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Verpooten Jan | Junior Fellow
2010-09-01 - 2011-12-31 | Research area: Cognition and Sociality
The Concept of Sensory Exploitation and the Emergence, Persistence, and Evolution of Aesthetic and Artistic Behaviours

Aesthetic and artistic behaviours (producing and experiencing paintings, sculptures, dance, music, story-telling, ...) are human universals: they appear stably across human cultures. Evolutionists generally assume that universality of a trait indicates the presence of some underlying evolutionary process that causes its persistence. However, no real agreement exists on which evolutionary process is actually responsible. Existing hypotheses differ on crucial points. Is art an adaptation or not? On which level it is selected for (the cultural level, the genetic level, ...) and which mechanism is responsible for its evolution (mating display, group bonding, ...)? These differences all boil down to the problem of the high costs of art (it is a resource- ,time- ,and energy-consuming behaviour). How could such a costly behaviour have emerged? Are the costs compensated by benefits (art as an adaptation)? Or are they merely born by a system that can support a certain amount of suboptimal variants (art as a consequence of non-adaptive evolution)? To answer these questions we need a framework in which all hypotheses about art can be considered. To this end we have proposed a concept based on sensory exploitation. This hypothesis basically states that sensory, but also learned biases in the receiver of signals can influence content and design of these signals through evolution. In a mimicry system for instance, biases in the receiver are exploited by mimicking adaptive signals. For example, egg spots in male cichlids, which mimic real eggs quite accurately, are believed to have evolved by exploiting female receiver biases for eggs. Egg spots are genetically transmitted but signals that evolved under influence of receiver biases can also be culturally transmitted as we argue to be the case with visual art. This view on the evolution of art allows to articulate existing hypotheses. It can also make predictions: it explains why iconic representations (e.g. rock art) only emerged some 40,000 years ago. However we have been able to draw some conclusions from initial investigations, we have only scratched the surface of possibilities the concept offers.