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By Gregory F. Tague


The Montréal Review, January 2022


By Gregory F. Tague (Brill, 2018)



Introduction: Setting Boundaries

Is art a free-riding frivolity with no biological or cognitive value? How, if at all, is art connected to health, pleasure, play, neural plasticity, sociality, and individual and group emotions? Those are big questions. While I might not have all of the answers, and since many evolutionary psychologists, biologists, anthropologists, and philosophers of art disagree, we might never know for sure if art behavior is an evolutionary adaptation. But material culture and art making are deeply embedded in our evolutionary history. And we continue to make art. Consider some universal themes across art from all ages and countries: survival, internal conflict, mating, family, individual values, group identity, altruism and reciprocity, religious and spiritual beliefs, and warfare. This short list is indicative of behaviors that arose from selection pressures concerning the survival of our ancestors. In terms of biology, there clearly are striking benefits to making art over the costs, and the behavior is not only passed on by instruction and learning but the impulse is innate and heritable.

There is no single cause for our proclivity to make art. In fact, cause is not the appropriate word. Rather, there is a relation of adaptations that gave rise to how and why we make art. Here is a simplified sketch. Our hominin ancestors evolved a larger brain, due to a number of selection pressures, like tool manufacture, resource sharing, and group living. The larger brain responded to survival pressures and so produced hand tools and, much later, body paints and ornaments. With the rise of larger groups and their cultures, rituals, symbolic marks, and group identity with graphic communication appeared.

Building off the preceding, our brain adapted to a number of pressures simultaneously, like calculating in terms of space, objects, and events, and evolved to have intelligence modules communicate with each other. So a bone left over from hunting could be manipulated for use, like a tool. Perhaps the bone could be used for decoration or status, as in bodily ornament. Our evolved ability to re-engineer physical objects for a number of purposes, especially associating them with our beliefs, values, and practices, gave rise to symbolic culture. As in my other books which examine the arts and humanities in light of evolution (Making Mind and Evolution and Human Culture), I favor individual selection. In this argument for the adaptability of material/art culture, the individual is the innovator; the group is the imitator; but the group helps behaviors spread and change.

While some authors have emphasized theory of mind or perspective taking in culture, I am not aware of any that have identified theory of mind as a key evolutionary adaptation in art behavior. In fact, some cognitive cultural theorists tend to minimize prehistory, evolution, and human/nonhuman continuities or are outright hostile to these ideas. We don’t always hide what we think because we want others to know our thoughts and feelings. We evolved emotions and facial expressions to do so. Theory of mind is part of an adaptation to mind share, which we especially achieve through material/art culture. Art and Adaptability provides an overview of the key thinkers regarding the adaptive function of art, offers a discussion of the principal theories concerning art behavior, and more particularly pinpoints the adaptive function of making art in theory of mind. There are implications for art making as a result of a number of social adaptations stemming from material culture and theory of mind. Roy Baumeister (2007) asserts that many emotions exist to influence behavior indirectly through feedback. Similarly, I say that material/art culture is part of a predictive attempt to affect another’s emotional or cognitive outcome, often in subtle ways. The consequence is that one becomes reflective, a learning process and, therefore, a guide to the psychology of future responses. We have art since we learned to anticipate certain emotional affects and so made material and artistic objects to produce these outcomes.

The storyline is rather straightforward. If we count, as we should, great ape cousins in our long history we can more easily see the similarities and slight differences concerning intelligence and communication. Like many monkey and ape species, we are social. Group living means there is much interpersonal conflict and cooperation, and so there are adaptations for emotions and mindreading. Resource attainment and allocation prompted intelligent beings to conjure tools and other forms of utilitarian culture. As groups expanded and interpersonal reactions increased along with more material culture, mindreading to guess another’s ideas, values, beliefs, and intentions spurred using material objects to foster symbolic, nonverbal communication. In the end, the expansive neural feedback of mind sharing to enhance sophisticated material culture exhibiting meaning and significance led to what we now call art forms. Today’s many manifestations of art are cultural hybrids and not adaptations per se.

Innovating can arise from random behavioral variations, say Sabine Tebbich et al. (2016). This change could have consequences that stimulate cognitive mechanisms. Innovation is opportunistic, behavioral, and cognitive when accepted, applied, and radiated. Material innovations like tools in response to physical surroundings created a more selective niche environment concerning the cooperation necessary to manufacture and use such tools. The innovation was not just physical but mental, setting the stage for a sequence of expansion and refinement of the invention through communication and theory of mind. The special niche of material culture and the social, competitive, cooperative mentality involved primed the prerequisites for less utilitarian and more symbolic art culture with later people.

