Expertise Affects Aesthetic Evolution in the Domain of Art

Evidence from Artistic Fieldwork and Psychological Experiments


An unmade bed. A cigarette glued to the wall. A replica of a soup can box. Drippings on a canvas. Can an evolutionary approach help us understand the production and appreciation of, sometimes perplexing, modern and contemporary art? This chapter attempts at this by investigating two hypotheses about the evolution of human aesthetics in the domain of art. The first hypothesis, commonly called evolutionary aesthetics, asserts that aesthetic preferences, such as those for particular faces, body shapes and animals, have evolved in our ancestors because they motivated adaptive behavior. Artworks (e.g., those depicting facial beauty) may exploit these ancestral aesthetic preferences. In contrast, the second hypothesis states that aesthetic preferences continuously coevolve with artworks, and that they are subject to learning from, especially prestigious, other individuals. We called this mechanism prestige-driven coevolutionary aesthetics. Here I report artistic fieldwork and psychological experiments we conducted. We found that while exploitation of ancestral aesthetic preferences prevails among non-experts, prestige-driven coevolutionary aesthetics dominate expert appreciation. I speculate that the latter mechanism can explain modern and contemporary art’s deviations from evolutionary aesthetics as well as the existence and persistence of its elusiveness. I also discuss the potential relevance of our findings to major fields studying aesthetics, that is, empirical aesthetics, and sociological and historical approaches to art.


Evolutionary aesthetics Prestige bias Coevolutionary aesthetics Art appreciation Artistic research Expertise Cultural evolution theory 



I thank Siegfried Dewitte, Julien Renoult, and Jeanne Bovet for their comments. I also thank Julien Renoult for inviting me to contribute to this volume.


