ANIMAL ORIGINS OF ART
Art is often viewed as lacking animal precursors, cultivated solely for pleasure, and serving no biological function. In fact, even art experts have been unable to distinguish human artworks from those produced by apes and elephants. Like the bower decorations of bowerbirds, human art may have evolved as a signal of status and thereby helped us to pass on our genes. Georgia O'Keeffe's drawings were slow to win recognition for her, but Siri's drawings brought her acclaim as soon as other knowledgeable artists saw them. 'They had a kind of flair and decisiveness and originality'—that was the first reaction of the famous abstract-expressionist painter Willem de Kooning. Jerome Witkin, an authority on abstract expressionism who teaches art at Syracuse University, was even more effusive: 'These drawings are very lyrical, very, very beautiful. They are so positive and affirmative and tense, the energy is so compact and controlled, it's just incredible. . This drawing is so graceful, so delicate. . This drawing indicates a grasp of the essential mark that makes the emotion.
Witkin applauded Siri's balance of positive and negative space, and her placement and orientation of images. Having seen the drawings but knowing nothing about who made them, he guessed correctly that the artist was female and interested in Asian calligraphy. But Witkin did not guess that Siri was 8 feet tall and weighed 4 tons. She was an Asian elephant who drew by holding a pencil in her trunk. de Kooning's response to being told Siri's identity was, 'That's a damned talented elephant. Actually, Siri was not extraordinary by elephant standards. Wild elephants often use their trunks to make drawing motions in the dust, while captive elephants often spontaneously scratch marks on the ground with a stick or stone. Hanging in many doctors' and lawyers' offices are paintings by an elephant named Carol, who sold dozens of her works at prices of up to 500 dollars. Supposedly, art is the noblest distinctively human attribute—one that sets us apart from animals at least as sharply as does spoken language, by differing in basic ways from anything that any animal does. Art ranks as even nobler than language, since language is really 'just' a highly sophisticated advance on animal communication systems, serves an obvious biological function in helping us to survive, and obviously developed from the sounds made by other primates. In contrast, art serves no such transparent function, and its origins are considered a sublime mystery. But it is clear that elephant art could have implications for our own. At the minimum, it is a similar physical activity resulting in products that even experts could not distinguish from human products accepted as constituting art. Of course, there are also huge differences between Siri's art and ours, not least of which is that Siri was not trying to communicate her message to other elephants. Nevertheless, we cannot just dismiss her art as a quirk of one individual beast.
In this chapter I shall go beyond elephants to examine art-like activities of some other animals. I believe that the comparisons will help us understand the original functions of human art. Thus, although we usually consider art to be the antithesis of science, there may really be a science of art.
To appreciate that our art must have some animal precursors, recall from Chapter One that it is only about seven million years since we branched off from our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees. Seven million years sound like a lot on the scale of a human lifetime, but they are barely one per cent of the history of complex life on Earth. We still share over ninety-eight per cent of our genes with chimps. Art and those other features that we consider uniquely human must be due to just a tiny fraction of our genes. They must have arisen only a few moments ago on the evolutionary time clock.
Modern studies of animal behaviour have been shrinking the list of features once considered uniquely human, so much so that most differences between us and so-called animals now appear to be only matters of degree. For example, I described in Chapter Eight how vervet monkeys have a rudimentary language. You may not have considered vampire bats allied with us in nobility, but they prove to practise ^reciprocal altruism regularly (towards other vampire bats, of course). m°ng our darker qualities, murder has now been documented in innumerable animal species, genocide in wolves and chimps, rape in Ucks and orangutans, and organized warfare and slave raids in ants.
As absolute distinctions between us and animals, these discoveries leave us few characteristics besides art, which we managed to dispense with for the first 6,960,000 of the seven million years since we diverged from chimps. Perhaps the earliest art forms were wood carving and body painting, but we would not know because they are not preserved. The first preserved, even questionable, hints of human art consist of some flower remains around Neanderthal skeletons, and some scratches on animal bones at Neanderthal campsites. However, their interpretation as having been arranged or scratched intentionally is in doubt. Not until the Cro-Magnons, beginning around 40,000 years ago, do we have unequivocal evidence for art surviving in the form of the famous cave paintings, statues, necklaces, and musical instruments. If we are going to claim that true art is unique to humans, then in what ways do we claim that it differs from superficially similar productions of animals, like bird-songs? Three supposed distinctions are often put forward: that human art is non-utilitarian, that it is only for aesthetic pleasure, and that it is transmitted by learning rather than through our genes. Let's scrutinize these claims more closely.
