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Sensory exploitation and cultural transmission: the late emergence of iconic representations in human evolution

Abstract

Iconic representations (i.e., figurative imagery and realistic art) only started to appear consistently some 45,000 years ago, although humans have been anatomically modern since 200,000–160,000 years ago. What explains this? Some authors have suggested a neurocognitive change took place, leading to a creative explosion, although this has been contested. Here, we examine the hypothesis that demographic changes caused cultural “cumulative adaptive evolution” and as such the emergence of modern symbolic behavior. This approach usefully explains the evolution of utilitarian skills and tools, and the creation of symbols to identify groups. However, it does not equally effectively explain the evolution of behaviors that may not be directly adaptive, such as the production of iconic representations like figurines and rock art. In order to shed light on their emergence, we propose to combine the above-mentioned cultural hypothesis with the concept of sensory exploitation. The concept essentially states that behavioral traits (in this case iconic art production) which exploit pre-existing sensory sensitivities will evolve if not hindered by costs (i.e., natural selection). In this view, iconic art traditions are evolved by piggybacking on cumulative adaptive evolution. Since it is to date uncertain whether art has served any adaptive function in human evolution, parsimony demands paying more attention to the primary and afunctional mechanism of sensory exploitation as opposed to mechanisms of models based exclusively on secondary benefits (such as Miller’s, for instance, in which art is proposed to evolve as a sexual display of fitness).

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Notes

  1. The term “psychosensory” is used here as a synonym for “sensory” to stress that we do not only focus on hidden preferences but also on adaptive sensory biases (see further)—which often have a learned and emotional aspect, and a psychological, social and even cultural dimension.

  2. For biologists the term “mimic” usually refers to a whole, mimicking organism (e.g., Pasteur 1982), but Maran (2007, p. 237)—in our opinion usefully—argues from the semioticist view: “…neither the mimic nor the model needs to be a whole organism but can be just a part of an organism both in spatial or temporal terms or just a perceptible feature.” Therefore, here we use mimic in the latter sense.

  3. In this case, the adaptive attention toward vital reproductively functional parts of her own body.

  4. Some also make a distinction between biophilia and biophobia: the former refers to positive, while the latter to negative affective states towards natural-like processes and elements (see Ulrich 1993). This, however, seems largely a terminological discussion. The crux of the matter is that there are some biologically based affective responses to biological categories.

  5. According to Boyd and Richerson (1985, p. 278) each culture may contain a number of afunctional or counterfunctional traits.

Abbreviations

SE:

Sensory exploitation

UP:

Upper Paleolithic

LSA:

Late Stone Age

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Acknowledgements

We thank one anonymous referee, Johan Braeckman and his research group, Andreas de Block, Tijs Goldschmidt, Yannick Joye, and Alexander Verpoorte for sharing useful suggestions and commenting on earlier drafts. Also many thanks to Lokaal01_Antwerpen (www.lokaal01.org) for the opportunity to discuss our ideas among scientists and artists. Last but not least we thank Nathalie Gontier and the other members of the organizing committee for having us at the conference.

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Verpooten, J., Nelissen, M. Sensory exploitation and cultural transmission: the late emergence of iconic representations in human evolution. Theory Biosci. 129, 211–221 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12064-010-0095-7

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Keywords

  • Sensory exploitation
  • Cultural transmission
  • Iconic representations
  • Mimicry
  • Demographic transition
  • Evolution of art