Perhaps culture is just a happy accident

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The Independent Culture
How does evolution produce a Masaccio fresco? That, or at least a slightly more sophisticated version of the question, is the mystery that preoccupies Professor John D Barrow in his book The Artful Universe. He isn't alone in his curiosity. Brian Eno, responding to my column about his speech at the Turner Prize dinner, puts the quest this way: "Why do we evolve culture? Why are we so interested in style? What does it do for us?"

Professor Barrow's book is fascinating, even if readers brought up in an artistic rather than scientific tradition may find its treatment of aesthetic pleasure a touch cursory. The bulk of it is taken up with an explanation of the way that we are creatures of our universe, our perceptions moulded by its physics. To venture a risky echo, you might say that we have been made in its image.

But when it comes to making direct connections between the adaptive features of our primitive ancestors and a modern gallery-goer, the arguments can seem a little unconvincing. Barrow, for instance, writes about painted landscape triggering atavistic instincts of refuge and threat. But simple ideas of survival don't seem to be able to account for the complexity of our aesthetic taste here, the fact that "beauty" and "safety" have rarely, if ever, been synonymous.

In the 18th century, for example, a great cultural shift took place, in which old ideas of landscape beauty were overturned (a mental schism wittily recorded in Sense and Sensibility). Scenery that had been "repulsive" and "distressing" become evocative and stirring. Scenery that had been "beautiful" and "harmonious" became, for some at least, dull and utilitarian. Does such a shift betray a sudden liberation from our biological drives or merely a new twist in their complex effects?

Similarly, Barrow's intriguing account of the importance of symmetry to primitive humans (if you see a symmetrical face staring at you from the bushes it may be about to make you its lunch) is directly at odds with Egyptian art, which gives a huge value to the profile, a resolutely asymmetrical vision of the world. Professor Barrow also has to strain a bit to reconcile our primitive drive towards order with a public distaste for modernist architecture.

To be fair to Barrow, he gives early warning against a crude misreading of evolution, reminding us that many biological characteristics are actually spin-offs of selected characteristics. Perhaps culture is simply a happy accident. Perhaps, even more alarmingly, it's an unhappy one. We have grown so attached to this faculty, so wedded to the idea that art is an inalienable part of our humanity, that we find it hard to imagine that it might be an unwanted corollary of some other selected ability, that it might actually be inimical to our survival. But how could we possibly tell what we might have been without art? Despite his initial caution, though, Barrow embarks on what looks like the first steps to an atomic theory of culture, with selected instincts about colour and light and sound standing in for the atoms.

Of course, I don't believe for a moment that art holds us back , though I suspect that its evolutionary value must operate at some higher level than Barrow explores here. He is wonderfully illuminating about why our senses are as they are, but he doesn't satisfy the question of why we should seek so determinedly to mislead them. After all, given the survival importance of accurately perceiving the real world (a point Barrow specifically makes), it seems contradictory that an organism should ever confuse the picture with its own inventions. Drumbeats could easily hide the soft pad of a predator in the night.

I think Brian Eno offers a more fruitful suggestion when he writes that "to co-operate you have to be able to imagine what it would be like to hold another picture of the world... I can imagine culture being a kind of simulator, an empathy lab, a way of trying things out with only symbolic risks attacked." Culture, then, offers us pleasure because it delivers the payoff for risk and exploration while protecting us from their consequences. It is easy to see how that might offer considerable evolutionary advantage, much more difficult to see how it might be grounded in the language and practice of science.

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