Which aspects of art are inherited and which are from culture? Theory of mind is pivotal in answering this question. Chet Sherwood et al. (2008) attest to the ancientness of human and nonhuman cognition at least to the last common ancestor back to perhaps 8mya. Alexander Rosenberg (2017) dates theory of mind to at least when our australopith ancestors left the forest and inhabited the open plains. These estimates demonstrate how visual attention and perception relevant to interpersonal social intentions are inherited. With these mechanisms in place, once tool use several million years ago began and then flourished material objects, culture and theory of mind began to work together more progressively. Gradually, this co-evolution of object/culture and theory of mind grew into symbolic forms. While culture exerted tremendous pressure on the evolution of art making, there are inherited cognitive and emotional mechanisms plying such functions.

Though not exact, there’s a correlation between hominin development and tool culture. Theory of mind is very old, so it was in place as Homo habilis (circa 2.5mya) fashioned tools, watched what others made, and guessed intentions about another’s thoughts and movements with material culture. Great apes have theory of mind and use tools, but in degree our capacities and manufacture are clearly greater. Thus, as theory of mind and material culture co-evolved, the material culture itself became more complex, eventually manifesting symbolic forms and art behaviors. As with us, mind is prominent in other socially-oriented primates; in us, the social mind has fed into the origination, development, and explosive growth of culture. Not different in apes but massive in degree, mind for us (i.e., symbolism) has become our dominant tool. Condensing the thought of groundbreaking ethologist Konrad Lorenz, Frans de Waal (2001) says he saw “the mind as a knowledge-acquisition device shaped by evolution” (109). Theory of mind, especially in conjunction with material/art culture, acts this way for human beings.

Like other species we have a proclivity for order and control of our environment. We like to understand what we see. We look for patterns in lines, shapes, and colors. These tendencies have survival value. For early humans, once a stone tool was used successfully and copied, cultural influencers began to apply pressure on material and utilitarian objects. Culture is common among great apes with whom we share social and mental abilities. Our cultural niche is widespread and diverse. Practices for the manufacture of material goods, and then later color and markings, were shared, copied, and improved upon. In this way, while culture has a strong influence on the dissemination and use of material objects and art, at base we have innate and related tendencies for creative problem solving and social interaction.

With material culture a viewer might ask: how did he make that; how could I make that; what is that used for; could I use that for some other purpose? With art culture the stakes became higher, with questions like: what does that mean; why is it important to her; does it have any significance to me; what impact on me will this image have? What connects theory of mind, utilitarian material works, and art culture is not only social bonding and cognitive aspects; more so, there is a prospective thinking involved. First, in material culture there’s what if; in a sequentially related way in art culture there’s as if. Our minds moved from manipulating material artifacts that reflected thinking into art culture that represented abstraction. Material culture implies representation and symbolism. While the future tense is implied in material culture’s what if, the as if of art culture provides the basis of forward thinking. While it might not have been deliberate at first with early stone tools, at some point material culture and certainly art making became a way to affect another’s thoughts to estimate outcomes and predict future behavior.

Intelligence: Communication and Theory of Mind

In his book, The Intimate Ape, Shawn Thompson (2010) tells how primatologist Biruté Galdikas was surprised when Siswi, a female orangutan, seized her notebook and pen and began drawing. Siswi wanted to participate in Galdikas’ activity to demonstrate her competence and companionship. Siswoyo, Siswi’s mother, also used pen and paper and was quite careful in how she used the stylus. According to Galdikas, this is not simple imitation but “social bonding” where the orangutan wants to assert her level of equality with the human being (quoted in Thompson 124).

But the two stories from Thompson’s book that impact my discussion deal with primatologist Willie Smits. Uce was an infant orangutan rescued and raised by Smits and then released into the wild after two years. Some years later Smits encountered Uce in the forest accompanied by a male. There was a mutual recognition between the human and the orangutan along with touch greetings and eye gazing. Uce let Smits hold her baby. Then Uce bit off and shared with Smits a Licuala leaf. Apparently, when Smits first released Uce into the wild years earlier and when she was reluctant to go, he had shared a Licuala leaf with her for reassurance. So this intelligent gesture by the mature Uce is quite symbolic. As Smits says, “she realized she could put herself in my mind” (quoted in Thompson 189).

Here is yet another compelling story involving Willie Smits. There was an orangutan who made a disk from an orange peel and wrapped it in strands of burlap. He gave this token to Smits as a gift, actually placed it in Smits’ hand and closed the man’s fingers over it. As Thompson says, and I agree, this was a means to communicate symbolically, like Uce.

While some would dismiss these stories as merely anecdotal and not reflective of anything extraordinary, I’d disagree. For example, Sue Savage-Rumbaugh had bonobos use lexigrams to communicate, so nonhuman primates can understand signs. In fact, the ability of great ape species to learn and communicate in sign language demonstrates symbolic understanding. Moreover, because we have a very long evolutionary history, and because we share in our complex branching through evolution the characteristics and traits of other primate species, I’d maintain that we can find in elemental form the nascent and basic human behaviors in great apes. This book is not about great apes; it’s about human artistic culture. But as these stories demonstrate, there is a strong social component to art making behavior that is tied up with cognition and emotions. Here I use the word cognition in a manner suggested by Frans de Waal (2016), where cognition relates to how an organism apprehends and processes information. How well an organism completes the course of cognition is intelligence.