  1. Altman, M. N., Khislavsky, A. L., Coverdale, M. E., & Gilger, J. W. (2016). Adaptive attention: How preference for animacy impacts change detection. Evolution and Human Behavior, 37(4), 303–314. Scholar
  2. Barrett, H. C. (2015). Adaptations to predators and prey. In The handbook of evolutionary psychology (pp. 1–18). Hoboken, NJ, USA: Wiley.
  3. Bloom, P. (2010). How pleasure works: The new science of why we like what we like. Random House.Google Scholar
  4. Bourdieu, P. (1979). Le sens commun: La distinction critique sociale du jugement. Paris: Les Editions de Minuit.Google Scholar
  5. Boyd, B. (2009). On the origin of stories: Evolution, cognition, and fiction. Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (1985). Culture and the evolutionary process. University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  7. Bullot, N. J., & Reber, R. (2013). The artful mind meets art history: Toward a psycho-historical framework for the science of art appreciation. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 36(2), 123–137. Scholar
  8. Cupchik, G. C., & László, J. (1992). Emerging visions of the aesthetic process: In psychology, semiology, and philosophy. Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Danto, A. (1964). The artworld. The Journal of Philosophy, 61(19), 571–584.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Davies, S. (2012). The artful species. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Dissanayake, E. (1988). What is art for? Seattle: University of Washington Press.Google Scholar
  12. Dissanayake, E. (1995). Homo aestheticus: Where art comes from and why. Seattle: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  13. Dissanayake, E. (1998). Komar and melamid discover pleistocene Taste. Philosophy and Literature, 22(2), 486–496. Scholar
  14. Dutton, D. (2003). Aesthetics and evolutionary psychology. In J. Levinson (Ed.), The Oxford handbook for aesthetics. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Dutton, D. (2009). The art instinct: Beauty, pleasure, and human evolution. Bloomsbury Press.Google Scholar
  16. Falk, J. H., & Balling, J. D. (2010). Evolutionary influence on human landscape preference. Environment and Behavior, 42(4), 479–493. Scholar
  17. Fitch, W. T. (2006). The biology and evolution of music: A comparative perspective. Cognition, 100(1), 173–215. Scholar
  18. Garcia, C. M., & Lemus, Y. S. (2012). Foraging costs drive female resistance to a sensory trap. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 279(1736), 2262–2268. Scholar
  19. Garcia, & Ramirez, E. (2005). Evidence that sensory traps can evolve into honest signals. Nature, 434, 501–505. Scholar
  20. Gombrich, E. (1951). The story of art. London: Phaidon.Google Scholar
  21. Grosenick, U., & Riemschneider, B. (Eds.). (2005). Art now: 81 artists at the rise of the new millennium. Köln: Taschen.Google Scholar
  22. Hart, L. M. (1995). Three walls: Regional aesthetics and the international art world. In The traffic in culture: Refiguring art and anthropology (pp. 127–150).Google Scholar
  23. Headland, T., Pike, K., & Harris, M. (Eds.). (1990). Emics and etics: The insider/outsider debate. Newbury Park: Sage.Google Scholar
  24. Henrich, J., & Broesch, J. (2011). On the nature of cultural transmission networks: Evidence from Fijian villages for adaptive learning biases. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 366(1567), 1139–1148. Scholar
  25. Henrich, J., & Gil-White, F. J. (2001). The evolution of prestige: Freely conferred deference as a mechanism for enhancing the benefits of cultural transmission. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22(3), 165–196. Scholar
  26. Henrich, J., & McElreath, R. (2003). The evolution of cultural evolution. Evolutionary Anthropology. Scholar
  27. Hodgson, D., & Watson, B. (2015). The visual brain and the early depiction of animals in Europe and Southeast Asia. World Archaeology, 47(2014), 776–791. Scholar
  28. Joye, Y., & De Block, A. (2011). “Nature and I are two”: A critical examination of the biophilia hypothesis. Environmental Values, 20(2), 189–215. Scholar
  29. Leder, H., Belke, B., Oeberst, A., & Augustin, D. (2004). A model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments. British Journal of Psychology, 95, 489–508. Scholar
  30. Leder, H., Gerger, G., Dressler, S. G., & Schabmann, A. (2012). How art is appreciated. Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts, 6(1), 2–10. Scholar
  31. Leder, H., & Nadal, M. (2014). Ten years of a model of aesthetic appreciation and aesthetic judgments: The aesthetic episode—Developments and challenges in empirical aesthetics. British Journal of Psychology, 105, 443–464. Scholar
  32. Lewens, T. (2015). Cultural evolution: Conceptual challenges. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Little, A. C., Jones, B. C., & DeBruine, L. M. (2011). Facial attractiveness: Evolutionary based research. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 366(1571), 1638–1659. Scholar
  34. New, J., Cosmides, L., & Tooby, J. (2007). Category-specific attention for animals reflects ancestral priorities, not expertise. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 104(42), 16598–16603. Scholar
  35. Ohman, A., & Mineka, S. (2001). Fears, phobias, and preparedness: Toward an evolved module of fear and fear learning. Psychological Review, 108(3), 483–522. Scholar
  36. Orians, G. H., & Heerwagen, J. H. (1992). Evolved responses to landscapes. In Adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture (pp. 555–579). Oxford University Press.
  37. Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  38. Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Viking.Google Scholar
  39. Prum, R. O. (2013). Coevolutionary aesthetics in human and biotic artworlds. Biology and Philosophy, 28(5), 811–832. Scholar
  40. Renoult, J. P. (2016). The evolution of aesthetics: A review of models. Aesthetics and Neuroscience, 271–299. Scholar
  41. Richerson, P. J., Boyd, R., & Henrich, J. (2010). Gene-culture coevolution in the age of genomics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 107(Suppl), 8985–8992. Scholar
  42. Schacht, A., Werheid, K., & Sommer, W. (2008). The appraisal of facial beauty is rapid but not mandatory. Cognitive, Affective & Behavioral Neuroscience, 8(2), 132–142. Scholar
  43. Sperber, D., & Hirschfeld, L. A. (2004). The cognitive foundations of cultural stability and diversity. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 8(1), 40–46. Scholar
  44. Sterelny, K. (2016). Cultural evolution in California and Paris. Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. Scholar
  45. Thompson, D. (2008). The $12 million stuffed shark: The curious economics of contemporary art. Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  46. Thornhill, R. (2003). Darwinian aesthetics informs traditional aesthetics. In E. Voland & K. Grammer (Eds.), Evolutionary aesthetics (pp. 9–35). Berlin: Springer. Scholar
  47. Van de Cruys, S., & Wagemans, J. (2011). Putting reward in art: A tentative prediction error account of visual art. I-Perception, 2(9), 1035–1062. Scholar
  48. Verpooten, J., & Dewitte, S. (2017). The conundrum of modern art. Human Nature, 28(1), 16–38. Scholar
  49. Verpooten, J., & Nelissen, M. (2010). Sensory exploitation and cultural transmission: The late emergence of iconic representations in human evolution. Theory in Biosciences, 129(2–3), 211–221. Scholar
  50. Voland, E., & Grammer, K. (2003). Evolutionary aesthetics. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Windhager, S., Atzwanger, K., Bookstein, F. L., & Schaefer, K. (2011). Fish in a mall aquarium-An ethological investigation of biophilia. Landscape and Urban Planning, 99(1), 23–30. Scholar
  52. Wolfe, T. (1975). The painted word. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.Google Scholar
  53. Yang, J., Wang, A., Yan, M., Zhu, Z., Chen, C., & Wang, Y. (2012). Distinct processing for pictures of animals and objects: Evidence from eye movements. Emotion, 12(3), 540–551. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Behavioral Engineering Group, Faculty of Economics and BusinessUniversity of LeuvenLouvainBelgium
  2. 2.Research Group Behavioural Ecology & Ecophysiology, Department of BiologyUniversity of AntwerpAntwerpBelgium

Personalised recommendations