The History of Art: a biological and cognitive perspective

Multiple evolution and the meaning of art

Editorial for Leonardo, an interdisciplinary magazine (vol 34, n 3, 2001)

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There is an interesting story being told these days by a multitude of biologists (Humberto Maturana, JJ Gibson, Ulric Neisser, Richard Dawkins), linguists (Noam Chomsky, Steven Pinker, Merlin Donald), psychologists (Richard Gregory, Allan Hobson, Stephen Porges), physicists (Ilya Prigogine, Stuart Kauffman, Roger Penrose, Henry Stapp), neurologists (Gerald Edelman, Antonio Damasio, Rodolfo Llina, Michael Gazzaniga, Paul MacLean), philosophers (Daniel Dennett), archeologists (Steve Mithen), chemists (Martin Eigen, Graham Cairns-Smith), mathematicians, computer scientists, and you name it. It is the story of how our mind came to be, of how "we were born", evolutionarily speaking.

It is a story that involves pretty much all the characteristics that define what a human being is: language, tools, ideas, emotions, and, of course, the brain itself. After all, these things had to happen for us to be what we are.

The story that we are being told (although it is likely to change monthly, and, of course, each researcher would give it her/his own spin) starts way back when life was created, whether by accident or by divine intervention, and primitive cells started moving about their environment desperately seeking food.

The story goes on to describe how those cells evolved into more and more complex organisms, which developed nervous systems to coordinate their movements and eventually a brain to control their nervous system. This is Darwin's piece of the story.

The story also describes how life started using the environment. As "ecological" biologists like Neisser and Gibson showed us, are not the only tool-making species. Tools are used by, and indispensable to the survival of, spiders (the spiderweb) and most birds (the nest), just to name two. In our hands tools took a life (evolutionarily speaking) of their won: they started evolving and getting more and more complex and more and more useful. This was a by-product of having a better brain. At the same time tools shaped what the brain does, i.e. our mind. As Gregory argued, tools are an extension of our mind. Our mind has always been conditioned by the tools we use (and certainly is today).

The story (for example, Cairns-Smith) also let us guess that emotions evolved as well as brains and tools. Emotions of pleasure and pain are present in every living organism we have observed (outside of mental institutions). It is just that our emotions are, again, more complex. It is likely that the availability of tools "freed" our mind of its daily duties. Emotions that were meant to help us survive in the wild started flowing through our "inactive" mind and evolved into what we call "thought". They, again, took on a life of their own. Mind shaped emotions, emotions shaped mind; mind shaped tools, tools shaped mind.

As Dawkins and Dennett take over, the story then shifts focus and deals with "memes" (with the ideas that started populating our minds, and spreading from mind to mind, such as religions and ideologies). They also evolved, and are still evolving (communism just got extinct and capitalism is splitting into new "species").

Finally, the story delves into language, as communication underwent a similar evolution, mutating from primitive forms of communication to William Shakespeare's sonnets to rock music's lyrics and tv commercials (as biologists like to point out, evolution is not always progress). Donald, Mithen and Pinker have analyzed the transition from prehistory of mind to modern mind.

That's the story we are hearing these days. Hidden in this story, is the secret of Art, which is part tool, part meme, part language and part emotion. Contrary to what artists fear, Art is far from being useless and impractical: Art embodies all parameters of human evolution, the process that allowed us to survive.

Creativity (science, art, tool-making, technology, whatever form it takes) is something we do because we have to do it. Our mind is continuously reshaped by the tools we invent, and continuously explores them. We tend to separate the direct, rational, explicit form of communication (that has no name) and the indirect, "irrational", implicit form of communication (that we call "art"). We can use any tool in either way: we can scream "tiger" to warn our peers that a tiger is about to attack the village, or we can paint a tiger on a rock to signify our fear of tigers. That division is artificial. They are both ways of expressing our emotions and/or our memes, and either way we are using one of the tools that we have invented. We are always creative or we are never creative, as we prefer: there is no difference between the two processes. Our mind has no choice but to create meaning all the time out of the flow of emotions using the tools it has invented.

Technology and creativity are the same thing. And we are both the creators and the products of our technology.

Piero Scaruffi was elected to the Board of Leonardo/ISAST in July 2000.

Leonardo is the interdisciplinary magazine, of Leonardo / the International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology, and it is published by the MIT Press.

Leonardo began international publication of its print journal in 1968, and has continued to focus for more than 30 years on writings by artists who work with science- and technology-based art media. The International Society for the Arts, Sciences and Technology Press was founded in 1982 to further the aims of Leonardo by providing avenues of communication for artists working in contemporary media. Leonardo/ISAST continues this work through its print journals, book series, CD series, web journal, web sites and other activities.

Leonardo/ISAST serves the international art community by providing a channel of communication for artists and others interested in the arts, with an emphasis on artists who use science and developing technologies in their work. Our activities include publication of the art, science and technology journal Leonardo; the Leonardo Music Journal; the Book Series; our electronic journal, Leonardo Electronic Almanac; and our World Wide Web Site, Leonardo On-Line (all published by The MIT Press). They have a sister organization in France, the Association Leonardo, which publishes the Observatoire Leonardo Web Site. They have a number of other activities including an awards program.

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