Do the arts convey any evolutionary advantage?

(25 Posts)
MostlyLovingLurchers Wed 23-Jan-13 10:48:22

I think most people would rather have sex with Beyonce/Robbie Williams than with Marcus De Sautoy/Dr Alice Roberts

Not sure this is always true. Brains seem to confer their own kind of sexiness on the owner - thinking of the number of student-lecturer crushes, and the popularity of some tv scientists. I know dp would take Dr Alice over Beyonce (but then he's always liked a brainy girl wink)!

MarshaBrady Wed 23-Jan-13 10:08:50

Being a top artist/painter does seem to bring with it a sexual attraction to others. The whole master of creation thing. Not sure it's helpful in evolutionary sense in terms of being an actual parent.

MostlyLovingLurchers Wed 23-Jan-13 09:29:08

I think whether pop culture is art is a whole new debate! We did discuss the rockstar factor further upthread.

Will add Breaking the Spell to the (never ending) Amazon list.

Re conspicuous consumption - this could be a factor couldn't it? Many societies used repricocity as a tool for social stability and to 'seal the deal'. You could imagine that the finer the gifts exchanged the greater the favours secured. In this way producing objects of art may have had a direct benefit to that tribe or society. I suppose the presenting of gifts to visiting heads of state is a vestige of this.

twattock Tue 22-Jan-13 20:02:32

I think most people would rather have sex with Beyonce/Robbie Williams than with Marcus De Sautoy/Dr Alice Roberts: isn't that your evolutionary advantage conferred by the arts right there?

PedroPonyLikesCrisps Tue 22-Jan-13 16:25:57

An excellent read is Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, which deals with the questions of how religion has evolved. It also covers some interesting points about about the evolution of memes (Dawkins' idea of practices, methods and ideas which evolve in a similar way to genes) and also things such as boat building for which tribes the world over have achieved the same basic solution completely independently of each other.

Some of the concepts are real eye openers!

ElBurroSinNombre Tue 22-Jan-13 15:07:45

Some evolutionary psychologists may speculate that the ability to produce art evolved because of what they sometimes call 'conspicuous consumption' (or Peacock's tail etc).
That is the ability to survive and produce something as useless as art (in the sense of our own survival) makes you a more attractive partner than someone who just survives. This is because you demonstrate that you have so many resources you can conspicuosly 'waste' some of them producing the art, thus making you more likely to produce fit offspring. Not completely convinced with this myself but worthy of consideration.

MostlyLovingLurchers Tue 22-Jan-13 12:09:41

Doesn't really answer my own question, but i suppose art could be seen as evidence for the evolution of the human brain, if not a direct cause of it.

MostlyLovingLurchers Tue 22-Jan-13 10:36:05

Is that the bit about art being imitation and therefore removed from the truth? I haven't read Plato for years (and suspect it may give me a headache) but will have a look later if i get a chance.

There's two things here i think - why we started making objects of art, and then why we still do. I think the origins bit is easier in terms of being seen to covey some kind of advantage (in the eyes of those at the time) through sympathetic magic and votive offerings, and as symbols of power. I can also imagine there was a recreational aspect from the earliest times as a way of honing skills that may then have had a more practical application.

But what about now, especially from the pov of the observer rather than the creator? I think there's probably something in what you say Pedro about filling a void left by no longer having to spend every waking moment surviving. Can we quantify how it enriches us as a species?

TheMysteryCat Mon 21-Jan-13 23:04:26

Lascaux not Lausanne! Sorry!

Just been reading replies and wondered if anyone else had read plato's analogy of a bed? Sounds bonkers, but here it is

Also, there's a whole dimension in literature about how to write down one's life, works, deeds, philosophies etc is akin to achieving immortality. See gilgamesh or the Romantics obsession with the writer as genius.

jjkm Mon 21-Jan-13 22:50:00

Creating art may be a form of play or recreation that helps to develop innate intelligence and fine motor skills.

PedroPonyLikesCrisps Mon 21-Jan-13 21:54:41

Being artistic (in the sense that we consider it in modern times) doesn't necessarily show itself to be an evolutionary successful trait. Purely because not everyone is artistic. All humans have eyes (with obvious mutational exceptions - before anyone jumps in!!) and all those eyes basically work in the same way operate within the same conditions and are made of the same stuff. This is a classic example of a physical trait which has evolved through genetic success. Artisticness is somewhat different to this because it exists in many different forms.

One possible origin of certain art might be that it was advantageous to create inventive tools to achieve certain goals. The same techniques used to make a hammer or a boat could be applied to create a sculpture. Why we would start creating these things for pleasure is another question entirely! There are theories that it is to do with the brain itself. The primary function of the brain is to ensure the survival of the body in which it is housed. In societies as developed as ours are, this survival instinct is largely unused as we don't have any natural predators, we have medicine to keep us healthy, etc, etc. so our brains have, in a way, re-programmed themselves to follow other purposes. This would explain how different people are good at different things (not something you see in other animals to anything like the degree we have in humans).

These purposes could also explain why some individuals are very strongly compelled to create things such as paintings, sculptures, music.

Excellent question though!! It's interesting to see everyone's take on it!!

MostlyLovingLurchers Mon 21-Jan-13 16:08:33

Well, the ability to product art is a perfect example of the human ability to outsource memories and communicate complex ideas with others.

It's essentially communication, and communication is how we evolve in cerebral terms.

