We are an art-obsessed species: It exists in every human culture, and most people devote some part of their lives to making or experiencing some form of art. But why do pictures, music, stories, and the like matter so much to us? Why should we put so much effort into pursuits that often have few if any obvious material rewards? Why are we able to become emotionally involved with narratives about imaginary people, and why do we seek out this form of emotional engagement?
One way to try to answer such questions is to provide an evolutionary account, in which facts about our art-related behavior are explained by the work of Darwin and his later followers. Such behaviors might be held to have provided our ancestors with reproductive advantages, or to be related in some way or other to behaviors that did.
In “The Artful Species,’’ philosopher Stephen Davies surveys and assesses a wide range of possible evolutionary accounts. One of his goals is to caution us against accepting such theories too quickly. It might seem obvious, for instance, that displays of musical skill would be advantageous in evolutionary terms, as they can help performers attract potential mates. (Why else would so many teenage males spend money on guitars?) But as Davies points out, the empirical data do not clearly support such an effect. (In the Western world, major composers have actually tended to have fewer offspring rather than more.)
Moreover, the way music has functioned in many societies bears little resemblance to the pop-star model we are familiar with. Even if, in today’s world, musicians have a reproductive advantage, it’s likely that this has not been true widely or long enough to have substantially affected human evolution.
Davies’s general tendency, then, is to rein in the more ambitious claims of theorists who think that art can be straightforwardly explained as an evolutionary adaptation: “Some, but not all, aesthetic interests and responses have biological underpinnings. To that extent those responses reflect our shared human nature. But when it comes to arguments claiming that art is an evolutionary adaptation, we should be more cautious . . . I recognize the tantalizing appeal and plausibility of claiming art as a central aspect of our common biological inheritance. But making the connection depends ultimately on a leap of faith, rather than on appeal to incontrovertible scientific fact.”
This is not to say that those who hold some other theory — that art-related behaviors are by-products, say, or that they have no evolutionary significance at all — are necessarily correct. Rather, Davies argues, we don’t yet know who is right. There just isn’t enough evidence available to settle the question.
“The Artful Species’’ is comprehensive, well-organized, and cogently argued, and, if it comes across as slightly unexciting, its caution and intellectual modesty are welcome in a body of literature that all too often encourages and rewards unrestrained speculation. Also, Davies has interesting things to say about topics that have been largely neglected (the aesthetic interest humans take in animals) and is capable of taking a fresh approach to topics that have already been discussed at great length (the nature of human beauty and attractiveness, for instance).
Michael Trimble’s “Why Humans Like to Cry’’ takes a narrower focus. Trimble is interested, specifically, in the question of emotional crying, especially displays provoked by exposure to works of art. Some other animals shed tears when physically injured, but emotional tears seem to be unique to us, and it is not immediately clear what, if any, biological function they might serve.
The early chapters of the book, in which Trimble lays out the issues, are fairly interesting. He draws on a number of studies regarding the circumstances under which people cry, and briefly explores a few philosophical accounts of tragedy and related matters.
From Nietzsche he borrows the notion of the interplay of the artistic duality represented by the Greek gods Apollo (reason, epic poetry, sculpture) and Dionysus (dance, lyric poetry, melody): “With the added twist of neuroscience, these much discussed images may be seen in something of a new light, as metaphors for psychological processes based in neuroanatomical and evolutionary principles.”
He also agrees with Nietzsche on the special significance of music (“One conclusion,” he writes, “is that music, above all the arts, is simply special, with effects on us above and beyond the other arts”), while taking issue with Aristotle’s idea that the effect of tragedy is to produce a catharsis in the audience, a kind of purging of the emotions.
Not all of these suggestions, however, are entirely clear; and unfortunately, the nature of Trimble’s account becomes more obscure, not less, as the book progresses. In particular, it never becomes clear what the “added twist of neuroscience” amounts to. Neuroscientists can identify which particular parts of the brain are involved in which particular processes or reactions, but while this information may provide an immediate, mechanical account of what happens when someone cries, it generally leaves the truly interesting questions — why did humans evolve to have emotional reactions in these circumstances, and why this particular emotional reaction? — mostly untouched.
Trimble does make a few gestures in the direction of explanation, involving altruism, mirror neurons, and the like. But in the end it is not clear how to fit these puzzle pieces together, or why the human ability to feel compassion for other (real) people should extend to fictional characters — let alone why music should provoke tears so effectively — or why such tears should be pleasurable. “Why Humans Like To Cry” raises a fascinating question, but Trimble’s book might lead many readers to wonder whether contemporary science is anywhere near being able to answer it.
THE ARTFUL SPECIES: Aesthetics, Art, and Evolution
By: Stephen Davies
Oxford University, 240 pp, $45
WHY HUMANS LIKE TO CRY: The Evolutionary Origins of Tragedy
By: Michael Trimble
Oxford University, 232 pp, illustrated, $29.95
Troy Jollimore’s books include “On Loyalty’’ and “Love’s Vision.’’ He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.