatility as further reason for the survivability of such skill sets. Sexual success was my primary argument. Put together though they could theoretically explain rather rapid utilitarian development if artistic skill influenced both sexual success and utilitarian survivability.

    That's certainly an interesting idea. I think I have heard the theory somewhere before that we are all autistic to some small degree. Actually I think it was a book by Greg Bear called Slant.
    How would you fit artistic development into your theory? Much the same as you have already explained? Perhaps something similar to the urge in an autistic person to do some thing to sooth anxiety?

    Edit: Now that I look back I see that I did not outline a very coherant idea in my first post. I am sorry about that.
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2009
  11. Jun 1, 2009 #10
    I didn't really address the chicken or egg question, but since you raise it: I think that when artwork arises spontaneously it suggests its own religious significance. Art inspires awe, to a greater or lesser degree. A thing becomes "sacred" because it is artistic, and because it is now sacred, begs a story. Once there is a story, the next artist gears his creation to the story. Very, very quickly ideas arise from artwork which are then used as a basis for future artwork.

    Here's an invented scenario to illustrate: when one guy happens to mold some clay into a shape that resembles a lion, he ponders it, and starts doing stuff to it to make it look even more like a lion. If no one in his tribe has ever done anything like this before it's going to freak people out when he shows it to them. In a good way. His status goes up, and the lion becomes an object of fascination. At the very least it has clearly leaped beyond being "mere" clay anymore, and a great deal of speculation and discussion may ensue about what it is. Let's say they decide this artist is clearly in touch with the spirit of all lions. Next time they go out to collect nuts they may ask him to ask the lions to leave them alone while they're out there. Suddenly he's got big mojo. The next day, of course, there'll be some bozo trying to make a clay elephant, and another, a clay hippo. The story (explanation) that, if you can model a lion it can only mean you are in touch with the "spirit" of lions, becomes the basis for people trying to sculpt other animals as well.

    The trouble I have with "art to enhance sexual attractiveness" is that it's completely unnecessary, and it actually happens that primitive people have put a lot of energy into preventing mating due to mutual attraction. In fact, a lot of mammals do it as well. The head wolf in a pack actually controls all matings, and I'm pretty sure the same is true of bands of apes: there's all kinds of social pressures that prevent mutual attraction from taking it's natural course. Among people we have class systems and arranged marriages prohibitions against marriage with other races and religions, monogomy regulations, and I bet those can be traced back to primitive kernels in homonid bands on the Savannahs. In part these are good in so far as they work to prevent interbreeding, but I think they're mostly a mixed bag of formalized solutions to jealousy and shyness problems.

    I shouldn't even have mentioned autism. The kind of "dissatisfaction" I really meant to highlight would be much better characterized by the phenomenon of OCD, and more specifically Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder (which is a different diagnosis than Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder). OCPD presents as an obsession with things being arranged a certain way, according to certain systems and patterns, a preoccupation with "neatness" and "order". In Zen Buddhism this is called "Discriminating Mind": a mind that starts to get balled up with having preferences (and we all suffer from that). My little excursion into this train of thought doesn't really represent anything but a bit of pondering about the premise of the TV show Monk, and also the movie The Aviator . Monk and Howard Hughes suffer from OCPD. It not only drives them but also becomes a strength in many circumstances. Monk is fictional, the Aviator is semi-fictional, but the truth that we become irritated by irregularities, "flaws" and such, and will sometimes go to great lengths to change them stands. It could be the Neanderthals lasted so long without technology because their default state of mind was equanimity. I'm very curious about those Neanderthals, with their brains bigger than ours. I would like to be able to see back through time and observe them.
  12. Jun 1, 2009 #11
    I think it may be helpful to look at *origins* of art. A recent article published in the peer-reviewed journal Nature, A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany(Nature 459, 248-252 [No. 7244], 14 May 2009), by Prof. Nicholas Conard Ph.D., Department of Prehistory and Older Quartärökologie, Institute for Prehistory and Early History and Archeology of the Middle Ages. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v459/n7244/full/nature07995.html#B1

    Prof. Nicholas Conard concludes the Swabian Jura Venus of Hohle Fels is a 'mammoth ivory statuette woman' and the ‘figurine was produced at least 35.000 years calendar ago’. As he states in the full version of the article, “The stratigraphic position of the Venus of Hohle Fels indicates that it is the oldest of all of the Figurines recovered from the caves Swabian and perhaps the earliest example of figurative art worldwide.” As noted in his online abstract, 'figurative art, which is often seen as an important proxy for advanced symbolic communication'.

