Portrait of the Artist as a Caveman

— The New Atlantis

In a letter to the botanist Asa Gray written in 1860, a year after the publication of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote, “a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” His new theory of evolution by natural selection — or “the survival of the fittest,” as biologist Herbert Spencer would later famously describe it — could hardly explain that beautiful but useless piece of avian ornamentation. Darwin would later come to terms with the beauty of the peacock’s tail in The Descent of Man, realizing that the extravagantly colored feathers did in fact have a use: not to enhance the peacock’s survival in the contest of natural selection, but to attract peahens in the contest of sexual selection.

So what of the beauty to be found in the human world? It seems to be of a quite different form from the peacock’s tail, at once less and more magnificent: The human body lacks the spectacular natural ornamentation of the peacock, yet we almost always cover ourselves with adornments of our own creation. And we fashion and surround ourselves with myriad other works of beauty even more elaborate and varied. A similar problem to the peacock’s tail, then, confronts the attempt to understand beauty in the human world in the form of art. It seems to be as extravagantly useless for survival as the peacock’s beautiful tail — but cannot be nearly so easily explained through the mechanism of individual sexual selection. As one not-atypically earnest article on the subject notes, “Puzzlingly, humans in all cultures engage in a broad variety of aesthetically oriented activities that appear to have no obvious evolutionary utility, including immersion in those falsehoods called fiction.”

But if the peacock’s tail seems to pose a conundrum for understanding art through evolution, it also illustrates the versatility of evolutionary explanation. In recent years, evolutionary psychologists, who view the human mind as essentially a collection of adaptations crafted by natural selection over millions of years to cope with the problems faced by our ancestors, have been taking up the seeming promise of the peacock’s tail. Attempting to subsume human art and literature within the realm of evolutionary mechanism, they have been joined by a segment of philosophers and art critics eager to find a definitive account of the universal features of human artistic creativity and aesthetic appreciation.

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