Oxford, £25 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

The Artful Species, By Stephen Davies

Art may not be just horse paintings, but we've had those for aeons. Why did we first draw and sing?

Art has always been expensive. It takes time and effort to become competent in singing, dancing or making images, let alone to excel. Artworks often demand resources, such as pigment or stone, that take time and effort to obtain.

Get money off this title at the Independent bookshop

Yet music, dance, image-making and other aesthetic practices are universal. Some at least are also ancient: the animal images in the Chauvet cave of southern France may have been created 30,000 years ago; statuettes found in Germany may be 40,000 years old, while ostrich shells engraved with patterns in South Africa may be twice that age. Art marks us out from other hominins in the archaeological record.

It looks as though it might have been a distinguishing feature of our evolution as a species, too. Our deep ancestors seem to have become our ancestors while investing much of their energies in activities more directly connected with aesthetics than the essentials of life. They were not outcompeted by palaeophilistines who pursued survival and reproduction without dancing round the fire or making shapes upon surfaces. The other hominins went extinct. Art must have been worth its price.

That is a powerfully alluring proposition, because it holds out the possibility of identifying something we are very proud of as a fundamental part of what we have evolved to be. But the more strongly the connection between art and evolution impresses itself on us, the more we are faced with fundamental questions about that relationship. Was artistic behaviour an evolved adaptation? Has art helped its practitioners leave more descendants, and have the proportions of art-facilitating gene variants in human populations increased as a result? Or was it a by-product of more general selective processes? And just what is art anyway?

In a field dense with hobby-horses and portentous musings, philosopher Stephen Davies does sterling work for clarity as he outlines the concepts, the problems and the difficulties with all the available explanations. In the humanities, his main criticism is of scholars who want to establish an evolutionary basis for art because they feel that a biological foundation makes their subject more significant, but shirk the necessary rigour. In search of substance they look to science.

On the other hand, he finds many scientists to be naive in their views of aesthetics, criticising their tendency to count any perceptual preference as an aesthetic choice. There are bees in New Zealand that visit white flowers in preference to yellow ones of the same species, but an arbitrary choice is not the same as an aesthetic one. Unless you assert that a sense of beauty is a uniquely human quality, you have to draw the line somewhere. Davies is inclined to attribute aesthetic capacities to cats but not to birds - asking difficult questions in this domain often leaves you back where you started, relying on intuition.

Dissatisfied also with evolutionary psychology's concentration on courtship and mating, Davies looks towards a new evolutionary view of human nature that sees more to human beauty than sexual attraction. Human beauty, he argues, is "much more about social presentation and and self-definition than about mate selection". Unsurprisingly, he finds the idea that art is about sexual advertising to be inadequate too.

Having gone through one art-form and theory after another, he ends up doubtful that art is an evolved adaptation. Rather, it is likely to be the product of other adaptations, such as "intelligence, imagination, humor, sociality, emotionality, inventiveness, curiosity". However, he is no doubt that art provides important ways to signal fitness; which makes it a cost that everybody must incur, at least to some degree.

Perhaps art is too narrow a concept, and we should be thinking about a wider range of aesthetic performance. But the nature of art remains a nagging question. Certainty may well be confined to Alec Baldwin's character in the comedy show 30 Rock, whose answer finds support in Chauvet and other Palaeolithic s howpieces. "I know what art is!" he exclaims. "It's paintings of horses!"

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
    Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

    Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

    David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
    Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

    Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

    A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
    10 best DSLRs

    Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

    Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine