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

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Abstract

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.

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Notes

  1. This is exemplified in the fact that, since the beginning of the 20th century, aesthetic appeal also began to lose its central position in Western art as illustrated by the (in)famous example of Duchamp’s urinal of 1917, and by the 1960s the idea of beauty had virtually disappeared from contemporary art (Danto 2003).

  2. Yet this, in turn, begs the question of what AMHGs themselves meant by functional, as this will have differed from the way it is defined in the modern sense, since in the latter case this depends on a reliable utilitarian outcome predicated on sound empirical evidence. In fact, for AMHGs, the world was considered suffused by and dependent on various forces and invisible agents that a person or community regarded as decisive for survival (Ingold 2006; Fausto 2007; Carneiro 2010; VanPool and Newsome 2012). Thus, AMHGs did not subscribe to the modern dichotomy of functional/non-functional in that the significance of most, if not all things, centered on animistic agents that could potentially inhabit, in one form or another, all aspects of the world. Thus, an object from a culture might to modern humans appear purely utilitarian, but, to those originally responsible for the artifact, significance would have been accorded based on other-worldly agents (see, e.g., VanPool and Newsome 2012). This shows that Dissanayake’s dichotomy between the functional and non-functional is inappropriate. From this perspective, what is regarded as practical on a functional level today is different from how this is understood by traditional hunter–gatherer groups. For example, AMHGs might hold that the weather could be influenced by appealing to invisible agents and, in this sense, is “functional” in that a particular ritual or the use of an item employed in ritual could generate the required outcome. This is different from how functionality is referred to in modern parlance where a particular utilitarian outcome results from a specified practical procedure based on a naturalistic/materialistic outlook (Carneiro 2010).

  3. Not all uses of adaptive psychological mechanisms are adaptive. Thus, (1) the use of these mechanisms for art is only adaptive if, and only if, they have been selectively modified for the evolutionary function art may have. (2) They can be exaptive in cases where they increase reproductive success but without selective modification (i.e., exaptation; see below), and (3) if no benefits, they are a by-product.

  4. We mean relative parsimony, as traded against model complexity (i.e., goodness of fit), and not parsimony in absolute terms as in the principle of Occam’s razor, since parsimony is not defensible in the generalized way implied by Occam’s razor (Sober 2006).

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Acknowledgments

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

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Hodgson, D., Verpooten, J. The Evolutionary Significance of the Arts: Exploring the By-product Hypothesis in the Context of Ritual, Precursors, and Cultural Evolution. Biol Theory 10, 73–85 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13752-014-0182-y

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