    Here’s a photo of the discovery. Its was produced during the Ice Age! :biggrin:

    I'm a grand fan of the Arts! There are quite a few mediums I dabble in when I have the time. It can be very relaxing while intense. Carving figurines is one of them so I do like to analyze the technique that may have been used by others.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  13. Jun 1, 2009 #12
    I have to confess I think this is hideous in every respect: line, form, texture, composition. I doubt if this is from the hand of Og, himself. It's probably a copy by a student of Og, or, worse, one of the mass produced copies of Og's you could pick up in the gift shop of any Paleolithic hotel lobby.

    It's age is pretty amazing, though.
  14. Jun 1, 2009 #13
    Zoobyshoe, I think you wouldn't even attempt to carve or sculpt a figerine for possible fear it may not be pleasing enough to *your* eye. Either way, there's often more to be seen than meets the eye. :wink:

    I hope you can read German. There's no mention of the name of the artist. I don't think we have to ask why. However, you can see the photograph from the Department of Prehistory and Older Quartärökologie the Institute of Prehistory and Early History and Archeology of the Middle Ages the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen where Prof. Nicholas Conard is employed. As he has said, 'figurative art, which is often seen as an important proxy for advanced symbolic communication'. The artist was either carving a woman from memory or had a model. :smile: Here is the woman! Take a peak.
  15. Jun 1, 2009 #14
    Yes, it would seem very chicken-and-egg-ish. Maybe it could go either way. Maybe the evidence is against me. :-/
    I believe you have read more on the related subjects than I have and I do appreciate your thoughts. I think I am maybe too fond of the idea to give it up easily. Perhaps a 'Type I Error' situation. ;-)

    I don't think evolutionary mutations require necessity. They just happen and only require an environment in which to flourish to be successful and continue.
    One of the reasons I have gone down this line of thought is that art does seem to enhance sexual attractiveness in modern culture. Particularly singing and dancing and we can find a multitude of instances in the animal kingdom where 'singing' and 'dancing' are a major part of mating habits. If nothing else I think a very strong argument can be made for the development of these two particular forms of expression being connected to mating practices and sexual success.
    Hierarchical restrictions on sexual success I think are primarily circumstancial. I had believed I had read or heard of gifting non-utilitarian objects as part of mating practices. I did not find anything in regard to this. I did, however, find reference to the Bonobo practice of 'trading food for sex'. It seems that since they generally have access to rather abundant food resources it is not too difficult for males to gather and trade food to the females. Apparently Bonobos who are capable of gathering and sharing the greatest amount of food may enjoy greater sexual success and more attention from the females than even the alpha male. Admittedly this is only a single example and is still connected to utilitarian survival mechanisms. I think it may indicate though that circumstances which lessen competitive pressures for survival may result in relaxing of hierarchical pressures on sexual success.
  16. Jun 1, 2009 #15
    Yes, I'm sure Venus de Swabia had a great personality.
    I noticed this quote before, and I'm not sure what it means. What do you take it to mean?
    See, in the upper left on that page there is a horse I find to be very beautiful. Additionally, I think a lot of the Lascaux animals are charming. I've seen other paleolithic venuses that had some style and proportion. This one you posted, though, has no appeal. It's amazing how old it is, though. Sculpture, we now know, goes back at least 35,000 years.
  17. Jun 1, 2009 #16
    Song and dance I'd agree with. I've also often thought that the average girl is a natural born artist as expressed through their incessant attention to grooming and wardrobe, activities which, if they made the effort to do the translation, could be brought right over into artwork without the need for a jump in aesthetic sophistication. As anecdotal evidence of this, I happen to know two strippers who can look at any artwork and critique it as well as I can. (One picked up her art vocabulary from art classes in high school, and the other worked at a framing store in a past life.) Issues of balance, value, color, composition: child's play to them.

    Despite that, most girls limit their artistic inclinations to the editing-type process of shopping for, and matching, clothes, and this never ends up bleeding over into art qua art, by which I mean: it was time to throw in a pretentious, intellectual term. And men who do artwork aren't picking up their sense of aesthetics from women.