Firstly, as Oscar Wilde said, 'All art is quite useless. The implicit meaning a biologist sees behind this quip is that art is non-utilitarian in a narrow sense employed within the fields of animal behaviour and evolutionary biology. That is, human art does not help us to survive or to pass on our genes, which are the readily discernible functions of most animal behaviour. Of course, most human art is utilitarian in the broader sense that the artist thereby communicates something to fellow humans, but transmitting one's thoughts to the next generation is not the same thing as transmitting one's genes. In contrast, bird-song serves the obvious functions of wooing a mate, defending a territory, and thereby transmitting genes.
Regarding the second claim that human art is instead motivated by aesthetic pleasure, Webster's dictionary defines art as 'the making or doing of things that have form or beauty'. While we cannot ask mockingbirds and nightingales if they similarly enjoy the form or beauty of their songs, it is suspicious that they sing mainly during the breeding season. Hence they are probably not singing just for aesthetic pleasure. As for human art's third claimed distinction, each human group has a distinctive art style, and the knowledge of how to make and enjoy that particular style is learned, not inherited. For example, it is easy to distinguish typical songs being sung today in Tokyo and in Paris. But those stylistic differences are not hard-wired in our genes, as are the differences, say, in the eyes of Parisians and Japanese. Parisians and Japanese can and often do visit each other's cities and learn each other's songs. In contrast, many species of birds (the so-called nonpasserine birds) inherit the knowledge of how to produce and respond to the particular song of their species. Each of those birds would produce the right song even if it had never heard it, and even if it had heard only the songs of other species. It is as if a French baby adopted by Japanese parents, flown in infancy to Tokyo, and educated there began spontaneously to sing the 'Marseillaise'.
At this point, we may seem to be light-years removed from elephant art. Elephants are not even closely related to us evolutionarily. Much more relevant to us are the artworks that were produced by two captive chimpan/ees named Congo and Betsy, a gorilla called Sophie, an orangutan named Alexander, and a monkey named Pablo. These primates variously mastered the media of brush or finger-painting and pencil, chalk, or crayon drawing. Congo did up to thirty-three paintings in one day, apparently for his own satisfaction, as he did not show his work to other chimps and threw a tantrum when his pencil was taken away. For human artists, the ultimate proof of success is a one-man show, but Congo and Betsy were honoured by a two-chimp show of their paintings in 1957 at London's Institute of Contemporary Art. The following year, Congo had a one-chimp show at London's Royal Festival Hall. What is more, almost all of the paintings on exhibit at those chimp shows sold (to human buyers); plenty of human artists cannot make that boast. Still other ape paintings were surreptitiously entered into exhibits by human artists and were enthusiastically acclaimed by unsuspecting art critics for their dynamism, rhythm, and sense of balance. Equally unsuspecting were child psychologists who were given paintings by chimps from the Baltimore Zoo and were asked to diagnose the painters' problems. The psychologists guessed that a painting by a three-year-old male chirnp was instead by an aggressive seven- or eight-year-old boy with paranoid tendencies. Two paintings by the same one-year-old female chimp were attributed to different ten-year-old girls, one painting indicating a belligerent girl of the schizoid type, the other a paranoid girl with strong father identification. It is a tribute to the psychologists' insight that they intuited the artist's sex correctly in each case; they were only wrong about the artist's species.
These paintings by our closest relatives do start to blur the distinction between human art and animal activities. Like human paintings, the ape paintings served no narrow utilitarian function of transmitting genes, and were instead just produced for satisfaction. One could object that the ape artists, like the elephant Siri, made their pictures just for their own satisfaction, while most human artists aim to communicate to other nans. The apes did not even keep their paintings to enjoy themselves simply discarded them. Yet that objection does not strike me as fatal, e the simplest human art (doodling) is also regularly discarded, and since one of the best pieces of art I own is a wood statue carved by a New Guinea villager who discarded it under his house after carving it. Even some human art that later became famous was created by artists for their private satisfaction: the composer Charles Ives published little of his music, and Franz Kafka not only did not publish his three great novels but even forbade his executor to do so. (Fortunately, the executor disobeyed, thereby forcing Kafka's novels to take on a communicative function posthumously.)
