It’s been a century and a half since Darwin dropped the E bomb. It’s taken long enough, but people are starting to connect the dots of our gene culture co-evolution. Seventeen years ago, Ellen Dissanayake wrote a book called Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why in which she offers a species-centric view of art that digs deep into our evolutionary origins for answers.
She proposes that art, or what she calls making special, was an evolutionary adaptation. She frames art as a collection of activities that, by leveraging our innate aesthetic response, attached emotion and hence assured special attention to those things most vital to our survival as a species.
Art was a means of coping with an onslaught of existential anxieties that acccompanied consciousness. Artistic activities were a means of elaborating and shaping participants’ thoughts and emotions, providing an illlusion of control. In the context of ritual, making things special created a wildly positive feedback loop of group efficacy and cohesion.
There has been a hoopla of media attention surrounding Denis Dutton’s new book The Art Instinct. It’s heartening to see these ideas entering the popular sphere. Read Homo Aestheticus first, though. I will go so far to say that it is the most important art book ever written. Regardless of its pending verification by the scientific community, it opens our eyes to a deep trove of answers and understanding of the arts and emphasizes their integral place in the fabric of our species.