Inter-subjectivity and Evolution

Theory of mind, material culture, and art behavior co-evolved in an intricate genetic and epigenetic chain, which explains why we have minds that differ in degree from great apes. Of course the genes for theory of mind and creativity need to be present, but the important factor here is that with our enhanced theory of mind the signaling mechanism for art behavior began. Merlin Donald (2013) says mimesis or deliberate imitation as a cognitive adaptation dates from at least 2mya, and in the mimetic act we have the human-only mind sharing. Donald finds mimetic mind sharing in skills, no doubt the production of tools and implements. Understanding which stones to select, how to strike and at which angle, and how to sharpen edges required keen mental and physical acuity in light of close observation. My notion is that as mind sharing and, first utilitarian, then, non-utilitarian material culture co-evolved, so did art making as a way to express and store individual, kin, and group knowledge and behavior. So theory of mind through ancient tool manufacturing and mimesis is clearly implicated in the use of art behavior.

This is not, however, to simplify the complexity of events since adaptations are not reducible to any single factor but usually arise from an array of selection pressures. But since theory of mind encompasses so much in terms of social selection, cognition, empathy, strategy, and mimetic skills according to Donald, it is a major contributor to artistic culture. Donald Brook (2012) goes as far as saying that art is “mimetic innovation.” This means that just as genes are approximately replicated to produce adaptable variations which survive and reproduce better, so too with artistic cultural evolution. Brook says that the term “experimental art” is tautological because, by its nature, art making behavior reshapes cultural and genetic history. Every artist or craftsperson wants to make it new or make it better, what the literary critic Harold Bloom has referred to as the anxiety of influence.

Where consciousness is always active, even in sleep, mind guessing, mind sharing, inter-subjectivity (looking into one’s own thoughts), and theory of mind involve an element of control. Theory of mind is also implicated in objects or precisely how we imagine an object works or could be used. This is so since mirror neurons, involved in physical motion, are connected with theory of mind. In this way, theory of mind is problem solving in terms of social life and material things. We are concerned about other people’s motives and how best to manipulate objects. Those two, I am suggesting, could be related. Theory of mind is also projection or imagining through our own life history and emotions what someone else wants. So theory of mind is associated with the manipulation of the mental states of others. Further, theory of mind is linked to influencing another’s behavior.

Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux (1996) notes how emotions, which arise quickly, can easily push out of consciousness inconsequential mental functions, including some thoughts. When we ask someone, What are you thinking? we really mean to discover the person’s emotional state that underlies and defines any thoughts. We share many emotions universally, and even with other species, and when we attempt to probe another’s thoughts we are looking for some element of control. For our species alone, material and cognitive culture are part of this process of emotional-ridden mind guessing. We evolved basic emotions into conscious feelings, into cognitive culture. So it’s not difficult to see why I say theory of mind, material culture, and art behavior are so inextricably linked and co-evolved. Each plays off the other.

There really is no content to theory of mind. Each of us makes the content from a particular, even momentary, incident based on a collection of other factors, such as genetic temperament, personal life history, and cultural upbringing. Theory of mind is used to redefine and develop cultural attitudes. Technically speaking, in spite of some of the above, theory of mind is not itself an ability but is rather a psychological means by which one has the ability. Theory of mind is mostly unconscious but can be brought into consciousness as the mental contents become visible, take shape, and are evaluated. According to Bertram Malle and Jess Holbrook (2009), unconscious processes include analyzing another’s gestures, movements, and facial expressions to understand intentions. I maintain we do the same with objects that we associate with people. Consciously, the authors go on, one takes these types of inputs and computes them against existing knowledge and information in mental experiments. In fact, these complex processes could explain the evolution of consciousness and how others in a group had to be wary of unpredictable responses by any group member. You can see how I have made the connection between theory of mind and material/art behavior. If at base these processes of perception, thinking, and reaction are intuitive, elements of which are evident in apes, then our art making tendencies could stem from theory of mind.

Let’s take a look at the definition of adaptation via natural selection according to biologists. Generally, an adaptation occurs over time. Jean-Jaques Petter and François Desbordes (2010), expert primatologists, say, “no character evolves in isolation” (10). Adaptations radiate and can co-evolve with other traits under a number of selection pressures, from environmental to social. There could be, however, the evolution of an adaptation within the lifetime of an organism, like bacteria. Biologists study mutations in organisms both in the field and in the laboratory. How does one study changes in the human psyche? David Buss (2008) will answer that question, but for now I need to define adaptation so you understand how I am using the term in my discussion. Simply put, an adaptation is a solution to problems of survival and especially reproduction. Laith Al-Shawaf et al. (2015) say that most adaptations related to sexual reproduction outnumber those relevant to survival which might even diminish reproductive success. These authors indicate that an adaptation is not simply a stimulus reaction but usually includes a suite of physiological responses and mental calculations, which gave rise to emotions as systems of evaluation and reevaluation were evolved. The implications for art making behavior, in this context, are clear.

