Considering the current and past cultural functions of art can reveal how it may have evolved in humans.
Art uses a visual stimulus to evoke an emotional state, and/or to promote recall of past events or past emotional states.
The use of art would have had clear benefits in early humans for communication, education, cooperation, and cohesion
There are few areas of the human experience that seem to have fewer parallels in nature than the arts. It is difficult to conceive of a pidgeon Picasso or a bonobo Botticelli. Indeed, only a few animal species have even the faintest hints of the beginning of culture. Without culture, there really can’t be art, as we know it, because art cannot exist separate from culture. Art reflects culture, transmits culture, shapes culture, and comments on culture. There is just no way that animals can possibly experience art as we do.
And there is the rub. Of course they don’t experience art as we do because they don’t experience anything as we do. (And we don’t experience anything as another animal does either.) But maybe, just maybe, if we really think about what art is and how it first began in humans, we might indeed see budding artists among our animal friends.
Art is beauty
If we divorce art from its cultural implications, we can agree that art is very often all to do with the expression of beauty. Throughout history, much artwork was made for no other explicit purpose than the production of beauty. Artwork is to be beheld and admired. It is breathtaking and can even make us emotional. It is this beauty that I draw the first connection between nature and art. Nature and art are both beautiful, no matter how you define beauty. They both can dazzle us and hold us breathless. They can inspire us and make us feel connected to something. They both can strike an emotional nerve that leaves an impact on us that is not soon forgotten. Let’s explore this connection between art and emotion because perhaps this will reveal something about the origin of art.
First, let’s consider a specific subset of the beauty we find in the natural world: beautiful animals. From the unmatched colors of a tropical macaw, to the flowing mane of an African lion, to the striking features of a mandarinfish, animals are beautiful. But never was the saying, “beauty is in the eye of the holder” more true than in the animal world. The bright and flashy colors that we see in many animals have evolved to be conspicuous, to help the animal “stick out.” The most spectacularly beautiful animals are so decorated in order to get the attraction, respect, or fear of other animals. In all cases, the utility of the beauty is found in the reaction it gets from the observer. Can’t the exact same thing be said of human art?
(two beautiful animals.)
Although it’s not all about sex, much of animal beauty is indeed about impressing potential mates. To date, scientists have found no other reason that peacocks have those beautiful and intricate tails except that peahens seem to dig them. These tails are not a small decorative adornment, either. The peacock tail is more than 60% of its body length. When they try to walk, let alone fly, with those obnoxious monstrosities, it is a pitiful sight indeed.
Nevertheless, peahens are deeply attracted to this tail, and peafowl are not the only species with a strategy like this. Beginning in the simplest of invertebrates, colorful and striking ornamentation has been used to attract mates. I could give a long list of beautifully colored animals whose intricate visual patterns are designed for no other purpose than attraction of a mate, but I don’t think it’s necessary.
Art and beauty invoke an emotional response
This beauty-as-sexy phenomenon has a deep biological parallel with human art because it is the connection of a visual stimulus with an inner emotional state. In the case of an attractive animal, the external physical beauty is transformed into a desire, a behavioral impulse in the brain of the observer. When peahens behold a beautiful peacock, they are “moved” by it, in the sense that it affects their current mental state. We know this because it affects their behavior and we assume that behaviors spring from mental states. This is exactly what the fine arts are all about in humans: they employ a visual stimulus to affect the mental or emotional state of the viewers.
Art induces recall of past events or emotions
Admittedly, art and beauty in humans is more than just sex appeal. The effectiveness of art depends on some basic assumptions about the knowledge and experience that is common between the artist and the audience. Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans will probably have very little impact on the bushmen of eastern Africa. Art capitalizes on specific stored memories and associations in the brain of the observer. Here, we have the second clue to the origin of art in humans: visual recall of past events and emotions.
As human brains became more sophisticated over the last million years, we became capable of storing extensive details as memories, a skill that came in handy as our behaviors became more detailed. The hunting and gathering way of life common to all of the various hominid species required extensive visual memory. How else could they have accomplished organized group hunting, fashioning of simple tools, and the deciphering of the migratory patterns of big game on the African savannah? These complicated skills require the comparison of current visual cues with past experience in a computational and predictive way. Pattern recognition is what we are talking about here.
Further still, the ability to make and use tools, a skill that began in apes and exploded in hominids, requires a great deal of visual and tactile memory. As fully modern Homo sapiens began making tools that were more and more sophisticated, we suddenly found ourselves with the ability to depict our memories using primitive painting implements. With our newfound cognitive abilities, our impressive memory-recall, and now tools, it is not at all surprising that the first art produced by our ancestors depicted the very subject that probably spawned all of our cognitive abilities in the first place: the hunt.