    I am just about certain that Og, the caveman, discovered art by accident when he was hacking at a mammoth tusk with a hunk of sharp stone, intending, perhaps, to make a handle of ivory for his hunk of stone, when he happened to notice that the tusk seemed to have two huge boobies and a gigantic cleft in the proper spatial relationship to each other to suggest the female form, and he continued on, emphasizing that resemblance. That sort of thing. As opposed to a spin off of people decorating themselves.
    I think you have a decent case here for the point you're making about it being circumstantial, but it doesn't point toward art as enhancing attractiveness. Seems to be about how things devolve to prostitution.
  18. Jun 1, 2009 #17
    This paper argues that the aesthetic sense evolved as a side effect of our desire to learn about and classify the world.
  19. Jun 2, 2009 #18
    I have tried three different times but I can't get anything but the first page of that paper to load. No clue what the problem is, but, I haven't been able to read it. Things freeze up and I have to restart.
  20. Jun 2, 2009 #19
    mXSCNT, thanks. I've read the document. (I'm very fond of poetry.:smile:) The paper was written in the 70's, though what you have said did enhance what I had been reading earlier: Children in Nature, The Scientist Within Us All, from the Endangered Species Bulletin, 2008 Highlights Volume 33, No.4
    http://www.fws.gov/endangered/bulletin/2008/2008_highlights.pdf [Broken]

    Again, thank you. I think there's plenty of research to be found on this topic of discussion. I'm short for time right now, but I want to mention Raphael Pinaud, assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester recently stated,"We show that estrogen plays a central role in how the brain extracts and interprets auditory information. It does this on a scale of milliseconds in neurons, as opposed to days, months or even years in which estrogen is more commonly known to affect an organism." Pinaud also mentions that estrogen (molecule) 'modulates the gain of auditory neurons instantaneously, and it initiates cellular processes that activate genes that are involved in learning and memory formation'.

    Hope to return later zoobyshoe with a response to your remarks.
    Last edited by a moderator: May 4, 2017
  21. Jun 2, 2009 #20
    ViewsofMars... your link has no relevance as far as I can see, and nor does your statement about estrogen. Just what game are you playing?
  22. Jun 2, 2009 #21
    Yes! That works. Thanks much!
  23. Jun 2, 2009 #22
    I haven't finished it yet, but the paper looks extremely interesting; a lot of insightful thinking.

    However, I ran across this remark, which is not true, and might possibly be a crucial point:

    It would be true to say they do often and enthusiastically what they enjoy, but not true to say they do it best. It would be easy to demonstrate that people don't do well at a thing untill and unless they can remove themselves from it, emotionally detach, acquire some objectivity.

    Regardless, there's lots of good stuff about what makes things esthetically pleasing. I printed it out and will finish reading it carefully later.
  24. Jun 3, 2009 #23
    Thank you for the contribution. I started reading it last night and I'm going to try to finish it right now. I already have some issues with his reasoning but I'll finish reading before I comment on it.

    Edit: I just finished reading it and am not sure what issue I had before. Its definitely a rather good theory.
    Last edited: Jun 3, 2009
  25. Jun 3, 2009 #24
    mXSCNT, don’t be snippy after I’ve thanked you twice. It’s rude and shows a lack of cooperation.

    Its not *my* link. It's a url to a website that I had been reading prior to you placing a url to Physicsforums. I didn't critique the article you presented to us by way of a link(url), but rather enhanced the sharing of information with you pertaining strickly to *your* original comments (#17). I did give support to your emphasis on a desire to learn [our desire to learn] along with a recent discovery that also addresses the OP’s quest for a biological impetus.
    Last edited: Jun 3, 2009
  26. Jun 3, 2009 #25
    NICHOLAS KEYNES HUMPHREY’s article, The Illusion of Beauty, was based on a lecture at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, November 1973. His article appeared in Perception, 1973, volume, 2, pages 429-439.

    Humphrey states at the beginning of his article, “There is, I believe, a formal similarity in all these cases.”

    Humphrey’s article has yet to appear in any peer-reviewed journals such as Science or Nature which are internationally known to be the best by every scientist. His *theoretical ideas* in the article are based on his belief of similarity. He has at best a hypothesis not a theory. A scientific theory is based on *empirical* evidence.

    Segments of two articles from PubMed support my conclusion:

    p.s. Zoob, sorry you'll have to wait. There's another important issue I need to address upon my return.
    Last edited: Jun 3, 2009
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