I remember the exciting debates in the early days of HBES (the Human Behavior and Evolution Society) in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when upstart David Wilson debated group (multilevel) selection with the grand masters of the conference, authorities such as George Williams and Richard Alexander.  That was nearly thirty years ago, and the opposition seemed to me (an evolutionary novice) formidable. It is truly gratifying to see how the subject of human behavior and evolution has expanded and been refined during those decades. And now D. S. Wilson is one of the luminaries. It is true that we build upon the shoulders of giants, and hone our new ideas on the seemingly impermeable armor that they wore in their time.

It is equally gratifying to find evidence, as in the four books under review, that the humanities (“the study of how people process and document the human experience”) are at last successfully becoming the object of scientific inquiry. If one includes the arts (which I might describe as “the ways that people emotionally express and transmit the human experience”) then I am not so sure that evolutionary scientists have yet paid sufficient attention to their contributions to the mechanisms of heredity listed by Wilson as essential to understanding human cultural evolution—epigenetic mechanisms, forms of social learning, and forms of symbolic thought.

If we think of the arts as more than individual objects or modern masterpieces (the usual subjects for studies of “art” by scholars of neuroaesthetics and evolutionary aesthetics) and include body ornamentation, costume, masks, dancing, singing, chanting, drumming or otherwise keeping time, performing, altering the environment, speaking poetically—often all or most of these performed concurrently, and if we think of all or most members of a group participating at the same time, we can begin to wonder why this sort of activity has been so important in tribal societies of the recent (and plausibly the ancestral) past.

As Wilson writes, we are the only species on earth that can transmit learned information across generations, but it has escaped attention that this transmission in non-literate societies is frequently due to ceremonies that are composed of arts. Take away the décor, panoply, rhythmic music and dance, literary language, and specially enhanced and demarcated physical space, and there is no ceremony—just a group of ordinary people standing or milling around and interacting in an ordinary way.  Using such devices as formalization, repetition, exaggeration, elaboration, and manipulation of expectation, the arts attract and focus attention, sustain interest, and arouse and shape feelings.  Thus it should not be forgotten that we are also the only species that can “maintain and transmit from one generation to another the emotional dispositions on which society depends for its existence.” These are the words of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, another “functionalist” cultural anthropologist whose ideas, like Durkheim’s, are intellectually unfashionable today. (Kudos to Wilson for mentioning Durkheim favorably).

Meaning-bearing messages in religious rituals are not simply handed down like objects inherited from one’s forebears or like information transferred—downloaded—from one generation to the next. It is important not to lose sight of the fact that ceremonies work by producing changes in and structuring feelings, and it is through the arts that feelings are evoked that give force and meaning to the beliefs and other “messages.” (Some religious doctrines are only implied or obscure). This is how religions “cause people to cooperate.” Emotions aroused by the arts are the neurobiological proximate mechanisms that make religious and other cultural retention and transmission possible. It is now recognized that moving together in time with others promotes the release of endogenous opioids (including oxytocin) that create feelings of trust, confidence, and unity. Oxytocin additionally reduces cortisol, thereby relieving feelings of stress and anxiety. Such effects are frequently noted as results of “religious belief and practice.” However, religious practice is essentially practice of the arts, which make beliefs and dogma vividly and indelibly memorable. The arts are not casual and trivial excrescences tacked on here and there; on the contrary, they work together to reinforce the emotional magnitude of the beliefs.

Studies of the “human cultural acquisition system,” then, need to include recognition of the fundamental significance of the arts. They are not only cultural acquisitions themselves, but once acquired are often necessary to the transmission of the rest of culture. Symbols are of course diagnostic of our species, but a symbol (whether visual or spoken) is much more powerful when “artified” than when unadorned.  Teamwork is more effective when reinforced by the arts (as insignia, uniform dress, enhanced private vocabulary, and other noteworthy indications of group unity).

The Axial Age brought new human institutions, no longer egalitarian as in tribal societies, but the arts continued to transmit and reinforce priestly and state power and eventually, today, to support our culture’s primary secular interests and values—commerce and entertainment.

If the humanities are now acceptable within the wide purview of evolutionary understanding, the arts remain its last unacknowledged topographical feature.

image credit: Vikramjit Kakati (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Published On: August 16, 2016

Ellen Dissanayake

Ellen Dissanayake

Ellen Dissanayake is an independent scholar, author, and lecturer whose writings about the arts synthesize many disciplines, including evolutionary biology, ethology, cognitive and developmental psychology, cultural and physical anthropology, cognitive archaeology, neuroscience, and the history, theory, and practice of the various arts. She is the author of three books published by the University of Washington Press: What is Art For?, Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why (translated into Chinese and Korean), and Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began, as well as more than eighty scholarly and popular articles and book chapters. Just published is an Italian translation of seven of her scholarly articles in a volume titled L’infanzia dell’esthetica: L’origine evolutive delle practiche artistiche. She has recently completed a book with Ekkehart Malotki, Early Rock Art of the American West: The Geometric Enigma. She is an Affiliate Professor in the School of Music at the University of Washington. See also www.ellendissanayake.com and her page on Academia.edu.

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