Friday, April 24, 2009

The art instinct

Although we humans recognize instinct when we see it in animals, often we're reluctant to see it in ourselves. We prefer to rest assured that we are above all that. We are not slaves to primitive impulses. Our free-willed choices are the result of careful rational deliberation. Yet, the human race has been subjected to the same evolutionary pressures as other animals, so the lack of instinct in humans would truly be odd. It is much more likely that the process of evolution — in both natural selection and sexual selection as described by Charles Darwin — has molded our brains with particular strengths, weakness, and proclivities. Let's call these traits "human nature."

According to the late Stephen Jay Gould, for example, — art is inconsequential to human survival and procreation, and hence cannot be explained by evolution. Art is one of the inexplicable byproducts of the large human brain, a spandrel of evolution, as Gould called them.

Unlike Gould, Dutton Argues that humankind's universal interest in art is the result of human evolution. We enjoy sex, grasp facial expressions, understand logic and spontaneously acquire language—all of which make it easier for us to survive and produce children. He thinks that the interest in art belongs on this list of evolutionary adaptations.

Dutton states that the type of painting that is preferred by most people around the globe is, of course, the landscape, and a very particular landscape — one with water, food sources, trees, hiding places, and a path to perhaps another source of food or comfort. It is, in short, the savanna, the home of our Pleistocene ancestors during the period in which we became recognizably human. Our preference for this environment is wired into our brains for "savannas contain more protein per square mile than any other landscape type" as well as offering protection from predators (quickly climb up the tree).

To humans, the language ability is innate, even if the particular language a child first learns is cultural. Seemingly equally innate is the ability of children for make-believe, to construct worlds that mix fantasy (invisible teapot and teacups) with the real (tea always pours down, not up), and to keep the rules of these worlds separate and distinct. Also innate to most children (beginning at the age of 2 or so) is theory of mind — the ability to recognize that other people have internal lives similar to our own, but at the same times uniquely theirs. Consequently, perhaps the oldest art form is storytelling: What began undoubtedly with stories told around the campfire led eventually to more elaborate spoken narratives of legends, written narratives (the Iliad and Odyssey), plays, novels, film, and (much more recently) narrative-based videogames.

What's crucial is that these narratives (either historical, or partly historical, or purely fictional) help us survive. Stories give our brains an opportunity to work out contingencies of response to possible future events. (If a kitten jumps at everything that moves, it is better able to pounce on a real mouse when one shows up.) If we come upon a situation similar to one we once heard about in a story, we are much more likely to deal successfully with that situation and survive to pass on the "storytelling genes." Stories also provide examples of many kinds of people and how their minds work, and hence help us deal with others in social situations. Imaginative storytelling is one of the survival instincts that is packaged into human intelligence.

Dutton concludes that art is an inevitably intrinsic part of human nature, human intelligence, and (no one should be surprised) human sexuality.


Anonymous said...

I think art is definitely a part of human nature. Look at the cavemen, who took the time to 'paint their story' on the walls, almost like an affirmation of their existence, or even the hieroglyphs of the pharaohs- but I guess that's also a story-telling language.

I liked what Dutton said about art being an intrinsic part of human sexuality, but how so? Is is because art is a creative impulse and expression, as is sexuality?

Uncle Tree said...

This is a great topic, Mariana! It draws on a wide range of sources, starting inside the cave. After the fire was tamed, we clawed and scratched out our proudest moments for all the world to see.

About the tea party...Quantum physics teaches us that there's no good reason, or law, that stops the pouring tea from going up. And the broken egg can mend itself. Yeah, right!

Stories were important because they were 'make-believe'. To me this means they 'made you' believe, as if we had no choice in the matter. Although, who knows if we would have gotten this far without first having lost our tales.

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Anonymous said...

I believe art is also crucial for the well being of the brain. We have evolved over time from periods of intense physical activity, where the body was exercised continuously just to find and capture food, to leading sedentary lives.

Thus,the effect of no exercise on the body can be clearly seen. As the body gets less exercise, the brain takes a more prominent role, 'thinking' instead of physically 'doing'.

Art can occupy the brain when it needs its own exercise, when it isn't taking care of the physical aspects of the body's operation.

Art is an outlet for the mind, as physical exertion is an outlet for pent up aggression.

I think they're both instinctive.

Anonymous said...

After having been bandied about for much too long, the following quote may seem trite but it is still apt: We are not humans having a spiritual experience, we are spirits having a human experience. This is a fascinating post and accurate in the assessment of the arts; however, how does the poet fit into the evolutionary aspect of our development. I think of it as being somewhat separate from the rest of the arts. I wrote a blog post a short while back about synesthesia, a condition many artists share. Perhaps this is an evolutionary leap or adaptation rather than a genetic oddity. :)

Paul Squires said...

