Art and Adaptability

Update: I am working on a revised and expanded version of an earlier book, to be called Art and Adaptability: Consciousness and Cognitive Culture, which will be published by Brill, perhaps by the end of 2017

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. 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.   


“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: Consciousness and Cognitive Culture

Table of Contents


Simplified Radiations of Select Primate Species

Simplified Radiations of Select Hominin Species

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.