Art: A Tail or a Song?

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

In his new book, The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (Oxford University Press), University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Anjan Chatterjee utilizes neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to explore three critical questions in the field of aesthetics: What is beauty? What is pleasure? What is art?  In the exclusive excerpt below, taken from the section “What is Art?” Chatterjee gives us a new way to think about art.  By examining the evolution of the peacock’s tail and Bengalese finch’s song, Chatterjee is able to explain why art is at the same time so universal, yet so diverse.

Do we have an instinct for art?

I do not think so, at least not in a simple-minded way. I suspect art, as we experience it, has outpaced our adapted brains. The idea that art might not be an instinct does not mean that art is not integral to our lives, or that art is not profound, or that art is not a source of great joy or an expression of great sorrow. Art can be all of these. But being all of these things does not make art an instinct.

If art is not an instinct, how do we explain the fact that we are surrounded by art? How do we explain the fact that rudiments of art exist as far back into the past as we can see? The belief that art must be an expression of a deep instinct in our collective psyche is hard to shake. At the same time, the sheer variety of art cannot be ignored. We cannot be blind to the fact that art is shaped profoundly by history and culture. Art can be an object of contemplation or of reverence just as easily as it can be a commodity buoyed by institutional and market forces. When we emphasize the universality of art, we slide into thinking of art as an instinct. When we acknowledge the sheer diversity and cultural fashioning of art, we slide into thinking of art as a spandrel. Is there a third way to think about art?

Is art more like a peacock’s tail or like a Bengalese finch’s song? This question is another way of asking if art is the expression of a finely honed adaptation like the peacock’s tail, or if art is an agile response to local conditions like the finch’s song.

The peacock’s tail, of course, is the evolutionary psychologist’s favorite example of a costly display that advertises the bird’s fitness. The tail is elaborate and beautiful. The tail also makes it harder for the peacock to move quickly, leaving it vulnerable to predators. Sexual selection, rather than natural selection, drives the development of these colorful tails. Many cultural artifacts are thought to be like the peacock’s tail. For some scholars. art is a prime example of a costly display. Elaborate, beautiful, and not very useful certainly sounds like a lot of art. As I argued earlier in the book, this view of the evolution of art is not very satisfying.

We need a different example from biology to capture the evolution of a behavior that is complex, elaborate, and varied. In addition to being varied, the behavior is unpredictable and its content responds to its local environment. After all, a hunk of lard is art only under the right cultural conditions. The song of the Bengalese finch gives us a useful example. The song, rather than being driven by ramped-up selective pressures as with the peacock’s tail, emerges from a relaxation of these same pressures. In general, the relaxation of selective pressures puts a limit on adaptation and promotes variability in biological organisms [1]. The biological anthropologist Terence Deacon suggests that the social use of language and many of our cultural practices emerge when selection pressures relax [2].

The Bengalese finch is a domestic bird bred in Japan. It descended from the feral white rumped munia, which lives in the wild throughout much of Asia. Male munias, like many birds, sing a stereotypic song to attract mates. Japanese bird breeders mated the munia for its plumage to produce birds with especially colorful feathers. In this artificial niche, over 250 years and 500 generations, the wild munia evolved into the domestic Bengalese finch. The domesticated birds’ singing abilities are now irrelevant to their reproductive success. While they were being selected to be colorful, their songs, rather than withering to a croak, became more complex and more variable, and the sequence of notes became more unpredictable [3]. The Bengalese finches also became more responsive to their social environment. They can learn new songs more easily than their munia ancestors and even learn abstract patterns embedded in songs [4]. A Bengalese chick can learn a munia’s song, but a munia chick can only learn the song it is destined to sing. According to Deacon, as the content of the song became irrelevant to usual selective pressures (identifying the same species, defending territories, avoiding predators, and attracting mates), the natural drift and degradation of genes that program the stereotypic song could occur. The contaminated genes allow for neural configurations that produce songs that are less constrained and easily perturbed. What the Bengalese finch hears in its environment increasingly influences the content of its song.

Our art experiences are coordinated in the brain by widely distributed neural ensembles.