Is inter-subjectivity an evolved behavior or is it merely a byproduct of some other adaptation? Likewise, art behavior itself might not be an adaptation, though one wonders why the tendency occurs spontaneously at an early age across cultures. But clearly the means of making color, designs, and shapes benefited not just Homo sapiens but earlier, related Homo species. Art making behavior was not inevitable by chance; it was adaptively selected into human nature through mind sharing via material culture as a benefit, between and among individuals, for cognitive engagement and social recognition. As George Williams (1966) says, “Benefits to groups can arise as statistical summations of the effects of individual adaptations” (16). I’m not implying there was a Picasso among Homo ergaster. What I am suggesting is that as a mentally social creature one Homo ergaster (or an earlier species) made a material object that was pleasing and functional, since material culture precedes but advances symbolic art; then the behavior was copied and spread cognitively. Eventually the behavior became genetic, evidenced not just in its perpetuity to this day but its evolved sophistication as groups became more complex. We see how the propensity to make art has persisted but the forms have changed, from stone engravings to digital media. We like looking at other people, and this need for visual contact and stimulation is evident in our extensive material culture that implies human action, dating back to the early Pleistocene.

Culture: The Adapted Mind and Epigenetics

Culture is a broad term that includes any number of values, beliefs, and practices of a group or across groups. There are many groups, each with its distinct culture. At the same time, I can use the terminology human culture since there are universal practices in many global communities. For our purposes, art behavior holds meaning for a particular group, but the fact is that universally human beings express meaning symbolically. A discussion of culture is necessary since it encompasses the evolution of mind, the creation of material goods, and art making. Sociologist W.G. Runciman (2005) notes how there are critics to the notion that culture evolves. These critics seem to say that some form of Darwinian selection is merely applied in a metaphorical way to culture. Runciman insists that as in biology, heritable variation occurs in cultural evolution with some obvious differences concerning transmission. Imitation and learning are responsible for cultural evolution. Nevertheless, how are genes implicated in learning, and do these become expressed only in certain environments?

Richard Alexander (2005) addresses skeptics about the complexity of human consciousness evolving from simple organisms by reminding them that our individual life history, in fact, begins on the cellular level. Developmental transitions take place. Similarly, skeptics doubt any adaptive function of the arts: how did art behavior begin and why? Alexander suggests that science is meaningful facts for large groups while arts are meaningful expression for individuals or small groups. I don’t disagree, but we need not separate science from arts in the human scale. Both are creative methods to understand the environment and even control behavior. Splitting intellectual activity and consciousness into two or more domains is somewhat useful but does not consider the entire picture. Each brain, in spite of its multiple modules, is networked and works for the organism. Groups, whether small or large, are a collection of networked brains. Feeling and reason work in both science and in the arts, together or in competition, to achieve a beneficial outcome.

My point is that the arts evolved through material culture along with our higher consciousness and reason across millions of years. This evolution is in part genetic but also epigenetic, spreading through inheritance but also by cultural means. Art behavior did not suddenly spring up in caves circa 30kya, as many people seem to believe. The perceptual basis and pleasure for line, form, and color preceded any ability to apply line and color to a wall and create form. Social group norms evidenced in material culture helped spread behaviors that became abstract.

Alexander (2005) links concealed ovulation, male-female bonding, altrical nourishment, and brain/social development to demonstrate how parental care led to the evolution of social behavior. Where is art making here? Kathryn Coe’s (2003) ancestress hypothesis provides at least one clue where emphasis is placed on maternal care and the presentation of children. As hinted at by me, so too in how kin-on-kin attention to appearance and bodily adornment build from sensory pleasures to symbolic behavior. Bonding would occur with a mother’s care to an infant’s looks; likewise, physical ornamentation would generate male-male respect. Multiply the possible combinations of variation in large populations.

At the beginning of his book, Wired for Culture, biologist Mark Pagel (2012), offers the astounding statistic that, at the time of his writing, there were about seven thousand languages across the globe, some within a stone’s throw of each other. This fact alone is evidence of the highly-fractured tribal mentality of culture that is part of our species. In sharp contrast to some animals of the same species, we often cannot communicate with other human beings in spite of our linguistic capacities. In terms of cultural evolution and transmission, however, ideas themselves can, as Pagel says, “jump from mind to mind...” (3) in an epigenetic fashion. The epigenome is DNA-like compounds in the environment that can turn genes on/off. These compounds derive from food and chemicals in the environment, whether naturally occurring or manufactured. This means that one’s epigenome can change dramatically from time to time. In other words, epigenetics explains the explosion of so many cultures and cultural practices, even between different cultures which might copy only certain behaviors. In spite of our parentally inherited genes and social environment, we are able to explore any ideas from any culture. Indeed, as a species, we tend to use the accrued information found in culture more, to some extent, than our genes in addressing the problems of existence.

