Art and Adaptability

Art and Adaptability: Consciousness and Cognitive Culture
. Leiden/Boston: Brill/Rodopi, 2018. ISBN: 9789004354524, 216 pgs., 5 color illustrations. Bibliography and Index.

This book presents a comprehensive survey and discussion of the dominant ideas by leading thinkers on why we make art. Approaches that examine the evolution of art behavior embrace natural selection, social selection, and cognition. I argue that material culture co-evolved with theory of mind to become what we now call art.

Some years ago because of my interest in the nature of consciousness I began reading in neuroscience, which quickly led me to biology and then to evolutionary psychology. I embarked on an overwhelming undertaking which culminated in my definitive work, Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness. In the long process of reading deeply and widely for that project I compiled a massive quantity of notes from which I’ve been able to spin off two more projects. One is the book Evolution and Human Culture, which has been published by Brill in their Value Inquiry Book Series/Cognitive Studies.

The other project was centered on the evolution of visual art and was conceived as a presentation. In the process of writing out my notes I soon realized I had yet another book on my hands, albeit small. After careful deliberation with my wife, Fredericka Jacks, we decided to release the book under our Bibliotekos imprint. In that way we had control over the project and would not charge an outrageous amount of money for an important academic book that can be of use to artists, art students, and art historians. We are pleased to say that Art and Adaptation was featured in the Books in Brief section of the December 2015 issue of Art in America.

However, I soon realized that the art and adaptation primer was not enough - there was no sufficient statement that could help form a trilogy of work I started with the other two books. So with more effort, I decided to argue for theory of mind as an important co-evolutionary force with material/artistic cultures.

Following the lead of some others  there is a controversial argument in Art and Adaptability: art making is at bottom adaptive. Art behavior is intimately entwined in our evolution and prehistory and helped solve problems and issues related to kin or group identification and cultural transmission. The book is not about art history but art evolution through material culture, symbolic inheritance, and social learning. In Making Mind I argued about the origin and evolution of narrative (long before what we call story), and I am confident that argument holds. In Evolution and Human Culture I argued for moral sensations underlying cultural behavior. So, these three books form a trilogy for those interested in evolutionary studies.



“Gregory F. Tague approaches two ancient questions, what is art and what does it do, in a new and intriguing way. Drawing on science, specifically evolution through natural selection, he proposes that art, like other forms of social behavior, is in part genetic, creative or imaginative impulse, and part environmental, social interaction. Support for this proposal comes from primate studies and current studies in neurobiology, cognition, intelligence and communication. He proposes, and I agree, that culture is common among great apes with whom we share social and mental abilities. Modern humans, however, unlike other primates, have a more highly degreed theory of mind. This ability to make predictions based on the perceived mental states of others facilitated our ancestors’ ability to competitively cooperate. Culture, which would include art, was, as he explains, “part of a predictive attempt to affect another’s emotional or cognitive outcome, often in subtle ways.” As influence is a critical part of social behavior, art, which has costs that can be quite high, provides social benefits.

In sum, the road Tague takes to answering the questions – what is art and what does it do, how might it be connected to health, pleasure, play, sociality, and emotions – is complex; however, art is not a simple thing to explain. While he draws on many variables to build and support his argument, he provides the reader with a provocative and enlightening journey. Art and Adaptability is an excellent book – a fabulous search through many fields for an explanation of the curious behavior we call art.” – Kathryn Coe, Ph.D., Professor and Lilly Scholar in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, Indiana University-Purdue University. Author, The Ancestress Hypothesis: Visual Art as Adaptation

“The text is said to offer a novel hypothesis on the evolutionary roots of art, based on theory of mind. In itself, this proposal is compelling...” – Larissa Mendoza Straffon, Ph.D., Leiden University Centre for the Arts in Society. Author, Art in the Making: The Evolutionary Origins of Visual Art as a Communication Signal


 “The general argument of the book is interesting and sound, and is well developed with different layer of explanation.... The manuscript fits within an upcoming and ongoing tendency to study the origins of art from a cognitive perspective that specifically emphasizes theory of mind...doing so from a similarly interdisciplinary point of view. As such, the contents are both innovative and fitting within actual developments in this field.” – Eveline Seghers, Ph.D., Postdoc, Department of Art, Music and Theatre Studies, Ghent University


“In very succinct fashion, Professor Tague supplies a treasure trove of research on the origin of art and its adaptive function from evolutionary and neurobiological perspectives.... Tague shows his mastery in drawing connecting or dividing lines between theorists...” – Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D.  Author, In Their Right Minds [On the shorter version of the book now out of print.]