I am afraid Mr Gould is what we used to call 'wrong'. Yayya for Mr Dutton.

julio said...

no creo en el inconsciente colectivo. pero puede que esa imagen que se repite en el arte sea un deseo mas que una imagen ancestral que se transmite. y si, concuerdo con que los relatos son parte y reflejo de nuestra estructura mental. el constructivismo lo plantea asi: el observador esta dentro de lo observado. no podemos creer que la "creacion" no tiene que ver con quien la genera. existe la ficcion, por supuesto, pero trasmitimos algo, nos "ponemos en las letras que escribimos.

alguna vez pense en la creacion como un proceso tecnico: no importaba el fondo, solo la estructura, y sobre la base de ésta generar miles de historias segun las posibilidades de las permutaciones de las palabras. pero llegue a descubrir que el arg8mento habla por nosotros, solo disfrazamos nuestra realidad para hacerla mas entretenida en las letras.

imaginé que arte era solo estetico. en estos dias, lo supongo afectivo.

p,s, me gustaria poder escribir en ingles de la forma en que lo haces.

julio said...
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julio said...
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girlontape said...

interesting post marian.
a journalist recently asked me what kind of photography most turns me on & i said "pictures of people. a landscape can be beautiful, but generally my reaction is 'so what?' a human face or body, on the other hand, is moving & mysterious to me."

Mariana Soffer said...

Hi my friend. I also liked the idea about "art being an intrinsic part of human sexuality", it seems so real intuitively for me.
I doubt that "It is because art is a creative impulse and expression, as is sexuality?". I think it is more related to:

1.The extravagance of language, Dutton contends, is a manifestation of the other half of Darwin's analysis of evolution: sexual selection. Humans choose mates partially based on physical appearance (which is a rough indication of health) but also intelligence, and a good indication of intelligence is a facility with language. Darwin realized in The Descent of Man that the human mind is a sexual ornament, and language is how that mind shows off its colorful feathers.
2. That poetry and song arose out of courtship is obvious, for the subject of love remains to the present day easily the #1 topic of poems and songs. The result has been "survival not just of the physically strongest but of the cleverest, wittiest, and wisest."

Uncle Tree: Thanks you very much uncle, you always make me wanna do more.

I completely agree with your second paragraph's ideas, it is a wonderful paragraph, It is a wonderful way to connect supposedly unrelated stuff. I guess the witter of Alice in wonderland did not read quantum physics before witting
about Humpty Dumpty's fall

Your 3 paragraph is not that clear to me. I guess you mean that stories relieved us from the responsibilities about our actions (as other beliefs do). But I do not get what you mean "who knows if we would have gotten this far without first having lost our tales.", or what you want to infer from here. If you do not mind I would love to understand what you meant there,

Hugs for both

Mariana Soffer said...

First of all txs for the compliment. Great quote, it reminds me of how pre-socratic Greeks thoughts about human. They believed that human
beings where visited by ideas/thoughts, not that they where generated in their mind, or caused by mental associations either.
Intuitively I feel you have a solid point about poets being different kind of artists, probably because it is tightly related and also inseparable
from language which is a very special innate ability.
It is fascinating synesthesia, one of my best friend has is, he can see words inside himself as colors. He is a genius, speaks 10 languages, writes, and studied in the MIT. (Martin Hadis). The idea of being leap of adaptation it is a great idea (never heard of it), Given that this condition usually makes people excel at what they do, without any inconvenient s (at least none that I know), probably this is because they integrate different skills/disciplines to accomplish one objective, benefiting from the best of each field.
On the other hand savant's excel at what they do but they have serious impairments in other areas.

great phrase "I believe art is also crucial for the well being of the brain", absolutely true. I think that art might replace the
playing activity kids do everyday and grown ups stop doing, Art has pretty similar characteristics to playing, it is exploratory, it is fun, it involves discovering, it involves learning and creating, and so on.

Paul: Nice comment, cheerful. I wrote about him cause I think it is important not to show only one viewpoint.

Hugs to tall

julio said...

por que mis comentarios no estan?

Mariana Soffer said...

Alfredo: excuse me that I write en english, so my friends can understand. I have no clue why your comment's did not get to me before. Sometimes blogspot does not work properly (No se que paso con commentarios pero aca tan los que llegaron). I love to do comment on your story let me know which one is it, I can do it tonight. (Decime cual relato tuyo queres que comente y lo hago hoy mismo). Now I go with your comment.

Mariana Soffer said...

