Evolutionary neurobiology and art

C.U.M. Smith*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    In his important book on evolutionary theory, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett warns that Darwin's idea seeps through every area of human discourse like a "universal acid" (Dennett, 1995). Art and the aesthetic response cannot escape its influence. So my approach in this chapter is essentially naturalistic. Friedrich Nietzsche writes of observing the human comedy from afar, "like a cold angel...without anger, but without warmth" (Nietzsche, 1872, p. 164). Whether Nietzsche, of all people, could have done this is a matter of debate. But we know what he means. It describes a stance outside the human world as if looking down on human folly from Mount Olympus. From this stance, humans, their art and neurology are all part of the natural world, all part of the evolutionary process, the struggle for existence. The anthropologist David Dutton, in his contribution to the Routledge Companion to Aesthetics, says that all humans have an aesthetic sense (Dutton, 2001). It is a human universal. Biologists argue that such universals have an evolutionary basis. Furthermore, many have argued that not only humans but also animals, at least the higher mammals and birds, have an appreciation of the beautiful and the ugly (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1988).11Charles Darwin indeed writes "Birds appear to be the most aesthetic of all animals, excepting, of course, man, and they have nearly the same sense of the beautiful that we have" (1871, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, London: John Murray, vol.2, xiii, 39). This again suggests that aesthetics has an evolutionary origin. In parenthesis here, I should perhaps say that I am well aware of the criticism leveled at evolutionary psychology. I am well aware that it has been attacked as just so many "just-so" stories. This is neither the time nor the place to mount a defense but simply just to say that I believe that a defense is eminently feasible. © 2006 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)1-14
    Number of pages14
    JournalInternational Review of Neurobiology
    Publication statusPublished - 29 May 2006


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