Imagine all the sex you could have had if only you were a rock star or a diva. Human beings find displays of artistic excellence irresistibly enticing. Shows like Dancing with the Stars, Glee, and American Idol top the ratings. Painters, novelists, ballerinas, movie stars —practitioners of all the arts seem to be connected in our minds with the sexy. Yet when you think about it, isn’t it kind of strange that we get all excited about somebody making noise or smearing colors? People are just another sort of animal, and what possible evolutionary purpose (if any) could such displays serve? It may be that artistic flourishes do much the same thing as a peacock’s outrageous tail feathers.
Humans have been making art for a very long time. The remarkably beautiful work in France's Chauvet cave was the subject of Werner Herzog’s 2010 film, The Cave of Forgotten Dreams. Due to its subtlety and intricacy, scientists in the 1990s had initially estimated that the art in Chauvet was a fairly recent creation, something on the order of 15 thousand years old. But an accident of geology made more accurate dating possible. Because the cave entrance had been sealed by collapsing rock long ago, any paintings within the cave must have been done before that. Through a combination of carbon dating of animal bones and geomorphological and chlorine-36 dating of the fallen cave rock itself, scientists can now confidently claim that these sophisticated, detailed works of art are more than double that age: over thirty thousand years old.
Yet thirty thousand years is but a blink in the history of art. Even one hundred thousand years ago, we find beautiful shell necklaces and body adornments. By far the earliest human artifact is the hand axe. It’s so old, in fact, that the first creatures who made them weren’t even humans, but pre-human Homo erectus. The hand axe was our only tool for almost two million years, proving itself invaluable for cutting, chopping, and pounding. But there are strong hints that it was useful in other ways as well. Its elegant teardrop shape is quite lovely to our eyes, even today. Many handaxes are much too large to have been used as tools, and their fine edges are still sharp, as if they were never used. Many anthropologists suspect that these are the first works of art, made for no other purpose than to impress and excite possible mates. Maybe dim-witted erectus was the first to be moved by the sexiness of art.
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Geoffrey Miller, psychology professor at the University of New Mexico, says that our propensity for artistic behavior is an example of sexual selection—meaning that it doesn’t necessarily aid survival, but instead is something that the opposite sex finds attractive. Charles Darwin invented the idea of sexual selection, describing how the male peacock’s tail feathers are actually detrimental for survival (they are the opposite of camouflage), but must look quite beautiful to the female. Because the peahens, as they are called, choose peacocks with the most beautiful feathers, such feathers become a feature of the species. Darwin was the first to suggest that the fine arts were a human version of sexual selection—our version of tail feathers—which allowed skilled artists to gain better mating prospects. He wrote, “The impassioned orator, bard, or musician, when with his varied tones and cadences he excites the strongest emotions in his hearers, little suspects that he uses the same means by which his half-human ancestors long ago aroused each other's ardent passions, during their courtship and rivalry.”* In addition to being attractive, virtuoso performance may serve the evolutionary purpose of signalling mental fitness.
Not everyone agrees with Darwin’s ideas about human sexual selection. There’s a strong case to be made that it’s all just a cultural artifact, and that we are socially conditioned to see artists as beautiful and sexy. Appreciation of music, for example, appears to be widely distributed in the brain, which may indicate that it’s a new application of brain capacities that evolved for other reasons. And there’s something a little reductive about seeing a work of genius such as Finnegan’s Wake as nothing more than an attempt to get laid. Yet just because that may be the motivation beneath the behavior, it doesn’t prohibit the book from possessing brilliance in addition. It’s certainly the case that we learn to appreciate certain cultural forms of art, even if the underlying driving force is sexual.
So the next time you swoon at a music video, or get all excited by a soulful poet, or find yourself struggling to learn guitar chords when you should be studying math, remember that the very purpose of art may be attraction, and that you are experiencing an excitement that is older than humanity itself.
Share your stories of art and attraction below.
*Darwin, The Descent of Man, pg. 572
photo by The Adventurous Eye