The changes in the finch’s song are accompanied by interesting changes in its brain. The neural pathways for innate songs in the munia are relatively simple and mostly controlled by one subcortical structure called the nucleus RA. By contrast, the neural pathways for the Bengalese finch’s songs are widely distributed across the cortex and come online more flexibly. Different parts of the bird’s brain now coordinate the output of the nucleus RA [5]. The difference between the munia and the finch’s song, by analogy, is that of music played in a prescribed manner versus music that is improvised. As genetic control over brain function got looser, instinctual constraints on the bird’s song got less specific. The finch’s brain became more flexible and its behavior more improvisational and responsive to local environmental conditions.

Thus, opposite evolutionary forces drove the emergence of the peacock’s tail and the Bengalese finch’s song. Ramping up selective pressures produced the tail, while relaxing these same pressures produced the song. The song started as an adaptation but evolved into its current form in a relatively short time, precisely because it no longer served an adaptive function. The art we encounter today is more like the Bengalese finch’s song than the peacock’s tail.

Art is like the finch’s song both in its biology and in its intrinsic characteristics. Our art experiences are coordinated in the brain by widely distributed neural ensembles. We do not have a unique art module in the brain. When we engage with art, we use systems dedicated to sensations, emotions, and meaning in other contexts. The specific systems engaged during any one encounter vary depending on the kind of art we are perceiving or creating. This flexible setup of brain structures to coordinate complex behavior is similar to what we see in the finch’s brain when it sings. There is no specific song module in the finch’s brain. Rather, different cortical structures flexibly fire to coordinate the song the finch happens to be singing.

Art is complex, that is a given. Art is also highly variable, which is why different pieces of art can look nothing like each other; we even have trouble clearly defining which objects are art. Art is also exquisitely responsive to its local cultural environment. A Paleolithic painter might be preoccupied by his quarry, a medieval Christian acolyte by the Holy Mother, a Renaissance artist by his patron, and a contemporary artist by her social cause. Analogously, the finch’s songs are complex, as are many bird songs. Unlike many bird songs, the finch’s song is variable. The same bird may sing variations on its song in different contexts, and different finches learn to sing different songs. The birds’ exquisite sensitivity to their environment is reflected in the content of their songs.

The Bengalese finch’s song, in all its variable glory, is still rooted in the white rumped munia’s instinctual song. Art, like the finch’s song, has adaptive roots. The capacity for imagination, the ability to use symbols, the feeling of pleasure from beauty, the predisposition to social cohesion, may very well be at the root of art production and appreciation. However, these roots are removed from many present-day encounters with art.

Art makes use of its adaptive roots, but its current power comes from its flexible and ever-changing nature.

The capacity for imagination and the ability to symbolize are preconditions for art. We use these capacities to make and appreciate art. As we saw earlier in the book, art could be the expression of an adaptation by serving as a vehicle for beauty or social cohesion. However, art today can express beauty, but it need not. Art can promote social cohesion, but it need not. Untethered from the adaptive advantages of beauty or of social cohesion, art can become more variable. Art makes use of its adaptive roots, but its current power comes from its flexible and ever-changing nature. Contemporary art is formed in local environmental niches made by humans, and rather than being controlled tightly by an instinct, it blossoms precisely because it is untethered from these instincts.

Consider the complex set of behaviors that promote social cohesion. As we saw in the last chapter, art production and perception is one (but by no means the only) such behavior. Behaviors that promoted social cohesion among groups of a few hundred Pleistocene wanderers probably do not have the same force in our complex society as they did back then. We have offloaded some of the advantages of socially cohesive individual behavior into laws and rules enforced by “authorities.” As the constraints on individual social behaviors diminish, acts that arose to be socially cohesive can drift. Art as an expression of social cohesion can change as pressure for art to do the work of cohesion matters less. This new openness and variety in art can persist as long as countervailing forces do not weed it out. The same dynamic plays out in each of the adaptive functions proposed for art. If the selection pressures that gave rise to these adaptations relax, the behavior is free to drift. The analogy between the finch’s song and art makes sense because the structural dynamics underlying both behaviors are similar. Both the bird’s song and art start with adaptive functional purposes. They are then either honed by or released from environmental selective pressures. When honed, they become stylized and exaggerated. When released, they become more varied.

The alternate dynamics of selection and relaxation means that art is sometimes sculpted by selective environmental pressures (imposed by a cultural niche), and it is sometimes free to change if those pressures relax. When the former, art is stylized and changes are gradual refinements occurring within a narrow range of form and content. Medieval Christian iconography might be an example of this kind of art. The functional role that such art played in promoting social cohesion within the church meant that changes to art were incremental and refined to enhance those functions in this particular environmental niche. The art one might see on a tour of different medieval Christian churches would be quite restricted in style and content, a far cry from the range of what one might see on a tour of museums of modern art.

