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.
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!"