Biology of Art


Hi all ūüôā

I’m sat upstairs at the Estoril Congress Centre¬†having lunch at Behaviour 2017. I attended a great session yesterday on the behavioural approach to understanding the biology of art. This was completely new to me and i’ve put together is a summary followed by some of my thoughts.

Ellen Dissanayake introduced us to some of the background and history of art as a subject within biology. It was disheartening hearing about the struggles of her and others at the start to even establish it as an area of study. She brought us to the ‘Artification Hypothesis‘ which, to my best understanding, posits that there are precursor behaviours to (the) art(s). For example, transforming the ordinary into the extra-ordinary, including the purposing of normal behaviours into embellished ones. This follows a structured pattern: Formalise, Repeat, Exaggerate, Elaborate, Manipulate expectations. In this way, art is based on turning typical behaviours into exaggerated rituals. Ellen also discussed how they have been shown benefits of art including unifying groups and reducing stress.

Alejandra Wah¬†told us about some of the cognitive processes underlying artistic abilities. She took us through some history the area which started with simply measuring brain responses to the presentation of art. She then introduced the newer field of neuroaesthetics which tries to combine methods of neuroscience with the appreciation for art. However, this area seems to equate art exclusively with beauty. She then went on to talk about how we have 4 cognitive means of processing the environment which build upon and are dependent on each other. These included simple perception through to imagination of absent objects. This is mirrored in 4 meta-cognitive means of processing yourself including knowledge of one’s own experiences. It is the more complicated layers of this such as self-imagination which is argued to be human-specific and to permit art.

Larissa Soraffon¬†focused on differences in aesthetic as opposed to social emotions. She started by outlining that art is thought to be something which invokes emotions but that “aesthetic emotions” are ill-defined. She noted that core emotions are phyogenetically conserved across the majority of vertebrates and that evolution tends to build upon rather than create from scratch so perhaps a sense of aesthetic emotion came from more simple vertebrate emotions. She supports this idea by noting that the earliest records of human art coincided with increases in social group size and thus cooperation beyond immediate family. Additionally, humans behaviourally respond to art in a similar way to how they do to people. For example, by showing preferences to familiarity in both. Finally, art appreciation appears to rest upon social brain regions.

Piotr Podlipniak took us from the general to the specific by discussing singing as an adaptive human behaviour. He stated that components of singing involve pitch syntax (the fancy way of saying that order of sounds carries meaning) and musical pulse (rhythm). Singing is dependent on, amongst others, vocal control over a base note, perception of certain pitches as units of sound, a learning of order as well as relations of pitches and rhythms. He proposes that the best model for the evolution of singing is the Baldwin Effect in which a learned trait is eventually transformed into an innate one. In this scenario, were singing a learned ability which required much investment but carried benefits to the species then any slight predisposition to do so would have conferred significant benefits and as such spread through the population.

So what do I think about all of this? Firstly, I feel an undercurrent across all of the discussions is the prior assumption that art is uniquely a human trait. Whilst it may be so, I don’t feel that we get anywhere starting with such a blanket assumption. Every time traits have been assumed to be unique to humans (culture, teaching, language for example) they have been found across the animal kingdom. Not always to the same extent but certainly equivalent once you start to actually think about what these behaviours are. Secondly, I’d like to extend the cognitive comments about self-imagination and posit that perhaps a function of art is that it allows self-exploration. In a similar way in which play fighting allows animals a safe way to practice hunting skills, perhaps art allowed individuals to explore themselves and how they fit in the world without actually having to do so (and fall victim to that pesky lion). It’s a quick thought and i’m by no means swatted up on this topic but it was one that came to mind.

Lastly, I can’t help but feel that, at least at the very beginning, art was a mere byproduct of a freer and potentially more bored brain. Let me illustrate my thoughts with an analogous example. The Bengalese finch, an animal commonly studied for its song learning, is a human-domesticated version of the White-rumped munia (which still lives in the wild).

Bengalese finches were taken in by breeders ~300 years ago and selected for nothing more than their plumage; as a result, they show great variety in colouration. As a byproduct, however, they also developed incredible flexibility in their song learning which resulted in a huge amount of variation between individual birds as well as some variation within the individual’s song. This is shown below with the rather straight forward song of the wildling underneath the multipart, multi-ordered domesticated strain.

The bengalese have also been shown to respond to sequence order (syntax) appropriately (if you want to know more, search bengalese finch song learning and/or Kazuo Okanoya). It’s been suggested that through domestication the Bengalese were freed from typical natural selection which removed constraints on their brain development which in turn were redirected towards vocal complexity. In this way, through selecting for one trait (plumage) the resulting freedom allowed development of another (song). Further more, sexual selection still operates in this species as females select males based on aspects of their song so despite being removed from natural selection they are still able to experience sexual selection.

So what does this all have to do with human art? Well there is a major theory that humans have undergone domestication, not by some external being but by ourselves. You can read about it in Bruce Hood’s ‘The Domesticated Brain‘ or in the 7 points outlined here¬†and there is other evidence including how our brains are now smaller than they once were which tends to occur under domestication. What also tends to happen is a reduction in aggression¬†which is completely compatible with the timing of the first art. This was concurrent with the increase in group size which would have required the promotion of cooperation and in turn selection against the most aggressive. In this situation, selection for cooperativity and against aggressiveness was the driver of self-domestication. The relative increase in safety and freedom afforded by living in substantially larger groups could have permitted lower predation levels, less pressure from natural selection, and thus flexibility in brain development required for the creation of art. This idea has already been put forward for the evolution of language by¬†Okanoya himself¬†as well as here and here thus it is not a novel concept.

Once established, art could then have functioned in all the ways currently thought including social bonding, monitoring in-group versus out-group members, and sexual selection (much like the bengalese finch). But the origin and first adaptation would simply be a byproduct of a freer brain living in a larger group.