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Can art be explained by evolution?


Recently, there have been increasing attempts to explain the human ability to create and appreciate art in purely evolutionary terms, e.g., as an adaptation that is advantageous for our survival. In this fascinating essay/review, Adam Kirsch looks at several books that support these attempts, and finds the whole enterprise less than convincing.

[E]arlier theorists of evolution were reluctant to say that art was an evolutionary adaptation like language, for the simple reason that it does not appear to be evolutionarily adaptive. After all, every moment and every calorie spent carving a canoe, or building a cathedral, or writing a symphony, is one not spent getting food, evading predators, or reproducing. Not only is it not obvious that art and “high culture” help human fitness; as we have seen, there is a long tradition holding that the artist is peculiarly unfit for life, especially family life.

To avoid this contradiction, Stephen Jay Gould suggested that art was not an evolutionary adaptation but what he called a “spandrel” — that is, a showy but accidental by-product of other adaptations that were truly functional. Gould, Dutton writes, “came to regard the whole realm of human cultural conduct and experience as a by-product of a single adaptation: the oversized human brain.” Having a large brain was useful to our ancestors, allowing them to plan and to forecast and to cooperate and to invent; and it just so happens that a large brain also allowed them to make art. Stephen Pinker suggested something similar, if more disparagingly, when he described the brain as a “toolbox” which, in addition to promoting survival and reproduction, “can be used to assemble Sunday afternoon projects of dubious adaptive significance.”

The new Darwinian aesthetics is motivated by a desire to defend the honor of art against this kind of dismissal. In a strictly Darwinian nature, of course, there is no such thing as honor, value, or goodness; there is only success or failure at reproduction. But the very words “success” and “failure,” despite themselves, bring an emotive and ethical dimension into the discussion, so impossible is it for human beings to inhabit a valueless world. In the nineteenth century, the idea that fitness for survival was a positive good motivated social Darwinism and eugenics. Proponents of these ideas thought that in some way they were serving progress by promoting the flourishing of the human race, when the basic premise of Darwinism is that there is no such thing as progress or regress, only differential rates of reproduction. Likewise, it makes no sense logically for us to be emotionally invested in the question of whether or not art serves our evolutionary fitness. Still, there is an unmistakable sense in discussions of Darwinian aesthetics that by linking art to fitness, we can secure it against charges of irrelevance or frivolousness — that mattering to reproduction is what makes art, or anything, really matter.


The problem, for Boyd as for Richards before him, is that there is not the slightest plausibility to the claim that art renders us more “organized” or more “fit,” and there is considerable evidence to the contrary. To prove that art is directly adaptive, one would have to show that people who write symphonies or listen to symphonies have more children than people who do not. Or else one might devise a neurological test to show that an hour of Wagner renders your reflexes a millisecond or two quicker. If both these ideas are preposterous on their face, it is because our actual experience of art points so far from these conclusions. As Kant famously taught, the very definition of the aesthetic is that it is disinterested, that it has meanings but not utilities, that it suspends our involvement with practical and goal-oriented life, that it puts life at a distance so that we can judge it and escape it and even reject it. A truly Darwinian account of art would have to embrace this phenomenological reality, rather than simply positing what its premises compel it to posit, which is that art is essentially useful because it serves the biological cause of reproductive fitness.

The great irony of Why Lyrics Last is that in Shakespeare’s sonnets Boyd has chosen one of the supreme statements of the inferiority of physical life, and specifically of biological reproduction, to art. This is dramatized in the structure of the sequence, whereby the poet moves from urging his “fair friend” to become a father to boasting that his own poems will be his friend’s posterity: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Boyd is aware of this, of course, and he addresses Shakespeare’s treatment of death and immortality, but he does not seem aware of how deeply it undermines his own Darwinian analysis of art. When Shakespeare tells us repeatedly that it is better to write and be written about than to live and have children, he is positing a value directly opposed to biological necessity.
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