BB: Steven Pinker proposes, as he has since How the Mind Works (1997), that art is not an adaptation, but a byproduct: a byproduct, specifically, of our sensory and cognitive pleasures and our technical capacity to create works that will appeal to those pleasures. He once called art “cheesecake for the mind,” an intense dose of sensory pleasure made according to human recipes. Now he puts it less provokingly, but no less firmly: we make art simply because we can, because we know our pleasures and can find ways to satisfy them.
Geoffrey Miller proposes, as he has since his dissertation (1993) and The Mating Mind (2000), that art is not an adaptation but a product of sexual selection. In its original version, he argued for male display and female choice, but he soon revised this to mutual mate choice. Artistic signals display genetic quality. Miller invokes Amos Zahavi’s handicap principle: art consists of “costly, hard-to-fake signals of the artist’s skill.”
Mark Changizi has never really advanced a hypothesis about art as a whole, as he freely admits. Instead, he has aimed, especially in Harnessed: How Language and Music Mimicked Nature and Transformed Ape to Man (2011), to show how human artifacts harness unexpected aspects of human nature. Music’s features reflect in precise and unexpected ways the sounds made by human movement, and writing reflects the attunement of our visual system to edge detection, especially at the conjunctions of objects. Visual art similarly focuses on features of human skin color and texture and anatomical articulation.
I see art as cognitive play with pattern. Play has been found in all mammals where it has been looked for, in birds, reptiles, and invertebrates. It trains animals in core behaviors in their particular niche—behaviours like chase, fight, flight—which they practice exuberantly in non-urgent situations so they can perform better in urgent ones. This kind of practice has been so advantageous that it has evolved to become compulsive, fun, irresistible.
We humans are not particularly swift or strong for our size; we don’t have real physical advantages, except perhaps in our manual dexterity and vocal articulation. But we do have mental advantages, both individually and perhaps especially collectively, through all we learn from others. And minds work through pattern recognition. Human minds have a singular appetite for patterns, and we play with it both individually and by engaging with the patterns others around us have developed, in images, sounds, stories and more. We find this play compulsive from infant pretend play and nursery rhymes to sing-alongs and dances in old folks’ homes.