Stef: Interesting comment, I was thinking that landscape painting's are not supposed to turn you on, they are supposed to be attractive in a non-sexual way (as it was explained due to the reminder of the Savannah, which was a safe place for human beings).
I do not know about human beings representation's but it makes perfect sense to me that that is the kind of picture that turn's people on the most.
But you still left me thinking about
"a human face or body is moving & mysterious to me."
Great phrase

Mariana Soffer said...

Hombre, no tengas miedo en escribir maso en ingles, evidentemente entendes todo, yo te ayudo o corrijo, practicando se aprende
no hay opcion b.
Me hace acordar lo que decis al cuento de borges en el cual pone monos a teclear sobre maquinas de escribir por tiempo infinito.
En lo que mas concuerdo contigo es en que supongo el arte efectivo, y tambien tu vision menos evolucionista del arte me agrada, es refrescante. Por otro lado te cuento que me cuesta mucho a mi entender algunas cosas en el idioma castellano, cada uno tiene sus dificultades. Pero tengo que darle una pensada mas larga a tu post, ya que me cuesta un poco. Me tomo el atrevimiento de traducirlo asi los chicos pueden comentar sobre el.

Mariana Soffer said...

I do not believe in the collective unconscious thoughts, but maybe in that image that repeats itself in art is a desire more than an ancestral image being transmitted. I agree whereupon the stories are reflected part and of our mental structure. it raises it thus to the constructivism: the observer this within the observed thing. we cannot think that " creation" it does not have to do with who makes it. the fiction exists, by all means, but we passed on something, us " we put in the letters that we wrote.

Once I thought the creation as a technical process: The structure was the only thing that matter, not the background. And based on this
structure generate thousands of stories according to our possibilities of word permutations. But I did wrote the arg8ment speaks for us, just distorting our reality to make it more entertaining in its texts.
I thought art was esthetically, noways I think it is effective.

Uncle Tree said...

Dear Mariana,

I was raised and educated in a Southern Baptist Church. Being 'fundamentalists' here means that one takes a literal interpretation of The Bible as Truth, with a capital 'T'. The Word Of God, or Wisdom, trumped all other knowledge based institutions, such as schools.

I had no choice in what I could or should believe. It was all laid out beforehand. Not only was one responsible for one's own actions, we were also to be held responsible for Adam and Eve's transgressions in The Garden of Eden. There was no escaping the fact. I was born a sinner just like everyone else. There was only One Way to save yourself from going to Hell. I hope you get the idea. That's my background and I don't wish to spell it all out right here.

Since that 'made me' a Creationists, I couldn't believe we came from monkeys. That's why I substituted 'tales' for 'tails' in that statement. It was just a joke, okay?

Hugz backatcha!

Mariana Soffer said...

Pretty interesting and original post, I like this. To be fair with you I am going to let you know a little about my background, I am a Jew, so I was also raised with guilt present in my head most of the time. I studied religion, Hebrew, Jewish history, Jewish tradition, but to tell you the truth I could never believe in god, jave, or anything related to it. My mind was always in the scientific side I guess, or maybe I did not have good Jewish mentors to make me understand and get me interested in their culture.
My parents where sometimes discriminated because they where Jewish and also MD. When the military people ruled our country intellectuals where their main target along with homosexuals, Jewish, and all the other minorities. I guess you have an idea about those times in Argentina. It was the country where most people where killed and tortured by the military regime, which lasted around 10 years. I guess that situation made me a pragmatic kind of person.
I loved your last paragraph, it is pretty witty and funny, but to tell you the truth I would have never realized about it if you didn’t explained it to me. Great sense of humor.

Uncle Tree said...

Thanks for filling me in there, Mariana. Since I haven't seen your picture, I couldn't have guessed that you were Jewish by birth. And doctors for's no wonder you're so smart and scientifically grounded. I'm glad your family made it through those toughest of years.

Take care now, sweet niece!

Mariana Soffer said...

Thanks a lot uncle, I guess all etnic population suffered as well,some like my and my family where lucky and other wheren't sadly. I owe you and Email, As soon as I finish my project it is going to be tnere for sure.
Be well my friend

Stu said...

"I think that art might replace the
playing activity kids do everyday and grown ups stop doing, Art has pretty similar characteristics to playing, it is exploratory, it is fun, it involves discovering, it involves learning and creating, and so on."

Yes, I think you're on the right track there.

It's fascinating what Dutton says about savannas.

Mariana Soffer said...

The savanna it is the thing that impressed me the most also, I started looking at impresionist paintints from landscapes since then. You can check dutton's book, he also includes other examples that are pretty intresting, and I also like how he relates art to matting and flirting, it is so primitiva how he describves is and at the same time so actual.