Bulletin of Psychology & the Arts
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Evolution, Creativity, and Aesthetics

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Gregory J. Feist
Department of Psychology
College of William & Mary

Three Perspectives on Evolution, Creativity, and Aesthetics

This special issue of Bulletin of Psychology and the Arts signifies a shift, perhaps even a revolutionary paradigm shift, that has taken place in the social sciences over the last 20 years. Darwin's theory of evolution is no longer reserved for the biological and life sciences, but has become a powerful force in the social sciences, especially psychology.

Which is not to say evolutionary theory has become the dominant power within psychology, for it clearly has not and still meets with much resistance and criticism. Some of these reservations are justified and some of them are not. Indeed, as anyone who attempts to think hard and deeply about the issues must acknowledge, there are real difficulties with applying Darwin's theory of natural and sexual selection to the complex behaviors of humans, especially the "higher reaches of human nature" seen in creativity, aesthetics, and intelligence. I do, however, predict that some time in the future (maybe distant, maybe near) that the evolutionary perspective will reach the level of importance in psychology that it has in biology if for no other reason than if one does acknowledge the fact that humans are the result of evolutionary forces, and the human brain is one such product, then human behavior ultimately must be viewed as a product of evolution. This includes the human mind.

If we are to understand how the mind of modern H. sapiens got to where it is and allows the species to behave in the ways that it does, especially its unique capacity for creative thinking and behavior, then understanding its evolutionary history becomes essential. Why has only one species of one genus in the history of life on this planet developed religion, art, and science? The answer has to lie in the evolutionary pressures that shaped the bodies--and brains--of modern humans.

After much underground and latent growth the evolutionary perspective is slowly but now steadily catching hold. Dozens of books have appeared in the last 10 years on the evolution of mind and the present special issue is in many respects a refinement of this movement. Creativity and aesthetics are to my way of thinking two of the most fascinating and powerful expressions of the human mind and a critical mass of scholars who study creativity and aesthetics from an evolutionary perspective has now been reached. We have been fortunate to get many of the key figures in the field to contribute to this special issue.

There are 3 distinct perspectives presented by the authors of the special issue. Two of these perspectives fall along the lines of what Simonton (1999) has termed the "primary v. secondary" forms of Darwinism. Primary Darwinism focuses on the biological evolution of the organism. For the special issue, the primary perspective plays out in its focus on the literal evolution of creative and aesthetic abilities, namely how did H. sapiens come to have the creative and aesthetic abilities that it currently possesses. Aiken presents both an historical and philosophical overview of aesthetics. She then argues that evolutionary theory can improve upon the historical view that the aesthetic response is cool, rational, and disinterested as well as great art imitates nature. From an evolutionary perspective the aesthetic response is not cool and disinterested but rather a part of the inherent affective response system. In this sense it is quite ultilitarian. Aiken argues that an evolutionary perspective can and does address questions such as "What is aesthetic response?" "What is beauty?" "What is good art?" and "What is universal value?" Bradshaw addresses the question of the evolutionary antecedents of art and aesthetics from the perspective of neuroscience, specifically the rules for perceptual processing. He looks for answers of the origins of art in early archeological record of artifacts, namely nonrepresentational dots, lines, and curves, as well as ochre crayons, objets trouvés and manuports of interesting pebbles, crystals and fossils. He argues that antecedents of art can be seen in primates, and the Acheulean (erectus) and Mousterian (Neanderthal) cultures of early hominids. Feist attempts to apply principles of Darwinian theory, cognitive archeology, and evolutionary psychology to the phenomenon of human creativity, specifically focusing on the role of natural and sexual selection. He argues that both natural and sexual selection pressures have shaped the human capacity to be creative, but different forms of selection have shaped different forms of creativity. The more applied forms of creativity (technology, science and engineering) are shaped most by natural selection pressures, whereas the more ornamental forms of creativity (art and aesthetics) are shaped most by sexual selection pressures. Lumsden is one of the pioneers in applying evolutionary theory to the study of creativity and along with E.O. Wilson has proposed a theory of gene-culture coevolution. In this theory he argues that biological evolution in and of itself is not enough to explain human evolution, but rather human evolution is a dual function of genetic change and the mind's ability to shape and change its own development. In this sense Lumsden can be placed in both the primary and the cultural perspectives and may well be foreshadowing the next phase of evolutionary theory as applied to creativity. Miller's contribution rests on the assumption that human creative and aesthetic abilities are a function of sexual selection pressures through mate choice because they are reliable signals of fitness. These abilities indicate not only the individual has good genes but is in good health and possesses superior intellectual capacity. Miller goes on to argue that aesthetic judgment has an adaptive function and is not merely a co-opted by product as other theorists (such as Pinker and Gould) have recently argued. Finally, Orians argues that we have evolved preferences for certain kinds of ancestral environments. These evolved preferences revolve around 4 basic problems of survival: safety, food acquisition, shelter, and choosing associates for reproduction, foraging, protection, and gaining status. Sensory preferences are the result of evolved and adaptive sensory constraints and filters. Aesthetic and emotional preferences adaptive responses to these basic problems of survival.

Secondary Darwinism, by contrast, applies Darwinian theory metaphorically to the cognitive processes involved in creativity. That is, evolutionary processes are analogous to how creative ideas are born and survive and therefore become a model of creative thought. Simonton argues that creative behavior and achievement is the result of a process of "blind-variation and selective retention" (BVSR). Simonton integrates and review evidence from cognitive, personality, developmental, and social psychology consistent with the BVSR model of creativity. He goes on to argue that the model not only explains and organizes known data in these fields, but can also provide specific predictions about the kinds of career paths, aesthetic stylistic change over time, and the probabilities of "multiple discoveries" occurring in certain conditions.

The third perspective offered by various contributors could perhaps be conceptualized as a subset under the secondary darwinian perspective, but I feel it is distinct enough to warrant its own category. This viewpoint sees the evolution of culture as the central theme in understanding the creative and aesthetic process. In this sense, the third position could be labeled "cultural evolution" in contrast to biological evolution. As mentioned above, Lumsden's model of gene-culture coevolution falls under the rubic of primary darwinism as well as this third perspective of cultural evolution. Petrov takes an informations approach to analyzing the aesthetic stylistic patterns over historical time periods. Specifically he sees the opposing aesthetic styles of "analytic and synthetic" or "left and right hemispheric" as the two competing and vascillating styles. The essence of these two styles is the degree to which literary, architectural, musical, painting, and poetic styles exhibit symmetry, rationality, order, and logic on the one hand (left hemispheric) or asymmetry, irrationality, chaos, and emotion on the other (right hemispheric). Petrov then presents evidence that the predominant trends and styles vascillate between these two extreme at roughly 50 year intervals. Sternberg views cultural evolution as the result of dialetical tension between three sets of psychological phenomena: intelligence, creativity, and wisdom. Intelligence is the conservative thesis, creativity the radical antithesis, and wisdom the balancing synthesis of the two. Intelligence is the ability to adapt, creativity the ability to change, and wisdom the ability to balance.

These three distinct perspectives demonstrate just some of the richness that an evolutionary understanding of human behavior can bring, behavior that includes complex phenomena such as creativity and aesthetics. The human mind did not just appear fully formed on this planet and if we are to understand its internal workings, we must appreciate how it came to be. The theory of evolution can provide us with some answers, and the contributions presented here offer a glimpse as to what these answers may be.

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