However, there is a more serious objection against claiming a parallel between ape art and human art. Ape painting is just an unnatural activity of captive animals. One might insist that, since it is not natural behaviour, it could not illuminate the animal origins of art. Let us therefore turn now to some undeniably natural and illuminating behaviour: bowerbirds' building of bowers, the most elaborate structures built and decorated by any animal species other than humans. If I had not already heard of bowers, I would have mistaken the first one I saw for something man-made, as did nineteenth-century explorers in New Guinea. I had set out that morning from a New Guinea village, with its circular-huts, neat rows of flowers, people wearing decorative beads, and little bows and arrows carried by children in imitation of their fathers' larger ones. Suddenly, in the jungle, I came across a beautifully woven, circular hut 8 feet in diameter and 4,feet high, with a doorway large enough for a child to enter and sit inside. In front of the hut was a lawn of green moss, clean of debris except for hundreds of natural objects of various colours that had obviously been placed there intentionally as decorations. They mainly consisted of flowers and fruits and leaves, but also some butterfly wings and fungi. Objects of similar colour were grouped together, such as red fruits next to a group of red leaves. The largest decorations were a tall pile of black fungi facing the door, with another pile of orange fungi a few yards further from the door. All blue objects were grouped inside the hut, red ones outside, and yellow, purple, black, and a few green ones in other locations.
That hut was not a child's playground. It had instead been built and decorated by an otherwise unimpressive jay-sized bird called a bower-bird, a member of a family of eighteen species confined to New Guinea and Australia. Bowers are erected by males for the sole purpose of seducing females, who then bear the sole responsibility for building the nest and rearing the young. Males are polygamous, try to mate with as many females as possible, and provide the female with nothing except sperm. Females, often in groups, cruise around the bowers and inspect all the ones in the vicinity before selecting one at which to mate. Human equivalents of such scenes are played out every night on Sunset Strip, a few miles from my home in Los Angeles. Female bowerbirds select their bedmate by the quality of his bower, its number of decorations, and its conformity to local rules, which vary among species and populations of bowerbirds. Some populations prefer blue decorations, others red or green or grey, while some replace the hut with one or two towers, or a two-walled avenue, or a four-walled box. There are populations that paint their bowers with crushed leaves or else with oils that they excrete. These local differences in rules appear not to be hard-wired into the birds' genes. Instead, they are learned through younger birds observing older birds during the many years that it takes a bowerbird to reach adulthood. Males learn the locally correct way to decorate, while females learn those same rules for the purpose of choosing a male.
I tested the males' finickiness by moving decorations, whereupon the bower owner restored them to their original places. When I put out poker chips of various colours, the hated white chips were heaved off into the jungle, the beloved blue ones stacked inside the hut, and the red ones stacked on the lawn next to red leaves and fruits.
At first, this system strikes us as absurd. After all, what a female bowerbird is trying to do is to pick a good mate. The evolutionary winner in such a mate-selection contest is that female bowerbird who picks that male bowerbird who makes it possible for her to leave the largest number of surviving offspring. What good does it do her to pick the guy with the blue fruits? All animals face similar problems of mate selection. I have already discussed our own problems and solutions in Chapter Five. Consider those species (such as most European and North American songbirds) whose males carve out mutually exclusive territories that each male will share with his mate. The territory contains the nest site and food resources for the female to use in rearing her young. Hence a part of the female's task is to assess the quality of each male's territory.
Alternatively, suppose that the male himself will assist in feeding and protecting the young, and in hunting cooperatively with the female. Then the female and the male must assess each other's parenting and hunting skills and the quality of their relationship. All these things are hard enough to assess, but it is even harder for the female to assess a male when he provides nothing but sperm and genes, as is the case with male bowerbirds. How on earth is an animal to assess a prospective mate's 8lbnes, and what have blue fruits to do with good genes?
Animals do not have the time to produce ten offspring with each of many prospective mates, and to compare the outcomes (the eventual number of surviving offspring). Instead, they have to resort to shortcuts by relying on mating signals such as songs or ritualized displays. As I shall discuss at more length in Chapter Eleven, it is now a hotly contested problem in animal behaviour to understand why, or even whether, those mating signals serve as veiled indicators of good genes. We have only to reflect on our own difficulties in selecting mates and in assessing the true wealth, parenting skills, and genetic quality of our various prospective partners.
In this light, reflect what it means when a female bowerbird finds a male with a good bower. She knows at once that that male is strong, since the bower he assembled weighs hundreds of times his own weight, and since he had to drag some individual decorations half his weight from dozens of yards distant. She knows that the male has the mechanical dexterity needed to weave hundreds of sticks into a hut, tower, or walls. He must have a good brain, to carry out the complex design correctly. He must have good vision and memory to search out the required hundreds of decorations in the jungle. He must be good at coping with life, to have survived to the age of perfecting all those skills. He must also be dominant over other males—since males spend much of their leisure time trying to wreck and steal from each other's bowers, only the best males end up with intact bowers and many decorations.
