Book Review

Alejandra Manjarrez

Stephen Davies:
The Artful Species. Aesthetics, Art, and Evolution.

Hardcover: 240 pages
Publisher: Oxford University Press, USA (January 6, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0199658544
ISBN-13: 978-0199658541
Price: 34.00 EUR

Why Did We Become Artists?

Is making art part of human nature? How does it fit in with evolution? Stephen Davis takes a critical view of what philosophers, evolutionary psychologists, neurobiologists and other academics have said about the topic.

The Spanish painter Pablo Picasso once stated, “after Altamira, all is decadence”. Altamira, located in Cantabria, Spain, is the cave in which the first prehistoric paintings were discovered (in 1879). If you have ever seen the impressive, nearly three-dimensional herd of steppe bisons on Altamira’s polychrome ceiling (see photo above), or the horses painted by our forebears inside the Chauvet cave in France, you probably feel as amazed as Picasso did by these stone age artistic expressions.

Why and how did we start to make and appreciate art, approximately 40,000 years ago (or even 250,000 years ago, as some archaeologists claim)? Are these behaviours only present in humans or do we share them with other animals? Were they evolved as adaptive features or rather as by-products of other adaptations – maybe the result of culture? In The Artful Species, Stephen Davis, professor of Philosophy at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, explores these questions through an overview of the research that has been done on the topic and an analysis of all the hypotheses that surround it.

Photo: J. C. Cañaveras/Univ. de Alicante

Where can we draw the line?

But to explore any relationship between evolution, art and aesthetics, we first need to clarify some concepts. How do we define art? Does the song “Happy Birthday To You” qualify as art? If drawing is art, what about the figures in an instructional manual? Or an even more extreme question: is birdsong art, as Charles Darwin believed? Where should we draw the line?

During the initial chapters, Davis deals with this debate. Although defining art and aesthetic values is quite a difficult enterprise, he reconciles the concepts that have been historically defined for both terms and believes that universal agreement may never be reached, but what matters are degrees of consensus. He is indeed reluctant to count “Happy birthday To You”, manual drawings and birdsong as art, but offers arguments to support that position, also aware that the topic is still very much open to discussion.

Devil’s Advocate

The authenticity of palaeolithic art was controversial into the early 20th century, as many experts doubted that stone age humans were bright enough to produce them. Stephen Davis, professor of philosophy at the University of Auckland, argues in his new book that art is even part of human nature.

Having clarified the necessary concepts, Davis mainly discusses two topics. One is related to our aesthetic tastes, such as why we like some animals, prefer certain landscapes and consider some human features beautiful. The second is related to our artistic skills, and he explores three possibilities for their origin, two of them linked to evolution. One explanation could be that art is an adaptation, perhaps for sexual selection or living in groups. Another putative explanation is art as a side effect, a by-product of another adaptation such as language or human consciousness. Or we could finally understand art as a technology, solely a product of culture.

Throughout the last decades, philosophers, neurobiologists, evolutionary psychologists and musicologists have defended or supported some of those hypotheses while denying others. Davis does not particularly favour any in his book. On the contrary, he is critical of the research and hypotheses reviewed. One wonders whether he will reach agreement with any of them at all. But his cautious approach to the topic is actually appreciated and needed in a subject where it is so easy for scientists to come up with stories that are difficult to support without evidence or empirical data.

Recommendations for readers

This book is wonderful for anyone seriously interested in the studies and hypotheses that have been offered about art as a result of biological or cultural evolution. It is clearly supported by an incredible amount of research and careful and intensive analysis. But do not expect an exciting or entertaining book. Davis’ critical attitude and rigorous overview will disappoint anyone looking for “an exciting answer” to the questions raised. Given the difficulties of assessing how art originated and evolved, no overriding conclusions can be reached.

The Artful Species has an introductory chapter to the theory of evolution, which might be useful for anyone who is not familiar with this idea. However, your Lab Times reviewer felt that this book is more readable and valuable for those with an existing understanding of evolutionary theory. If you fit this profile, are curious, patient and willing to learn more about the connection between art, aesthetics and evolution, this book is for you.

Letzte Änderungen: 07.08.2013