As a consumer of visual art, colourful paintings in particular, I am mostly interested in the pleasure they give me. Vincent van Gogh would have been proud to know that, as a 16-year-old, I kept an expensively framed copy of one of his versions of Bedroom in Arles on the wall of my bedroom and confined the posters of Sting and Bruce Dickinson to the inside of my wardrobe.

Looking at art through an evolutionary lens, which is what my good friend and art specialist Joseph Agius has asked me to do, opens up a big box of questions.

Firstly, we need to remind ourselves of the basics of the evolutionary view, where we look at the brain as an adapted organ and observe those psychological mechanisms that guide our behaviour as biological adaptations, as products of natural selection that have been evolving for millions of years.

An accident of evolution

Thinking along these lines, the first question is whether art shows the signs of a true adaptation. Canadian American cognitive psychologist and advocate of evolutionary psychology Stephen Pinker speculates that it does not. 

According to Pinker, like other cultural activities, art is one of those so-called non-adaptive by-products of evolution. In other words, although it is a product of the evolutionary process, rather than being an adaptation – a feature that helps solve problems of survival or reproduction, like the umbilical cord for example – it is a by-product, something that does not solve problems, does not have a functional design and is being carried along with the adaptations, in this case like the belly button.

Pinker is of the opinion that humans have invented art because they learned how to push the right buttons that activate certain inherited mechanisms that form part of our universal human nature, such as the colour vision that would have evolved for locating ripe fruits, and that, in essence, art mimics those very same stimuli – patterns, colours and shapes – that we as humans have been designed to perceive, respond to and take pleasure from. 

Art, in his view, is like cheesecake: a technology we make because we can, and for no other reason than our own satisfaction.

A true adaptation

American evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller holds a rather different view.  Although he admits that, for evolutionists, art has always been difficult to explain through natural selection, he quickly reassures us that, through sexual selection, the evolution of art is much easier to understand. 

The story of the peacock’s tail, and how it is said that Charles Darwin became so obsessed with this metabolically costly object, serving as an advertisement for predators, that he said it made him feel sick, is a perfect example of how the peacock’s tail is actually a reproductive organ, a biological adaptation for sexual advantage, and a veritable work of art.

Art is a true biological adaptation rather than an accident of evolution, with a number of biological functions

In his book The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, Miller expands on the classical Darwinian approach to show us that art is a true biological adaptation rather than an accident of evolution, with a number of biological functions. 

This means opening our perspective to the evolution and functions of two types of mental adaptations: those around producing art, and those around appreciating or judging art.

Miller takes us to meet the bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea, the birds who, with nothing but courtship on their minds, invest all the time, energy and skill they can to construct proportionately large, symmetrical and elaborately decorated nests. 

Not only do the male bowerbirds search for brilliantly coloured objects and arrange them carefully by colour, they also go as far as replacing the dried or faded fruits and flowers with fresh ones.

Some are even more competent, using regurgitated fruit residues and leaves or bark to paint the walls of their bowers.

Some display, others enjoy

These are all signs of a so-called biological signalling system, designed to display the fitness and superior skills of the owner for advantage. 

It explains why many major works of art are created by young men (as opposed to women and older men), and helps us understand why even an apparently pragmatic tool such as the hand axes wielded by our ancestors Homo erectus may have evolved as works of art and displays of manual skills.

In discussing this topic, there is so much more we can be curious about, such as why we find beauty so compelling, why the artist’s virtuosity is fundamental to artistic beauty and why beauty conveys the truth about the artist’s skill and creativity. 

To answer these questions, we must not fear that the evolutionary standpoint will reduce the impact of what we find intriguing.  At a time when we are asking ourselves whether artificial intelligence, either as the creator of art or as a tool used by ‘artistic’ programmers, will replace our artists, I think we can safely afford to dig into our ancestral history and uncover the biological origins of art.

That way, perhaps, I can look forward to brightening the memory of my experience of standing still, fixed with wonder, in front of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, and to adding layers of joy every time I admire some of the very fine pieces of art by our very own Maltese artists.

Sonya Sammut is a biologist, a business scientist and an independent academic researcher.

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