We see cultural effects in tools. The oldest crude tools are from Kenya and date to 3.3mya, used by Australopithecus. More refined tools, demonstrating thought and planning, appear 2.5mya manufactured by Homo habilis. As Genevieve von Petzinger (2016) says, our ancestors were not as opportunistic with tools as chimpanzees. While chimpanzees will use stones to crack open nuts, they take advantage of what’s at hand. When Homo habilis used a tool, however, it was not temporary. Imagining and fabricating a symmetrical, polished, balanced tool anticipates, because it is like, art making behavior. All of the thought involved in fabricating the tool in group culture, cooperatively and competitively, points to how theory of mind is part of the process. Over time and as the human brain increased because of social pressures, skills used for the making of implements employed theory of mind to create what we’d call art forms.

There are, as examples, pierced and painted shells and engraved stone in Blombos cave, South Africa, circa 75kya, as well as beads of red ochre probably to paint something, from Pinnacle Point, South Africa, circa 160kya. This ochre would have been treated with heat to alter the color, a process that can be dated to at least 150kya. There are also geometric shapes on a piece of ochre at this site from about 100kya, indicating early recorded symbolism. Von Petzinger (2016) dates the color red from grinding materials to 300kya in Zambia, the result of substances sought out and transported to a permanent location. There could simply be a functional reason for the red preference, as well. Higher in iron, this compound would have been stronger. Color symbolism could involve theory of mind as a viewer tries to understand the user’s intentions, just as the maker tries to anticipate a viewer’s reaction. Furthermore, von Petzinger (2016) finds in caves from Africa to Israel not only an abundance of evidence that ochre was being manufactured to produce various colors. Patterns also appear on the ochre, as well as on bones, like “rows of lines”; “crosshatched or fan-shaped”; and other complex signs and patterns (61). These markings from at least 100kya will appear much later as rock art in Spanish and French caves. My point is that more than wondering what type of symbolism these marks evince is how the inscriptions acted as signs implicit in theory of mind which further fueled the epigenome.

Rock art, for instance, can be seen as texts in a cultural context, according to Robert Layton (1985). There are differences between geometric patterns (across Australia) and silhouettes (coastal Australia). Many Australian clans have specific geometric designs in body painting, and if another clan copies the design it’s considered theft of both identity and property. Therefore, long range theory of mind is required with inter-group artistic activity. It’s worth noting that while rock art is a later development than stone tools, stone is still the medium. Charlotte Townsend-Gault (1998) cautions, however, about extremes in considering an art object only in context and thus diminishing it or focusing too much on art as the answer to a past social system. Stepping back from these opposites we see, nevertheless, how material culture and art making both with theory of mind co-evolved in our large and multi-group sociality.

Scholars debate the origins of symbolic culture. More close to 80kya we begin to see, says Pagel (2012), jewelry like shell beads, teeth, ivory, or ostrich shells strung together; bone, antler, and ivory artifacts; bows and nets; more sophisticated tools. Before shells were drilled so as to be strung together, they might have been collected and shared nonetheless. Sally McBrearty and Alison Brooks (2000), followed by April Nowell (2013), place symbolic art forms much earlier and even among Neanderthals.Von Petzinger (2016) says there is some Neanderthal rock art, though it’s an open question if this is self-created or through the influence of Homo sapiens. Early Neanderthal constructions in a French cave discussed by Jacques Jaubert et al. (2016) also complicate the picture of a purely Homo sapiens “art history.” Jaubert dates the geometrical arrangement of stalagmite pieces at about 175kya and among the oldest human constructions, evincing so-called modern behavior of social organization in Neanderthals. Robert Bednarik (2013), too, says bodily adornment, or self-awareness stitched across hominids and hominins alike, dates to 2mya and renders any cognitive super development at 50kya or thereabouts as unlikely. How did early modern humans react to any other cultural artifacts they found? Did these artifacts contribute to their epigenome? The findings and ideas of these researchers clearly help my argument.

As Michael Tomasello (2014) says, we are one of the few species that does not simply mimic observed behavior in our learning. We improve what we learn, improvise, and make our productions more sophisticated, which in turn are imitated and improved upon over and again. Part of this stems from our theory of mind which enables us to take on another person’s point of view. This perspective taking is important socially since it helps us attempt to comprehend the significance and meaning of other people’s actions. We re-tool mental behaviors and value-laden attitudes. Since we can and do share intentionality we have the ability to segment our psychological states and transfer them among others. This ability co-evolved with material culture to produce art making. Art is a symbolic pointing, and we enjoy the challenge of picking up the artist’s cue.

Adaptive Functions: Selection and the Human Psyche

Literary Darwinist Joseph Carroll (2013) outlines some functions of art that could be adaptive. For instance, pictorial representations could supply geographical, climatic, and wildlife information. Visual art could be a means of offering a different solution to a problem. Plastic and musical arts could provide value symbols to bind members of a group. Any form of art could have served to stimulate cognitive mechanisms to enhance memory, engage in mental play, or permit display of social status or sexual desire. The final outcome, says Carroll, is that whichever of these functions one takes into account, all engage the human imagination, which is mentality to perceive, process, contemplate, copy, and respond to the social and natural worlds. For me, the emphasis is on how a material object activates theory of mind to render estimates about the maker, her intentions, and the object’s functional and possible symbolic value.

