Biological Theory

, Volume 10, Issue 1, pp 73–85 | Cite as

The Evolutionary Significance of the Arts: Exploring the By-product Hypothesis in the Context of Ritual, Precursors, and Cultural Evolution

  • Derek Hodgson
  • Jan Verpooten
Long Article


The role of the arts has become crucial to understanding the origins of “modern human behavior,” but continues to be highly controversial as it is not always clear why the arts evolved and persisted. This issue is often addressed by appealing to adaptive biological explanations. However, we will argue that the arts have evolved culturally rather than biologically, exploiting biological adaptations rather than extending them. In order to support this line of inquiry, evidence from a number of disciplines will be presented showing how the relationship between the arts, evolution, and adaptation can be better understood by regarding cultural transmission as an important second inheritance system. This will allow an alternative proposal to be formulated as to the proper place of the arts in human evolution. However, in order for the role of the arts to be fully addressed, the relationship of culture to genes and adaptation will be explored. Based on an assessment of the cognitive, biological, and cultural aspects of the arts, and their close relationship with ritual and associated activities, we will conclude with the null hypothesis that the arts evolved as a necessary but nonfunctional concomitant of other traits that cannot currently be refuted.


Adaptation Arts By-product Evolution Ritual 



JV thanks the Research Foundation Flanders (FWO) for support (Grant no. G085012N).


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Copyright information

© Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of ArchaeologyUniversity of YorkYorkUK
  2. 2.Research Center for Marketing and Consumer Science, Faculty of Economics and BusinessUniversity of LeuvenLeuven LouvainBelgium
  3. 3.Research Group Ethology, Department of BiologyUniversity of AntwerpWilrijkBelgium

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