Thus, bower-building provides a comprehensive test of male genes. It is as if women put each of their suitors in sequence through a weight-lifting contest, sewing contest, chess tournament, eye test, and boxing tournament, and finally went to bed with the winner. By comparison with bowerbirds, our efforts to identify mates with good genes are pathetic. We grasp at external bagatelles like facial features and ear lobe lengths (Chapter Five), or like sex appeal and Porsche ownership, which tell nothing about intrinsic genetic worth. Think of all the human suffering caused by the sad truth that beautiful sexy women or handsome Porsche-owning men often prove to have miserable genes for other traits. It is.-no wonder that so many marriages end in divorce, as we belatedly realize how badly we chose and how flimsy our criteria were. How did bowerbirds evolve to use art so cleverly for such important purposes? Most male birds woo females by advertising their colourful bodies, songs, displays, or offerings of food, as dim indicators of good genes. Males of two groups of birds of paradise in New Guinea go one step further by clearing areas on the jungle floor, as bowerbirds do, to enhance their displays and show off their fancy plumage. Males of one of those birds of paradise have gone still further by decorating their cleared areas with objects useful to a nesting female: pieces of snakeskin to line her nest, pieces of chalk or mammal faeces to eat for their minerals, and fruits to eat for their calories. Finally, bowerbirds have learned that decorative objects useless in themselves may nevertheless be useful indicators of good genes, if the objects are ones that were difficult to acquire and keep.
We can easily relate to that concept. Just think of all those advertisements showing a handsome man presenting a diamond ring to a seemingly fertile young woman. You cannot eat a diamond ring, but a woman knows that the gift of such a ring tells far more about the resources that her suitor commands (and might devote to her offspring and herself) than a gift of a box of chocolates would tell. Yes, chocolates provide a few useful calories, but they are quickly gone and any idiot can afford to buy them. In contrast, the man who can afford that inedible diamond ring has money to support the woman and her kids, and also has whatever genes (for intelligence, persistence, energy, etc.) that it took to acquire or hold on to the money.
Comparisons of different bowerbird species and their bowers show that male bowerbirds achieve through bowers what other birds achieve through bright plumage. Bowerbird species differ in the conspicuousness of adult male plumage. For example, males of the five species that build towers or huts sport brilliant yellow-orange crests, whose lengths vary among the species from 4 inches to nothing at all. The shorter the crest, the bigger the bower, and the more numerous and diverse its decorations. It makes sense that a male whose manly ornament is reduced to a runty 2 inches should go to great lengths to compensate in other ways.
Thus, in the course of bowerbird evolution the less resplendent males have lured the female's attention from ornaments that are permanent parts of the male's body to ornaments that the male gathers. Whereas sexual selection in most species has produced differences between males and females in their bodily ornaments (Chapter Six), in bowerbirds it has shifted towards causing males to emphasize collected ornaments separate from their bodies. From this perspective, bowerbirds are rather human. We, too, rarely court (or at least rarely initiate courtship) by displaying the beauties of our unadorned naked bodies. Instead, we swathe ourselves in coloured cloths, spray or daub ourselves with perfumes and paints and powders, and augment our beauty with decorations ranging from jewels to sports cars. The parallel between bowerbirds and humans may be even closer if, as friends of mine who are into sports cars assure me, duller young men tend to decorate themselves with fancier sports cars.
Now let's re-examine, in the light of bowerbirds, those three criteria supposedly separating human art from any animal production. Both bower styles and our art styles are learned rather than inherited, so that there is no difference by the third criterion. As for the second criterion (doing it for aesthetic pleasure), it is unanswerable. We cannot ask bowerbirds whether they get pleasure out of their art, and I suspect that many humans who claim to do so arejust putting on cultural affectations. That leaves only the first criterion: Oscar Wilde's assertion that art is useless, in a narrow biological sense. His statement is definitely untrue of bower art, which serves a sexual function. But it is absurd to pretend any longer that our own art lacks biological functions. Instead, there are several ways in which art helps us to survive and to pass on our genes.
Firstly, art often brings direct sexual benefits to its owner. It is not just a joke that men bent on seduction invite a woman to view their etchings. In real life, dance and music and poetry are common preludes to sex.
