Art for natural selection's sake the 'key' to the canvas and concerto

Paper claims Darwinism can explain the existence and impact of the arts. Hannah Fearn reports

August 13, 2009

In an age when researchers face growing demands for proof of the impact of their work, academics are being asked to explain precisely what their field is for.

The question is asked particularly pointedly of the arts, the existence of which academics have struggled to explain.

Now a scholar has come up with a theory that emphasises the evolutionary utility of the canvas and the concerto, and could explain another seemingly baffling conundrum - the penniless artist or musician's status as sex symbol.

According to Julian Vincent, a professor in the department of mechanical engineering at the University of Bath and a specialist in biomimetics, the patterns that are integral to music and other works of art are key to human survival.

Recognising patterns can help us to make predictions about our surroundings, enabling us to respond to our environment and increasing the chances that we will pass on our genes to the next generation, he said.

Professor Vincent presented his theory and a brief paper outlining the argument, "The selective advantage of art", at the Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution Darwin Lectures last month.

The paper says: "Anything that enhances survival gives 'selective advantage'. The prevalence of arts - storytelling, music, dance, graphics, literature and poetry - suggests that art confers selective advantage."

The presence of patterns is one of the basic characteristics of the arts, the paper says, arguing that we enjoy music and the visual arts because they involve pattern prediction. This is a useful survival tactic, it says.

Professor Vincent also claims that this theory explains why artists and musicians are often seen as inherently sexy, despite producing nothing that directly improves a mate's chances of survival, such as food or shelter.

But the controversial theory, which was developed in conjunction with David Lewis-Baker, a Bath-based artist and retired academic, has been met with criticism.

"Patterns can be found everywhere, so the fact that patterns are relevant in art and in situations of life and death is not very surprising," said Michael Hauskeller, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Exeter.

"Artistic activities and appreciation may have all sorts of functions, but that doesn't mean that they are not really artistic but in fact are something else."

Professor Hauskeller also disagreed with the idea that artists are traditionally perceived as sexy, pointing out that an equally common perception is that they are "good for nothing".

"Artists are seldom celebrities and when they are, it is not their art or their pattern-recognition skills that make them sexy, but their fame and wealth," he said.

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