Cave paintings are the earliest artifacts that anthropologists and art historians agree are truly art, but I find it hard to believe that they didn’t also facilitate functions in the communities in which they were created. We could speculate all day about what those functions could have been, but I think the point is that the benefits of being able to create a visual representation was immediately recognized. I also seriously doubt that the cave paintings were the first attempts at those visual representations. They were just the first that ended up surviving through the eons.
Art aids in communication and education
As language was developing in Homo sapiens during the great leap forward, humans began teaching each other about the tools they’d made, the food they found, and the skills they had perfected. This was the beginning of the concept of education. I can’t imagine that the education of the paleolothic era didn’t also make use of visual aids, like education does today. Whether they were just crude drawings made by dragging sticks in the dirt, or more elaborate representation on stone “canvases,” I am sure that drawings accompanied spoken language (or gestures) right from the beginning. Once again, the key feature was the ability to use visual representations to induce memory recall or visual understanding. By drawing something, an early human could make another human remember something.
Various forms of drawing, painting, and other visual depictions almost certainly facilitated communication and education among early humans. That much seems rather obvious. In addition, it seems likely that early humans also used the new innovation of artistic depictions for various efforts of problem-solving and calculation. As cognitive ability continued to develop, it began to grow into consciousness and introspection as we think of them today.
The visual arts were probably right there with us along the way, helping to provide a means to express the complex thoughts that were beginning to materialize in our massive brains. Indeed, appreciation and understanding of art seems to be among the highest-order functions of the human brain, as little of it is seen in children or the developmentally delayed, even when language and other advanced human functioning is present.
For these reasons, I tend to believe that artistic expression and reactions to art evolved hand-in-hand with higher cognitive functions in early humans. It is natural that the new richness of our inner experience would also manifest in creative outward expression. In turn, the communication of that inner experience through art would find receptive observers and the phenomenon of art then became ingrained culturally.
I also fully expect that artistic talent would have eventually been transferred from our culture to our genes. After all, during a million or two years of natural selection, artistic ability was likely to confer some advantage on those that had it. This advantage could have come in the form of increased social standing as a leader in the hunt, a prolific teacher of skills, and so on. Any special place in the social structure means greater odds of reproductive success. In this way, I suspect, humanity evolved into a species of artists and art enthusiasts.
But do other animals make art?
That’s all fine and good. Once humanity developed a tendency to produce artistic renderings, there was plenty of biological space for it to flourish and reasons why it would be favored, but how might it have emerged in the first place? Surely the behavior of art production cannot be traced to a singular mutation. What precursors might have existed that allowed art to emerge? Are there any examples of animals making something we would consider artful?
There is an Indian artist named Siri, whose drawings currently go for hundreds or thousands of dollars. She has been written about extensively and featured in publications from Harper’s Weekly to the Los Angeles Times. Her work ranges from abstract to highly representational art including landscapes and self-portraits. Of course, she trained for many years to develop this skill, but she can now complete a painting in mere minutes. Siri is a forty-seven year old Asian Elephant.
Siri is not alone. Scores of elephants have been taught to paint. The art that these elephants produce by holding a brush in their trunks is truly impressive. It’s certainly better than anything I could produce. What these elephants are really doing, in terms of producing art or simply repeating a trained task, is the subject of a highly controversial debate. I don’t intend to wade into those murky waters. Rather, I mention painting elephants here only to indicate that the technical skill set necessary to produce art is certainly not unique to humans. These trained painting elephants can take a visual stimulus, even one that is new to them, and recreate it through artistic techniques that they have learned. They appreciate color, perspective, and proportion, at least in the basic sense. I’m not saying that these elephants are Cézanne, but they’re better than Nathan Lents, that’s for sure.
In species closer to us, orangutans, chimpanzees, and gorillas have all been taught to draw and paint. Like the elephants, some of them are quite good at it. Unlike the elephants, there is little debate that these primates seem to actually enjoy making the art and will do it spontaneously, without reward, and for its own sake. They sometimes make art that they become quite attached to and never actively show to anyone else.
Once again, I don’t want to get into a discussion of what this art creation really says about chimpanzee consciousness or emotional maturity, although that is interesting to me. My point here is simply that these great apes all have the physical ability to create visual representations, they enjoy doing so, and the art that they produce seems to mean something to them. All of those abilities and features were obviously present in early humans and their ancestors as well, so it was not really that big of a jump when Cro-Magnon humans actually began creating artwork in the caves of Europe.