Art and Adaptation

Update: I am working on a revised and expanded version of this book, to be called Art and Adaptability: Consciousness and Cognitive Culture, for an interested editor.

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, sexual selection, social selection, and cognition.

The work is not a monograph, strictly speaking. Rather, the purpose is to present in a readable format different views concerning how material culture and art behavior are adaptive. However, that being said such a stance is argumentative and will generate disagreement.

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 this way we have control over the project and will not charge an outrageous amount of money for an important academic book that can be of use to artists, art students, and art historians.

Despite the book not fitting the parameters of a monograph there is a controversial argument nonetheless: 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, attracting mates, 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. Arguing about an art adaptation is much more difficult and why I chose to present, and stand beside, those scholars who see it so. You will have to read the book and decide for yourself, but in my view the argument for art as an adaptive behavior is compelling.  

[Cover image, The Knife Grinder, Kasimir Malevich, Yale University Art Gallery]


Here's what scholar Carole Brooks Platt, Ph.D. (author of In Their Right Minds) says in a 5-star review on Amazon:

"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. I write about the origins of art, music and poetry in the first chapter of my own book In Their Right Minds: The Lives and Shared Practices of Poetic Geniuses, yet found references to many theorists with whom I was unfamiliar. Tague shows his mastery in drawing connecting or dividing lines between theorists; but, as he says in his introduction, his full treatment, with his own views, can be found in Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness (Rodopi, 2014) and Evolution and Human Culture (Brill, forthcoming), both of which I look forward to reading as well."


5-star review by Andrea Vojtko:

For many years now I have been of the opinion that the great discoveries and ideas would come from those who have expertise in two or more disparate fields such as Math and Biology. But Prof. Gregory F. Tague pushes this idea even further by considering whether evolution shows that human beings have adapted through evolution to being both artist and scientist and he concludes that they have...This is an extraordinary book which seeks to understand more fully why and how human beings became artists by exploring all that has been written on art and evolution and all that we currently understand from the latest research on the brain.”


Art and Adaptation was featured in the Books in Brief section of the December 2015 issue of Art in America


Art and Adaptation: A Primer from Notes

[At the Amazon page - click on the word book in left-hand column - see 20% of the work and Index.]

Table of Contents



Graphical Timeline 

Chapter One, Culture 

Chapter Two, Adaptive Functions 

Chapter Three, Objections 

Chapter Four, Neurobiology and Cognition







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, sexual selection, 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, romance, 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 medley 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, such as 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, and symbolic marks, group identity with graphic communication appeared. Perhaps most controversially, just as Darwin proposed sexual selection in many species, e.g., the peacock’s tail, so too in our species art culture is a response to mating pressures.

Building off the preceding, our brain adapted to a number of pressures simultaneously, such as 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, such as a tool. Perhaps the bone could be used for decoration or status, such as bodily ornament. Our evolved ability to reengineer physical objects for a number of purposes, especially associating them with our beliefs, values, and practices, gave rise to symbolic culture.

This book is not intended to be a monograph and does not mount its own original argument. Nonetheless, my fingerprints are all over it, and clearly the implication is that art making is an evolved adaptation. While the book is no more than what the subtitle says, I do hope it provides both wisdom and entertainment to readers. The purpose of the book is to present as best as I can the views of others on the subject of the adaptive function of art. For my particular views about how moral sensations and emotions underlie much artistic culture, see my more comprehensive books Making Mind: Moral Sense and Consciousness (Rodopi, 2014) and Evolution and Human Culture (Brill, forthcoming).



Chapter One, Culture:

Culture and the Adapted Mind

Gene/Culture Co-evolution

Culture and Social Selection

Culture and Epigenetics

Mind Sharing

Chapter Two, Adaptive Functions:

Adaptive Problems and Questions

Darwin and Natural Selection

Darwin and Sexual Selection

Sexual Selection and the Hand Axe

Cognition and Cooperation

Mother/Infant and Making Special

Pleistocene Landscape Preferences

Art Defined

Neanderthals and Art

Toward a Definition of Prehistoric Art

Cave Painting and Superstition

Cave Art and Moving Images

Art and the Human Psyche

Beauty and the Brain

The Sound of Art

Chapter Three, Objections:

An Art Instinct?

The Ancestress Hypothesis


Social Selection Over Sexual Selection?

The Biology of Art as Speculative?

Chapter Four, Neurobiology and Cognition:

Puzzling Creative Cognition

Art, Ambiguity, and Making Meaning

Representation and Metarepresentation

Line or Color?

Seeing Reality Abstractly

Knowledge, Beauty, and Neutrality

From Discontinuity to Essence

Brain Sight and Insight

Beauty and Cognitive Emotions

Ritual Art