Art and Adaptability – Full Table of Contents with Chapter Sub-headings

Acknowledgements ix

Simplified Radiations of Select Primate Species x

Simplified Radiations of Select Hominin Species xi

The Long Pleistocene xii

Introduction: Setting Boundaries 1

1 Intelligence: Communication and Theory of Mind 8

Great Ape Intelligence and Communication 9

Symbolic Communication and Consciousness 14

Inter-Subjectivity and Evolution 17

Great Ape Theory of Mind 20

Human Theory of Mind 25

Artificial Intelligence 33

The Anthropocentric Attitude 39

Chapter One Dovetail 41

2 Culture: The Adapted Mind 42

Human Network: Scope and Scale 42

Symbolic Culture 43

Culture and the Adapted Mind 47

Gene/Culture Co-Evolution 52

Culture and Social Selection 56

Culture and Epigenetics 59

Mind Sharing 63

Chapter Two Dovetail 66

3 Adaptive Functions: Selection and the Human Psyche 67

Adaptation and Natural Selection Defined 68

Phenomenal Consciousness 70

Adaptive Problems and Questions 73

Darwin and Natural Selection 77

Darwin and Sexual Selection 79

Selection and Tools 83

Cognition, Cooperation, and Extended Evolution 87

Making Special 92

Pleistocene Landscape Preferences 94

Can We Define Art? 96

Neanderthals and Art 99

Cave Painting and Superstition 101

Art and Altered States of Consciousness 106

Cave Art and Images 110

Art and the Human Psyche 114

Beauty, the Brain, and the Body 116

Chapter Three Dovetail 119

4 Objections: Philosophy and Byproducts 120

Philosophy and Art 120

Pinker’s Cheesecake for the Mind 125

An Art Instinct? 128

Corrective to Art as Sexual Selection 129

Humanology 131

Social Selection Over Sexual Selection? 131

The Biology of Art as Speculative? 132

Two Hypotheses 134

Explanatory Dilemma 136

Chapter Four Dovetail 137

5 Neurobiology and Cognition: Consciousness and Representation 138

Artistic Behavior and the Social Brain 138

The Subject of Aesthetics 143

Orienting Creative Cognition 147

Art, Ambiguity, and Making Meaning 150

Representation and Metarepresentation 155

Bodily and Cultural Consciousness 158

Line or Color? 161

Seeing Reality Abstractly 163

Knowledge, Beauty, and Neutrality 165

From Discontinuity to Essence 166

Brain Sight and Insight 169

Beauty and Cognitive Emotions 171

Ritual Art 174

Chapter Five Dovetail 176

Conclusion: The Arts and Sciences 177

Bibliography 181

Index 201

Art and Adaptability: Consciousness and Cognitive Culture

Brief Table of Contents


[graphic] Simplified Radiations of Select Primate Species

[graphic] Simplified Radiations of Select Hominin Species

[graphic] The Long Pleistocene

Introduction: Setting Boundaries

Chapter One, Intelligence: Communication and Theory of Mind

Chapter Two, Culture: The Adapted Mind

Chapter Three, Adaptive Functions: Selection and the Human Psyche           

Chapter Four, Objections: Philosophy and Byproducts           

Chapter Five, Neurobiology and Cognition: Consciousness and Representation

Conclusion: The Arts and Sciences



From the Introduction

Is art a free-riding frivolity with no biological or cognitive value? How, if at all, is art connected to health, pleasure, play, neural plasticity, sociality, and individual and group emotions? Those are big questions. While I might not have all of the answers, and since many evolutionary psychologists, biologists, anthropologists, and philosophers of art disagree, we might never know for sure if art behavior is an evolutionary adaptation. But material culture and art making are deeply embedded in our evolutionary history. And we continue to make art. Why? Consider some universal themes across art from all ages and countries: survival, internal conflict, mating, family, individual values, group identity, altruism and reciprocity, religious and spiritual beliefs, and warfare. This short list is indicative of behaviors that arose from selection pressures concerning the survival of our ancestors. In terms of biology, there clearly are striking benefits to making art over the costs, and the behavior is not only passed on by instruction and learning but the impulse is innate and heritable.