Similar to Carroll, Ellen Dissanayake (1988) also lays out an explanation about some adaptive functions of art: 1. Arts are widespread across cultures and have been for millennia, which suggests that there is an evolutionary benefit; 2. Arts are not necessarily stand-alone but part of many human activities, further attesting to their adaptive value; 3. The arts please us, and in nature many advantageous adaptations provide pleasure. Progressively in times after prehistory, what were social practices and rituals have become a means for us to achieve other ends, whether political or personal. Nevertheless, at base we can see how arts function on a basic mental level of individuality, cooperation, social sharing, or competition. 

Terrence Deacon (1997) says our artistic creations were not necessarily inevitable and were perhaps products or byproducts in reaction to changes of the physical geography, climate, and pliable materials. Deacon claims that there is no solid connection between artifacts and enhanced communication. Nevertheless, watch a great ape when he is given some novel object. Like us, the mental guessing begins instantly as the object is physically examined. The question about whether or not the arts are evolved adaptations remains, but the position taken here is that arts as material culture are adaptive. Certainly because of runaway, ephemeral preferences some forms of what we call art, superficial fads or fashion trends, serve no adaptive function now. The larger the community the more varied the art culture, where some can even be self-debilitating. At base, however, we are a creative species that shapes ideas and values through materials in order to engage other minds.

Neurobiology and Cognition: Consciousness and Representation

I end my argument with mentality and psychology because, as should be evident, theory of mind and artifacts in prehistory drove our consciousness and cognitive culture together. It is my intention to privilege one aspect of the adaptability of art over another since, as I say, the advent of material culture was both a product and a producer of the evolution of theory of mind. Robert Belton et al. (2006) in World Art quotes the nineteenth century sculpture Harriet Hosmer as saying that “art is not the technique but the ‘design’ – the intellectual component of the work” (9). A note of caution: neurobiology explains how the mind works but not why. We have art for psychological (theory of mind) and not for neurobiological reasons. Frans de Waal (2016) says “cognition reflects the body’s interactions with the world” (159). Like de Waal, I’d lay less emphasis on human uniqueness and more stress on continuities with nonhuman primates. However, cognition depends on the surroundings since genes respond to environment. We share many genes with great apes but the genes seem to be like different mechanisms to achieve similar functions. It’s impossible to claim that one gene is solely responsible for any behavior, and so too with art making. The so-called language gene, FOXP2, for example, appears not only in Neanderthals but in other species like birds, yet we are the only ones with grammatical language. There is no spontaneous evolution but, instead, a long continuum. Wernicke’s area in the brain, for language comprehension, is found in apes and human beings. Language is not a prerequisite for intelligence, since communication depends on who hears what about the environment. It’s not that cognitive culture makes us better, just different. Art behavior is how we manage and negotiate large-scale theory of mind across time and different ethnic cultures.

Art, Ambiguity, and Making Meaning

Shirley Brice Heath (2006) writes how any irregularities arouse our curiosity. Artistic culture can be an enigma of incompletion that cognitively challenges us to attempt completion. We like to solve puzzles. We have peripheral vision for a reason, says Margaret Livingstone (2002): to scope out details that might be important. Heath raises the notion that artistic culture is a form of mental play we actively participate in not only for enjoyment but also to satisfy an unconscious need for brain health. This approach accommodates subjectivity and cognition. One of the important components of mentalizing in artistic culture for both artist and viewer is how we are tested with un-puzzling as-if and what-if scenarios. Painted cave art, whether at Chauvet in France or Sulawesi in Indonesia, might not be the earliest “art” since unpreserved mental scene recreation might be much older. Why do images on walls appear so late? Of course it’s a bit of a dodge to say early images on external walls would have been lost, but that’s a possible explanation. In fact, maybe the paintings were, first, external; then, when the painters saw the loss over time, they went inside. Of course it’s perhaps a false analogy to say the fork, too, was a late development as an eating utensil. Other nascent forms of material and art cultures were likely serving the imaginative purpose that finally became parietal art.

Cognitive play in art is a welcome form of detection where we attempt to connect the dots and literally figure out what we are seeing. Even in cave paintings there are arrays of dots and lines. Surely any what-if visual configurations are adaptive. This mental play, says Heath, will strive to make what is temporary permanent and what is piecemeal whole. To achieve these mental feats implies that within the mind we have the ability for completion of the as-if and what-if scenarios. Paul Armstrong (2013) emphasizes how the brain is “decentered” (xi, 52) in its neural networks. Art enables the play and interchange of neurons constituting this loose arrangement. Because of fMRI technology we now know there is a visual word form area in the brain. People across cultures associate sounds with certain shapes, so there is some neurobiological basis in graphic patterns. This old area is crucial not only in terms of graphics but in recognizing objects and is adapted to artistic culture. The point here is that aesthetic experience varies across brain regions while at the same time there are specific brain regions for color and facial recognition. That is, aesthetic experience is mental and emotional guessing like theory of mind.

