Scitech | Painting, writing, and surviving

Why did humans evolve the capacity to make art?

The field of evolutionary psychology is forever aiming to explain how human behaviours relate to survival and reproduction. If a behaviour cannot be explained as an evolutionary advantage, it may be a by-product – a useless side effect left over from evolution: this could be what art is.

On a brighter prospect, art could be explained instead by sexual selection. When an individual has a cumbersome trait, one on which it lavishes time and energy – such as the love and creation of paintings, music, and poetry – it shows that the individual is fit enough to afford such extravagances. This advertises the quality of its genes to attract mates for reproduction.

There is, however, a new explanation for art that isn’t reduced to mere mate attraction. Denis Dutton, a philosophy professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, proposes in his book The Art Instinct that art is neither a by-product nor just a fancy tool for courtship. The ability to make art is a feature functionally connected to evolutionary adaptation. Various forms of art are enhancements, extensions, or intensifications of traits that helped our ancestors survive and procreate. In the same way that shivering and sweating are parts of our body-heat regulation system, romantic feelings extend from and intensify our drive to find the ideal mate. Humour and wit enhance our desire to quicken, sharpen, and enliven our language to fashion more efficient and powerful ways to communicate.

Dutton has a particular set of explanations that strikes my fancy for the uses of fiction. Fiction allows us to imagine scenarios that we’ve never experienced before, or never will: this is a low-cost and convenient method to learn and create new strategies for survival. Stories provide templates and concrete cases to give us ideas for coping in ambiguous, complex situations. Fiction also encodes knowledge in our senses and emotions – a form far more vivid and easy to memorize than raw facts.

My favourite explanation is that fiction, especially novels, grants us the power to understand different points of view, and gain insight into different human minds. We can use fiction to develop our interpersonal, social faculties in the struggle to survive and flourish together as an entire species.

Thinking about my own enjoyment of literature, I want to add an additional point to Dutton’s: stories can offer us a profound reassurance, a feeling that we are being understood. Reading Richard Bach’s Jonathan Livingstone Seagull was one such heartfelt experience: the poignant ardour of the protagonist to rise above his species, to strive for something more, to elevate his superficial existence, simply stirred within me an unspeakable emotion. In feeling understood, we are more connected with other members of our kind, and we are far happier to bond with them in our common cause to thrive in the world.

As a final way to explore why art may have evolved, I suggest we ponder on this thought experiment: what would happen to us if art never existed? What if we never had paintings, music, dancing, or literature? Would we even be the same people we are today, would humans be an alive and thriving species?