The Arts after Darwin: A Brief Synopsis

Ellen Dissanayake, in her article The Arts after Darwin: Does Art have an Origin and Adaptive Function? (2008), argues for an adaptationist view of art, which takes as its central claim that while the arts are cultural, they are fundamentally related to biology. For Dissanayake, the advent of Darwinism in the domain of the humanities should signal a change in our thinking about the origin and purpose of the arts. We must broaden our understanding of art to see its ties to the biology of human nature (and the evolution of that biology). Adaptationism, for Dissanayake, is the belief that human actions (including art), biology and cognition evolved (adapted) to allow humans to survive and reproduce (p. 2). This view, according to Dissanayake, is wholly materialist in nature—there is no room for mind-body dualism or for anything other than biology (p. 2). All that is, is physical, and all we are as humans is biological. All human action, including artistic action, arises “fundamentally from an evolved human nature” (p. 2). Art finds its origins in biological evolution.

Dissanayake’s argument for her view takes five steps. First, art meets the characteristics of being adaptive: it is costly, it is found in adaptive conditions (centered on important life events), it is a source of pleasure, and it is universal (cross-cultural, across time, across age groups). Second, culture is a part of nature/biology, and if so, each part of culture (including art) requires a function (a purpose must be found for why something makes some fit, and something else makes some others not fit). Art has proximate functions like helping people earn a living, pleasing people, etc., which help people fulfill ultimate functions of survival and reproduction. The claim is made that people who adapted biologically to produce art “tended to survive and reproduce better than those who did not” (p. 6). Third, Dissanayake argues that there are four general thoughts about adaptive functions of art: art improves cognition, art can be used to manipulate others, art is sexy (helps artists display desirable qualities for a mate), and art reinforces social bonds. Dissanayake finds inadequacies with each of these four, and as her fourth major point in the argument, she promotes her own hypothesis that art functions as making something special (or what she terms “artifying”), as a social and not merely individual enterprise. Fifth, the earlier debunked purposes for art are merely ingredients of art that make it something special. The capacity for aesthetic appreciation evolved originally between adults and babies as a kind of self-other dance. Further, humans use art to cope with uncertainty and to provide behavior to socially constructed belief.

Art is a fundamentally human endeavor, and as humans are no more than electrochemistry and anatomical structure (p. 23), and their cultures are explainable through evolution and biology, so too their art-making is merely a part of biology. Meaning, for Dissanayake, is biological meaning. The meaning of art is biology.

What do you think about Dissanayake’s hypothesis?

Dissanayake, Ellen. (2008). The arts after Darwin: Does art have an original and adaptive function? In Zijlmans, K. & van Damme, W. World art studies: Exploring concepts and approaches, pp. 241-261. Amsterdam: Valiz.

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