There is plasticity of response since the number of neurons is fixed but not synaptic connections that rise and fall with use. Armstrong (2013) quotes neuroscientists Jean-Pierre Changeaux and Stanislas Dahaene as saying that an aesthetic experience is about harmony and pattern. Meanwhile, neuroscientist V.S. Ramachandran (1999) points not to how art achieves synthesis of perception but distortion. Armstrong suggests, as part of my argument, that while we might now separate “art” from everyday experience that was not always the case, as we can see from the evolved brain neurobiology just mentioned. Through the brain’s plasticity artistic culture is learned and can, after initial rejection because of difficulty, be accepted later as pleasurable. Armstrong’s notion of art and aesthetic experience as brain play between pattern and ambiguity is close to my suggestion. Indeed, theory of mind is mental play in trying to understand the texture of another’s thinking or puzzling out another’s dissonant expressions. We seek control and meaning; we negotiate mental conflicts – adaptive advantages. We ply thoughts and meanings through artistic culture as well. There is no way, really, for anything artistic to be completely finished once we take into account the many recursive interpretations by viewers.

Genevieve von Petzinger (2016, chapter 13) tells a wonderful story about La Dame de St. Germain-la-Rivière, who was buried 16kya with a beautiful, polished necklace made of deer teeth. Each tooth was engraved with a geometric sign, and von Petzinger has seen many of these signs on cave walls dated much earlier. These deer did not live at the burial site (Dordogne) and were costly from many hunts. Von Petzinger was able to categorize the forty-five different markings and says, for example, that an asterisk on one tooth also appears at five different caves. Von Petzinger’s whole exercise of piecing together the string of teeth (whose sequence had been lost) and the signs proves our theory of mind. We search for meaning and try to make order, evident in the engraver, the wearer, and the paleoanthropologist. Although we don’t know what these signs mean, the bottom line is that they are evidence of recorded marks for memory transport, sharing, and display. These are, quite possibly, early evidence of graphical writing, especially since there are compound geometric shapes. We understand that the emblems mean something.

There might even be mirror neuron activity in viewing art since we are attempting to intuit another’s intentions, whether the artist or another viewer. Importantly, there are canonical neurons which seem to respond to objects that hold the potential for action. These neurons respond because the object represents latent motor activity past and future. As Armstrong (2015) says, there are “traces of agency embedded in objects...” (150). Such agency stirs us as agents of thought and action to move or construct. Francis Crick and Christof Koch (2003) talk about a penumbra effect whereby an object or event holds not only salient features but suggestions of past and future associations. Thus, seeing is doing since an image or object at rest, like a string of artfully engraved animal teeth, excites one to organize them.

Canonical and even mirror neurons, say Vittorio Gallese and David Freedberg (2007), are implicated in “simulated embodiment.” There is a visceral response to some works of art and even to commonplace objects. Eveline Seghers (2014) points to how in 1987 philosopher Daniel Dennett coined the term “design stance” to indicate how we will try to observe an object from the perspective of the maker. From the vantage point of physical reaction one is able to make an aesthetic evaluation. Tone Roald (2015) suggests that the subject of aesthetics is the viewer. There is a precognitive empathetic interaction with material and art culture via canonical and mirror neurons that is then processed on a higher level. This is true, too, in the case of the artist who has historically inherited a stock of emotional culture that can be included in her work. Contrary to Gallese and Freedberg, Robert Casati and Allesandro Pignocci (2007) say that canonical and mirror neurons play no part in an aesthetic judgment; any empathetic response to art need not have a basis in the mirror system. Compared with Roald, this sounds like Kant’s disinterested subject. We know, however, that art is not purely a function of the rational mind, and theory of mind is not wholly rational. While I’ve been arguing for art as a means of social communication, the fact is that by its abstract and symbolic nature art is ambiguous and tantalizes us to discover its meanings.

Is imagination a byproduct? Are mental representations byproducts? As Samuel Moulton and Stephen Kosslyn (2009) correctly ask, the key question is not what is imagery but what is the psychological function of imagery. The answer is that mental images allow us to simulate outcomes and so make assessments and predictions. Imagery enables us to take external reality into our minds for storage and manipulation. Part of our evolved architecture, it seems, is precisely that we calculate levels of danger or the fruits of resources based on sketchy perceptions. Shirley Heath (2006) says that a portion of our evolved understanding of perceptions seeks meaning to decide on movements. We like graphic art since it echoes the visual trials we undoubtedly encountered in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness: finding patterns, comprehending lines and color, understanding movement. As an example, Heath offers Diego Rodriguez Velázquez Las Meninas (1656), which shows a regal couple presented through a mirrored image. The viewer is invited to re-frame what she sees in order to complete the painting. Part of our evolved neurobiology is an aptitude not only to predict outcomes based on visual perception but also to revise our thinking about perceptions with new experience. 