Secondly, and much more importantly, art brings indirect benefits to its owner. Art is a quick indicator of status, which—in human as in animal societies—is a key to acquiring food, land, and sexual partners. Yes, bowerbirds get the credit for discovering the principle that ornaments separate from one's body are more flexible status symbols than ornaments that one has to grow, but we still get credit for running away with that principle. Cro-Magnons decorated their bodies with bracelets, pendants, and ochre; New Guinea villagers today decorate theirs with shells, fur, and bird-of-paradise plumes. In addition to these art forms for bodily adornment, both Cro-Magnons and New Guinea villagers produced larger art (carvings and paintings) of world quality. We know that New Guinea art signals superiority and wealth, because birds of paradise are hard to hunt, beautiful statues take talent to make, and both are very expensive to buy. These badges of distinction are essential for marital sex in New Guinea: brides are bought, and part of the price consists of luxury art. Elsewhere as well, art is often viewed as a signal of talent, money, or both. In a world where art is a coin of sex, it is only a small further step for some artists to be able to convert art into food. There are whole societies that support themselves by making art for trade to food-producing groups. For example, the Siassi islanders, who lived on tiny islets with little room for gardens, survived by carving beautiful bowls that other tribes coveted for bride payments and paid for in food.
The same principles hold even more strongly in the modern world. Where we once signalled our status with bird feathers on our bodies and a giant clam shell in our hut, we now do it with diamonds on our bodies and a Picasso on our wall. Where Siassi islanders sold a carved bowl for the equivalent of twenty dollars, Richard Strauss built himself a villa with the proceeds from his opera Salome and earned a fortune from Der Rosenkavalier. Nowadays we read increasingly often of art sold at auction for tens of millions of dollars, and of art theft. In short, precisely because it serves as a signal of good genes and ample resources, art can be cashed in for still more genes and resources. So far, I have considered only the benefits that art brings to individuals, but art also helps define human groups. Humans have always formed competing groups whose survival is essential if the individuals in that group are to pass on their genes. Human history largely consists of the details of groups killing, enslaving, or expelling other groups. The winner takes the loser's land, sometimes also the loser's women, and thus the loser's opportunity to perpetuate genes. Group cohesion depends on the group's distinctive culture—especially its language, religion, and art (including stories and dances), hence art is a significant force behind group survival. Even if you have better genes than most of your fellow tribesmen, it will do you no good should your whole tribe (including you) get annihilated by some other tribe.
By now, you're probably protesting that I have gone completely overboard in ascribing utility to art. What about all of us who just enjoy art, without converting it to status or sex? What about all the artists who remain celibate? Are there not easier ways to seduce a sex partner than to take piano lessons for ten years? Is private satisfaction not a (the?) main reason for our art, just as for Siri and Congo?
Of course. Such expansion of behavioural patterns far beyond their original role is typical of animal species whose foraging efficiency gives them much leisure time, and who have brought their survival problems under control. Bowerbirds and birds of paradise have much leisure time, because they are big and feed on wild fruit trees out of which they can kick smaller birds. We have much leisure time because we use tools to obtain food. Animals with leisure time can channel it into more lavish signals to outdo each other. Those types of behaviour may then come to serve other purposes, such as representing information (a suggested function of Cro-Magnon cave paintings of hunted animals), relieving boredom (a real problem for captive apes and elephants), channelling neurotic energy (a problem for us as well as for them), and just providing pleasure. To maintain that art is useful is not to deny that art provides pleasure. Indeed, if we were not programmed to enjoy art, it could not serve most of its useful functions for us. Perhaps we can now answer the question why art as we know it characterizes us, but no other animal. Since chimps paint in captivity, why do they not do so in the wild? As a solution, I suggest that wild chimps still have their day filled with problems of finding food, surviving, and fending off rival chimp groups. If wild chimps had more leisure time plus the means to manufacture paints, they would be painting. The proof of my theory is that it actually happened: we are still ninety-eight per cent chimps in our genes.
Thus, human art has come far beyond its original functions. But let us not forget that even the greatest art may still serve those primal functions. As evidence, may I quote excerpts from a letter that an English lady named Rebecca Schroter wrote to the famous musician who was her lover:
I cannot close my eyes to sleep till I have returned you ten thousand thanks for the inexpressible delight I have received from your ever enchanting compositions and your incomparably charming performance of them. Be assured, my dear, that no one can have such high veneration for your most brilliant talents as I have. Indeed, my dear love, no tongue can express the gratitude I feel for the infinite pleasure your Music has given me. Let me assure you also, with heartfelt affection, that I shall ever consider the happiness of your acquaintance as one of the chief blessings of my life. I shall be happy to see you for dinner, and if you can come at three o'clock, it would give me great pleasure, as I should be particularly glad to see you, my dear, before the rest of our friends come.
Most sincerely, faithfully, and affectionately yours,
This letter of surrender was addressed to the composer Franz Josef Haydn, who, at the same time as he was enjoying this doting English lover, also boasted of an Italian mistress and an Austrian wife. Haydn knew how to use great art for its original purposes.