[ CogSci Summaries home | UP | email ]

de Sousa, R. (2004). Is art an adaptation? prospects for an evolutionary perspective on beauty. Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 62(2), 109-118.

author = {de Sousa, Ronald},
title = {Is Art an Adaptation? Prospects for an Evolutionary perspective on Beauty},
journal = {Aesthetics and Art Critism},
year = {2004},
volume = {62},
number = {2},
pages = {109-118}

Author of the summary: Philipp Kabbabe, 2012, philipp_15_34@hotmail.com

Cite this paper for:

In Ronald De Sousa’s 2004 article “Is Art an Adaptation? Prospects for an Evolutionary Perspective on Beauty”, he looks at four different arguments which “claim that art has a biological function” (de Sousa, 2004). There are three ways in which something can evolve in a biological system. The first is that art could be an adaptation which means that it has a proper function of a biological system. A proper function is a function of an organism which directly contributes to the survival of the organism. For example, the heart pumps blood through the body and produces sounds, but only the former is a proper function. The second way art could have arisen within a biological system is as an exaptation. Exaptations are properties of an organism which evolved to perform one function but are forced to perform another function because of selective pressures. For example, “the small bones in our middle ear” (de Sousa, 2004) where originally used for chewing and are now used for hearing. The third way that art could have evolved in a biological system is as a spandrel. A spandrel is something that was never subjected to selective pressures and therefore is not an adaptation. A spandrel can be thought of as a side effect of another function. These side effects do not aid in the survival of an organism because they are never exposed to the environment. [109-111]

The first argument that de Sousa looks at is by Ellen Dissayanake. Dissayanake argues that art is an adaptation, that it is universal and innate. de Sousa disagrees with all three of these points. He argues that most adaptations are actually exaptations. With regard to being universal he argues that “universal implementation is irrelevant to the genuineness of functions” (de Sousa, 2004). It is possible that art just rarely performs its proper function. With regard to art being innate, de Sousa argues that some things that are universal are not innate and that some things that are innate are not universal. [111-112]

The second argument that de Sousa discusses is by Frederick Turner who also argues that art is an adaptation. Turner’s argument is best described by an example. He argues that bees are attracted to flowers because of their color. Bees find certain colors beautiful which attracts them to certain flowers, providing them with food and aiding in their survival. However, de Sousa argues that the color of the flowers is simply a way of signaling the bees. In a sea of green grass a green flower does not stand out. It is easier for bees to locate flowers that are anything but green. The bees are not attracted to certain colors because they are beautiful but because they are simply easier to locate. [112]

The third argument concerns sexual selection and niches. It is possible that some random event in the past created a new niche which resulted in different selective pressures. For example, some random event could have resulted in large antlers being something that was desired because it aided survival. By the time that the particular niche in which large antlers aided survival is abandoned, the desire for large antlers may have become innate and thus continuing the selection of large antlers. Large antlers may lead to an extreme case where the antlers are a hindrance resulting in the death of the species. However, before such an extreme is met, large antlers (beauty) would be a desirable trait and thus increase the reproductive success of the organism. This would make art an exaptation of a trait that originally aided in survival. [113-114]

The last argument states that art is a form of representation and our brains are used to create representations in order to understand the world. The function of the brain is to understand the world. When a particular stimulus is difficult to understand it feels good to figure it out because knowing one’s environment is beneficial to survival. The argument states the people enjoy art because the brain enjoys making sense of the world. Therefore, art can be thought of as an exaptation of our desire to interpret external stimuli. The joy experienced in understanding the world around us is a motivator for us to understand our environment. The understanding of our environment in turn aids our survival. The cognitive mechanisms for understanding a piece of art are the same as for understanding our environment and thus produce the same feelings of pleasure. [114-117]