There is no single cause for our proclivity to make art. In fact, cause is not the appropriate word. Rather, there is a relation of adaptations that gave rise to how and why we make art. Here is a simplified sketch. Our hominin ancestors evolved a larger brain, due to a number of selection pressures, like tool manufacture, resource sharing, and group living. The larger brain responded to survival pressures and so produced hand tools and, much later, body paints and ornaments. With the rise of larger groups and their cultures, rituals, symbolic marks, and group identity with graphic communication appeared.

Building off the preceding, our brain adapted to a number of pressures simultaneously, like calculating in terms of space, objects, and events, and evolved to have intelligence modules communicate with each other. So a bone left over from hunting could be manipulated for use, like a tool. Perhaps the bone could be used for decoration or status, as in bodily ornament. Our evolved ability to re-engineer physical objects for a number of purposes, especially associating them with our beliefs, values, and practices, gave rise to symbolic culture. As in my other books which examine the arts and humanities in light of evolution (Making Mind and Evolution and Human Culture), I favor individual selection. In this argument for the adaptability of material/art culture, the individual is the innovator; the group is the imitator; but the group helps behaviors spread and change.

There are a number of broad topics I will consider, including but not limited to:

-          Evolution and adaptive functions

-          Material culture and art

-          Consciousness – individual and group

-          Intelligence, cognition, and emotions

-          Creativity and aesthetic response

-          Hominin species

-          Nonhuman primates

Essentially, my argument will consist of a series of claims:

-          1. The key adaptive mechanism for art behavior is social selection;

-          2. Cognitive functions related to form, shape, color, mental play, etc. are evolutionary adaptations;

-          3. While some adaptive mechanisms might hold sway over others, eventually they are nonetheless entwined;

-          4. The fluid modularity of human consciousness is a factor in art making;

-          5. Theory of mind plays a pivotal role in material culture and especially in abstract communication;

-          6. In hominins, theory of mind and material/art behavior co-evolved on a human scale of interpersonal exchange;

-          7. With theory of mind at its base, material/art culture is social strategy and manipulation.

While some authors have emphasized theory of mind or perspective taking in culture, I am not aware of any that have identified theory of mind as a key evolutionary adaptation in art behavior. In fact, some cognitive cultural theorists tend to minimize prehistory, evolution, and human/nonhuman continuities or are outright hostile to these ideas. Why don’t we always hide what we think? We want others to know our thoughts and feelings and have evolved emotions and facial expressions to do so. Theory of mind is part of an adaptation to mind share, which we especially achieve through material/art culture. My book provides an overview of the key thinkers regarding the adaptive function of art, offers a discussion of the principal theories concerning art behavior, and more particularly pinpoints the adaptive function of making art in theory of mind. I will, however, discuss the implications for art making as a result of a number of social adaptations stemming from material culture and theory of mind.

Although this book is segmented into chapters, it is really a sustained argument making a rather simple but novel claim about how our adaptability is connected to the feedback loop between theory of mind and art behavior. So I ask readers to be patient since I take my single subject and turn it up, down, and on the side for examination to emphasize key claims. Roy Baumeister et al. (2007) assert that many emotions exist to influence behavior indirectly through feedback. Similarly, I say that material/art culture is part of a predictive attempt to affect another’s emotional or cognitive outcome, often in subtle ways. The consequence is that one becomes reflective, a learning process and, therefore, a guide to the psychology of future responses. Why do we have art? Because we learned to anticipate certain emotional affects and so made material and artistic objects to produce these outcomes.