I can see that many artforms are or can be a medium to communicate ideas, but do they do so any more effectively than plain language? Language clearly has an evolutionary benefit. Many works of art require a fair bit of critical analysis to be understood and is then often only an interpretation. I can see that you can communicate more in the way of 'feeling' through art than straightforward language - eg WW1 poetry; while moving emotionally it was hardly effective as a method of getting us to stop killing each other. So, how does it actually evolve us?

I agree, we should really be going through a number of very interesting levels of "but why?" before we get to the inevitable "because having these urges/reactions/skills at some point gave someone a reproductive advantage over their peers".

I can see this from the point of view of the artist, but it doesn't answer what the benefit is to observer. Does reading a novel/going to the ballet/hanging a print on your wall increase your odds of reproducing the species (beyond student style look how cool i am stuff)? I suppose what i'm getting at is, if you take any religious/spiritual notions out of the equation, then what is the benefit to us as a species?

I'm inclined to think that the concept of "art", and the desire to produce art, is a byproduct of something more basic about self-awareness, and awareness that you are separate from other people, and a desire to mark and recognise that fact by producing things which are separate from yourself. So - I would say that the evolutionary benefit is from what lies underneath art, not from producing art in itself.

All humans have some concept of that, whether or not anyone else would say they are good at it. And being good at it (whether drawing or music or whatever) is about having good fine motor skills and good use of your senses, both of which are useful from an evolutionary point of view.

MostlyLovingLurchers Mon 21-Jan-13 12:36:28

The Lascaux cave paintings certainly had purpose beyond being decorative, and i highly doubt they were produced with the aim to wow future civilisations. AFAIK there are two theories - that they served an educational purpose or a ritual one, as a petition to whichever gods to bring the herds. I think it is unlikely that they were ever intended for mass viewing due to their location. Many rock paintings are deep within caves, which would suggest that access to them was limited. Whichever it was, the aim was to increase the chances of feeding the tribe and survival, so you could say that they believed the art would convey an advantage, although whether or not it actually did is another matter.

Trills Mon 21-Jan-13 11:53:37

"why and how did people create such powerful and beautiful images as the Lascaux cave paintings, and why do these still move and awe us, and what did, and do they mean"

I agree, we should really be going through a number of very interesting levels of "but why?" before we get to the inevitable "because having these urges/reactions/skills at some point gave someone a reproductive advantage over their peers".

niminypiminy Mon 21-Jan-13 11:48:16

I think Trills's answer demonstrates why seeing human cultures purely in terms of evolution can only take you so far. It doesn't tell you anything really interesting beyond a rather reductive and banal explanation. Questions such as 'why and how did people create such powerful and beautiful images as the Lascaux cave paintings, and why do these still move and awe us, and what did, and do they mean?' simply can't be answered adequately by recourse to evolutionary theories of culture.

Trills Mon 21-Jan-13 11:22:43

Surely the urge to create isn't just driven by the need to procreate?

Maybe. Maybe not. But if you are talking about "evolutionary advantage" the only thing that matters is:
how many children you have (and if it's more than other people)
how many children they have
how many children they have
etc

MarshaBrady Mon 21-Jan-13 11:21:21

Could be driven by an urge to separate from animals, and also death.

Civilisation an attempt to ignore death isn't it? Ah sure I listened to something on Radio 4 along these lines. Blast wish I could remember more of what they said.

TheMysteryCat Mon 21-Jan-13 11:20:17

All art is a way of documenting how we live and how we learn. It tells it's viewers and readers what societies were like. It's essentially communication, and communication is how we evolve in cerebral terms.

Think of the cave paintings at Lausanne; they tell us about hunting methods, local animals of the time, survival methods.

And the bible, in the Old Testament ( I forget which book) there's a great long chunk about hygiene... Cleanliness is next to godliness etc... That isn't just religious instruction, that's a basic survival guide.

Art/the arts are essential for human development.

MrsGeologist Mon 21-Jan-13 11:17:39

Well, the ability to product art is a perfect example of the human ability to outsource memories and communicate complex ideas with others.

pod3030 Mon 21-Jan-13 11:16:22

so perhaps that connection to long dead artists , the benefit to the audience, is a folk-memory of the benefits of art and artists in more basic tribal times.

pod3030 Mon 21-Jan-13 11:14:25

in days of yore (whenever they were!) i think status was everything, your place in life, and beautiful art/objects were status symbols afforded only by the head of the tribe/king/chief. If you had the skills to provide these things then your status in turn was high.

on the other hand, in terms of survival of the tribe, artists tend to be the highly sensitive percentage of the population that maybe would have provided the rest of them with a form of intuitive protection, anticipating attack, or perhaps reading signs others would miss, and so their value to the tribe was high and their status protected?
ooh, i like this sort of pondering.

MostlyLovingLurchers Mon 21-Jan-13 11:06:54

Well, i suppose there is the 'rockstar' factor for the artist if they are successful in their own lifetime. How would it explain why people go to art galleries though? Or listen to long dead composers? What is the benefit to the audience?

Surely the urge to create isn't just driven by the need to procreate?

Trills Mon 21-Jan-13 10:37:34

I can imagine that people with good skills at painting or singing or anything else that entertains the rest of the tribe would get more sex (and so have more offspring) than those who were rubbish at it or not interested.

MostlyLovingLurchers Mon 21-Jan-13 10:24:06

Bit random, but just that really. Was listening to Howard Goodall on the radio this morning talking about the evolution of music while i was thinking about another thread on here and it got me wondering.

If there is an evolutionary benefit to be gained from the arts then what, and if not why are they so important to (most of) us?

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