Based on the dynamics of increased or relaxed selection pressures, I predict the following. Severely oppressive conditions that persist over long periods of time would prevent the emergence of art that is varied and looks creative to our modern eyes. Art in these societies, if produced at all, would be stereotyped, ornamental, operate within narrowly prescribed rules, and probably serve as state propaganda. My guess is that not much art that we would regard as creative is now being produced in North Korea. If and when North Korea opens up to much of the world, we will not find a treasure trove of art produced by creative artists struggling in isolation against impossible odds. However, when the selection pressures of an oppressive regime relax, during periods of revolution, creative and varied art will seep out. The Internet now provides such an outlet, a release from societally imposed selective pressures. For example, the opening of China emboldened revolutionary artists in this transition phase. The Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who was one of the designers of the Beijing bird nest Olympic stadium and recently named the most powerful art figure by the magazine Art Review, has made use of the Web as a vehicle for his art that protests oppressive state policies. Even when placed under house arrest, he set up Webcams in his home, so that the visual record of his confinement itself became a form of dissident art.

The variety of art in a society at any particular time is a measure of its level of freedom.

My second prediction is that after a revolution has succeeded, resulting in the state changing from being oppressive to open, the nature of the art also changes. Revolutionary art occurs in transition between selective and relaxed pressures imposed by the environmental niche, which in this example is the state. Once the state allows individual freedom, we see the wide variety of simultaneous art practices that emerge in New York, Paris, Barcelona, and any major city in an open society. If the logic of this argument is sound, then the variety of art in a society at any particular time is a measure of its level of freedom. The more the state applies selective pressures on its artists, the more stylized and limited the range of art produced in that culture. The pressures need not be practices of an oppressive regime of the kinds we have been discussing. The pressures may simply be tough economic times in which art behavior is selected and confined by financial forces. The more the arts are released from selective pressures, whether they are state oppression or economic deprivation, the more the arts in that culture are free to vary.

My predictions relate back to the finch analogy. The point of the analogy is not that the finch’s song is art and the munia’s song is not art. Rather, both songs serve as examples of the qualities of art that emerge in a given environmental niche. The munia song, like state-controlled art, is not as variable as the finch song. Conversely, the relaxation of selection pressures on bird songs and art increases the variety of options available to the community. While art can be an expression of an instinct, it often is not. In fact, art that we might regard as most unpredictable and innovative arises precisely under conditions of relaxed selective pressures.

We started in search of a third way to think about art. We need this third way to thread between the two traditional ways of thinking of art as either an evolutionary by-product or as an instinct. Otherwise, we can’t account for the sheer variety of art and at the same time account for its universality. The white rumped munia and the Bengalese finch give us this third way, by showing that a behavior can have adaptive roots and then evolve when selective pressures on the adaption are relaxed. As we saw in the discussion of revolutionary art, art changes depending on its environmental niche. It can be finely honed to serve a purpose. It can be released from the burden of serving a purpose, mutate unpredictably, and blossom even to exist simply for its own sake. Art can be both the expression of an instinct and a relaxation from this instinct. The key is whether art in a specific cultural environment follows narrowly prescribed rules or whether it is varied and unpredictable. Art, it turns out, signals our freedom.

Excerpted with permission from The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (Oxford University Press).


1. Snell‐Rood, E. C., Van Dyken, J. D., Cruickshank, T., Wade, M. J., & Moczek, A. P. (2010). Toward a population genetic framework of developmental evolution: the costs, limits, and consequences of phenotypic plasticity. Bioessays, 32(1), 71-81.

2. Deacon, T. W. (2010). A role for relaxed selection in the evolution of the language capacity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences,107(Supplement 2), 9000-9006.

3. Okanoya, K. (2004). The Bengalese finch: a window on the behavioral neurobiology of birdsong syntax. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1016(1), 724-735.

4. Yamazaki, Y., Suzuki, K., Inada, M., Iriki, A., & Okanoya, K. (2012). Sequential learning and rule abstraction in Bengalese finches. Animal cognition, 15(3), 369-377.

5. Hosino, T., & Okanoya, K. (2000). Lesion of a higher-order song nucleus disrupts phrase level complexity in Bengalese finches. Neuroreport, 11(10), 2091-2095.