Any theory about form in artistic culture, says George Lakoff (2006), must consider cognitive structures, related to the perception of movement, that are both primary and secondary. These pre-motor and motor brain structures make judgments about patterns and can, eventually, have been responsible for the basis of what we now call art. Though it appears static, visual art and sculpture contain movements of all kinds, overt and subtle, to which we unconsciously respond. Mental responses are clearly adaptive. Lakoff gives a cognitive hypothesis which suggests that between pre-motor and motor neurology we enable visual schematics such as on (above, contact support) and into (container, path, source/goal). The roots of these words have a physical reference. These are primitive mental devices useful for any number of scenarios and over time were utilized along with material behaviors to make art. As Lakoff suggests, our intellectual functions are only possible through our visual perceptions. Visual art and form are products of mirror neurons, or more precisely motor neurons, which fire in response to seeing other actions or in response in attempting to coordinate action. The artist creatively sees in the finished piece her movements as does the viewer imaginatively. There might be other movements implied in the seeing as well, guesswork implied in theory of mind. On a related note, we often confront with imagined physical vigor various types of visual ambiguity.

If cognition enables visual art, and if there is nothing more than a synaptic width between them, why can’t we say that in our species they evolved together? We have sight for an adaptive reason. We don’t have sight for cognition. We see to perceive, evaluate, and understand, to recreate so as to avoid or to approach. When those behaviors moved from cognition to durable forms, whether a string of beads, a cave wall, or a canvas, does that make them any less adaptive? That infinitesimally small margin between what can or cannot be rightfully labelled an adaptation is one of a few evolved mechanisms apparently separating us from apes, but similarly our brains evolved to respond to the obscure and uncertain.

Somewhat like Heath (2006), neurobiologist Semir Zeki (2006) tackles brain activity by addressing ambiguity, and he says that art in many ways duplicates brain functions in its attempt to understand an environment. In other words, any variants we find in art simply reflect how our brain tries to accommodate ambiguity we find in the physical world, including, I would add, the minds of other people.

Art can seem ambiguous because our brains are always in an interpretive mode where often there is no single answer. Zeki’s point seems to be that any ambiguity we find in art is not special since the brain itself is not a passive receptor but an active meaning maker. Rather than being discarded as useless, ambiguity becomes part of trying to find solutions. As an example, Zeki offers The Girl with a Pearl Earring (c. 1665) by Johannes Vermeer. He says the young female subject is simultaneously inviting,distant,erotic,chaste,resentful, or pleased and reflects the various interpretations of a face we’d likely confront in real life. The brain is an active meaning maker of various information inputs. Or at least the brain tries to make meaningfully coherent the bits and pieces it perceives. What Zeki implies is that there are adaptive functions in how our brains actively process data to make the best survival decisions, and these processes have transferred over to our bracing acceptance of ambiguity in art.

While the brain prefers stability in processing its environment it is designed to handle ambiguity and, in fact, invites mental play. Zeki’s (2003, 2006) conclusion is that in terms of neurobiology, ambiguity is not precisely uncertainty but the realization that our consciousness can accommodate a number of solutions to any one problem. In a similar vein, Thomas Scott-Phillips et al. (2011) suggest that visual art is not only a form of non-verbal communication but also demonstrates the artist’s intent to communicate in an artificially outward presentation. Scott-Phillips says that the viewer grasps the signs and symbols of communication but understands she has to determine the communicator’s meaning.

Differing slightly from the ambiguity hypothesis is Robert Pepperell’s (2015) idea that there’s a deliberate dichotomy in art. The viewer is aware of what is represented while simultaneously mindful of how the art was physically constructed. There is conflict between the completeness of what is perceived and in imagining how its materials seem to have been manipulated. For example, there could be discernable form and smooth pattern in spite of scattered lines and rough textures. A viewer might ask: What am I seeing and how was this made? Aesthetic experience, says Pepperell, echoing Tone Roald, lies in the strength of the dichotomy or how we negotiate expectations and meaning. This idea about dichotomy is what separates and joins in a continuum material and art culture. Problem solving in the face of ambiguity means juggling a number of mental representations at once, along with memory and predictions about the future. There can be several solutions or outcomes to a problem. We evolved our brains to anticipate and accept more than one answer in some situations, and this strategy is mirrored in theory of mind, material culture, and geometric or abstract art.


Gregory F. Tague, Ph.D., is a professor in the departments of Literature, Writing and Publishing / Interdisciplinary Studies at St. Francis College, Brooklyn, N.Y. This extended abstract essay is from his book Art and Adaptability: Consciousness and Cognitive Culture (Brill 2018). For a more full and updated discussion of theory of mind in apes, see chapter 2 of his book An Ape Ethic and the Question of Personhood (2020 Lexington Books)




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