The Louis Armstrong Gene


Where is art in the theory of evolution?

About the same place as cheesecake, according to Steven Pinker, one of the world's most influential thinkers. He's Professor of Psychology at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and has written about art from the perspective of evolutionary psysychology in a number of books and articles including How The Mind Works. 

He argues that the arts “are not adaptive in the biologist’s sense of the word” and describes them as something akin to drugs or cheesecake. They are pleasure technologies, he argues; their function is to figure out how to get at the pleasure circuits of the brain and deliver little jolts of enjoyment.

They are not adaptations that helped us evolve but by-products of evolutionary development – luxury items we have acquired along the way. He gives the example of reading which could not have been any use to us as hunter-gatherers in a savannah environment and which arose out of other evolved traits like pattern recognition and the desire to communicate.

The belief that culture and art is a sort of luxury item or afterthought is probably shared by most of us, including most readers and theatre-goers.

But why has this this idea survived in the face of all material evidence?

From a scientific point of view one indicator of the importance of art to the human animal is its universality. Every society that we know of, from New Guinea primitive peoples to the present-day Bronx, produces music or dance or performances or narratives, usually all of them. Even more tellingly each individual that is born has art functionality; we don’t need to be taught how to watch cartoons or how to follow a story. No one teaches us metaphor,  yet at eighteen months a child in her high-chair can pick up a bit of bread and pretend it's a plane, knowing her mother will understand perfectly. 

This is sometimes called "symbolic thinking" and we encourage its development in our pre-school children by engaging them in pretend-play, and stories, and painting. But the teachers are developing something that is already there, hard-wired in the children's brain structure and biology: the ability to see that one thing can stand for another thing which it does not physically resemble in any way. If a child does NOT have this ability, the teachers and parents panic, suspecting righly that there is something very badly wrong with the child's wiring. 

The arguments I have used above - the universality of art and the fact that each individual comes with functionality - are the very ones Steven Pinker uses to argue that language (as opposed to art) is adaptive. He describes language as an instinct, like spiders weaving webs or beavers building dams. It's built in. We may imagine we are teaching children language but in situations where there are no adults to teach them children will create their own language.  They don't create "primitive" languages (pointing at something and giving it a name), they create language with plurals and question mark inflections, nouns, adjectives, verbs and jokes.  They spontaneously create grammar.

If Steven Pinker can see that langauge is an adaptation, why does he baulk at the arts? Possibly because he is conceptualizing the arts (as most of us do) as a leisure activity, a non-essential, an irrelevance to the struggle for survival.  

But art is how we discovered things. It's a tool of knowledge, a method of knowing. What if - before someone made a wheel - what if someone drew a wheel or drew four wheels and showed it to someone else - and on the basis of that drawing the two of them made a cart? After all, we know that people imagined and drew helicopters and submarines before helicopters and submarines existed.  You might say, "Yes, but a drawing of a wheel is not art, it's design, it's illustration" - but surely that is splitting hairs.  The basic functionality is the ability to share a work of the imagination, like the little girl making a plane out of a piece of bread, to entertain herself and her mum.  

I could make more superficial arguments for art-functionality being an evolutionary adaptation. I could say that if music be the food of love it can confer a reproductive advantage. So can beads and jewellery and dance and making other people laugh through jokes or clowning.  

But nothing confers advantage more than knowledge does and art is always about social knowledge - knowledge of ourselves and others. Imagine you are a hunter-gatherer. And imagine some of your tribe create a story or enact a story about a fictional hunter-gatherer tribe in which there is conflict because a small sub-group within the tribe are conspiring to deceive the rest. Think of the consciousness-raising this might create. Now you not only know there is such a thing as conspiracy to deceive, you know that others are conscious of the same thing.  

Art is central to our existence. Look how much time it occupies in the lives of ghetto kids, how much staus it has - music, movies, dance, stories, bullshitting. Has all this art got nothing to do with surviving?  Whether you're a ghetto kid or an Ice Age hunter gatherer, art and the need for art arises out of the stress of living in groups and gives us ways to identify or not identify with others.    

Art is a necessity, not a luxury. It is born out of difficulty and trauma. That's why I'm calling it the Louis Armstrong gene.  

The theatre director Peter Brook tells a lovely story about being in hungry, cold, demoralized Hamburg in 1946 and following a crowd of kids through a night-club door into a space where two clowns are sitting on a cloud on their way to visit the Queen of Heaven. One clown says to the other, what will we ask her for? Dinner, comes the reply. Ah. And what will we have for dinner? Well, says the other, what about sausages? Chops. Cabbage. Potatoes. On and on, listing the things no one can find any more, can hardly remember. At first the kids howl with delight but then a silence falls on them, what Brook calls "a true theatrical silence". Maybe in the darkness they are feeling something even deeper than hunger.   Something almost as necessary as food.