Has art evolved, like opposable thumbs and the whites of our eyes? If it has, will knowing so help us understand better not just art in general but particular works, even works of avant-garde art? Over recent decades many have come to accept that not only have humans evolved from other animals but that many features of their minds and behavior can be explained by the deep past of evolution.1 Yet art remains a puzzle for biocultural analysis. How can we explain art in the hard-nosed terms of biological advantage, especially if it lacks analogies or precursors in other species and seems so pleasurably part of being distinctly human?2
Nevertheless we have good reasons to examine whether art might be an adaptation. All cognitively normal individuals in all known societies engage in some form of art, actively or at least passively: music and dance, story, visual art. No one has to be pressured into listening to music on a radio or an iPod. And like language but unlike reading and writing, art develops reliably to a basic level without special training.
Art could be what evolutionary biologists call a byproduct, a mere side-effect of our bigger brains or of culture. Yet that seems unlikely. Byproducts by definition do not offer advantages in terms of survival and reproduction: a bodily or behavioral feature whose design offers such advantages we classify as an adaptation. But if art were a byproduct, if it offered on average no advantage in terms of survival and reproduction, many generations of intense evolutionary competition would have eliminated it. If art offered no benefits but exacted the costs it does in time, [End Page 31] energy and resources, it would over many generations have been selected against through the superior fitness of those less inclined to pay such costs, those who preferred to devote their time and energy to securing material or social advantage or simply to save energy by resting.
We can understand art in all its varieties, I suggest, as cognitive play with pattern, with multiple, high-intensity patterns. Play exists throughout much of the animal kingdom: in all mammals in which it has been looked for, in birds, and even in invertebrates like octopi. Play, like sleep and dreaming, puzzles and fascinates biologists because it is so widespread and so highly conserved (evolutionary lineages in which play has arisen do not lose it as they continue to evolve) that it must fulfill some function, because it has high costs in energy and risk, and because its functions are not as evident as those of "serious" behavior.3
The amount of play in a species correlates highly with the flexibility of its behavior. In all species in which it occurs, play seems remarkably self-rewarding. Animals like pigs and rats play compulsively. In fact this seems the core of play: the self-rewarding nature of play makes animals engage in exuberant, intense behaviors that, under conditions of relative security, allow them to extend their capacities and improve their competence in situations of minimal risk. The skills honed will prove of advantage in real world situations where it is too late to learn on the job, in situations like fight or flight. Because play is compulsive, animals engage in it again and again, incrementally altering their neural wiring, strengthening and speeding up synaptic pathways, improving their capacity and performance.
Humans uniquely inhabit what has been called "the cognitive niche":4 we gain most of our advantages from intelligence. We have an appetite for information, and especially for pattern, for information that falls into meaningful arrays from which we can make rich inferences. We therefore like bright, distinct colors, crisp outlines, complex shape or surface design: think of our special fondness for butterflies and flowers. And we have an appetite for open-ended pattern, new kinds of patterns, not only the patterns we have evolved to detect automatically. Vervet monkeys signal to one another in different ways when they see snakes, or leopards, or eagles, because they need to react in different ways to different threats, but they never learn to associate...