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Art can enhance humanity’s survival

It means an overhaul of our education system, so that art penetrates every nook and cranny.


Art isn’t, as Kandel paraphrases a concept from the late philosopher of art Denis Dutton, “a byproduct of evolution, but rather an evolutionary adaptation — an instinctual trait — that helps us survive because it is crucial to our well-being.” The arts encode information, stories, and perspectives that allow us to appraise courses of action and the feelings and motives of others in a palatable, low-risk way.
Alexander C. Kafka: Eric Kandel’s Vision

In an earlier article, I tackled the impact of artificial intelligence and Big Data on higher education: Combining one to the other may create a fascinating but frightening synergy where much of the specific cognitive work humans currently engage in will soon be automated. We need to enhance the development of skills that are unique to humans and can complement, and not just duplicate, what machines already do very well and will soon do almost perfectly.

Why? Because once the tsunami of the Internet of Things makes landfall and combines with AI and Big Data, human civilization will be swept by a force it has never experienced before. Or maybe it has?

Let me go back in time here. Thirty thousand to 50,000 years ago, something happened: Language, symbols, and religion suddenly appeared. So suddenly, in fact, that most reseachers call this moment the cultural big bang 1. Hundreds of centuries ago, for reasons yet unknown, our brains turned us into a new species, one that experienced the environment as this vast, empty, dense, and frightening phenomenon. Our forbearers probably felt excited and overwhelmed, deeply seduced but also profoundly frightened; the sublime appeared along with dread and the world became a land of endless imaginary and cognitive landscapes. Yet our ancestors survived, and even thrived.

Today machines and technologies are also generating deep transformative changes to our world. As it did 50,000 years ago, the world now constantly opens up, acquiring endless levels of complexity. How can we flourish in such a constantly reinvented world? How can we retool our civilization and our education system to understand and prosper in this extraordinary new world?

The key is to do what our ancestors did: immerse ourselves in the arts. This, of course, is what many have suggested through the centuries. But the uniqueness of my proposal lies in the perception, understanding, and use of the arts. Not art as a vague expression of what is “special” about humanity, but art as a proxy for the effectiveness of potential solutions to critical problems; art as a life-enhancing mechanism to address and solve the fundamental challenges we now face.

Many readers will be critical of this proposal and will argue vehemently that beauty, splendour and emotions cannot be judged or even considered on efficiency scales and that doing so is not only dangerous but also simplistic. But as David P. Barash, professor of psychology at the University of Washington, stated (on the topic of our fascination with animals): “ ‘Pleasure’ is not something that natural selection doles out without a reason – and we would expect that reason to be intimately connected with maximizing fitness.”

We are emotionally drawn to structures, forms and narratives that increase our rate of survival. Research from Denis Dutton, Brian Boyd, V.S. Ramachandran, William Hirstein and E.O. Wilson, among many others, is clear on the subject: we are enticed by forms, shapes, rhythms and movements that are useful to our existence. We find Vermeer’s “The Girl with the Pearl Earring,” beautiful, for example, because her face is symmetrical, a clue to her strong immune system2. As the neuroscientist Eric Kandel suggests in The Age of Insight, we are fascinated by Gustav Klimt’s Judith because “at a base level, the aesthetics of the image’s luminous gold surface, the soft rendering of the body, and the overall harmonious combination of colors could activate the pleasure circuits, triggering the release of dopamine. If Judith’s smooth skin and exposed breast trigger the release of endorphins, oxytocin, and vasopressin, one might feel sexual excitement.” We like stories and music because they simulate social interactions and trigger empathy, keys to living in larger and larger groups from which survival is enhanced3. Through the experience of art, and from the endless simulations it provides, the individual and the collective become more tolerant, innovative, and stable, allowing for an extended lifespan. Art, in effect, creates chemically triggered emotional response to representations or simulations that are effective in improving our survival. As Denis Dutton said in his TED talk (April 2013):

We can say that the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing and sustaining interest or fascination, even obsession, in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction.

(Abstract, difficult or conceptual art from which many of us feel little pleasure, work differently but still enhance survival: abstract, difficult or conceptual art shake-up ossified societies in which innovation, ideas and invention have been lost, outlawed or forgotten.)

Art also acts as a device for creating effective metaphors, analogies, play on words, and allegories – mechanisms that draw unusual elements together to produce innovative shapes, dynamics and phenomena. In fact, the larger and more complex the group of individuals, the more dramatic is the need for art. Not only do larger groups produce more data, they also face constant resource issues which can only be addressed through innovation. Larger groups also face complex and complicated social interactions, which can be tackled more effectively through the safe simulations that narratives and representation provide.

Moreover, art can help us manage the colossal amount of information we are now continuously exposed to. In fact, one of art’s most distinct characteristics is its ability to structure massive amounts of data (e.g. war) into coherent, easily recollected, easily shared, and emotionally charged forms (think of Picasso’s Guernica for example). Is that characteristic culturally specific? Yes and no. Yes, because the transfer of information for survival purposes targets the immediate group first; no, because the evidence is clear: what we consider beautiful does not vary from one culture to another. As Denis Dutton writes in The Art Instinct (2009):

People in very different cultures around the world gravitate toward the same general type of pictorial representation: a landscape with trees and open areas, water, human figures, and animals. More remarkable still was the fact that people across the globe preferred landscapes of a fairly uniform type: Kenyans appeared to like landscapes that more resembled upstate New York than what we might think of as the present flora and terrain of Kenya.

Why is that? Well, Because, writes Steven Pinker (How the Mind Works, 1999) these pictorial representations:

“are dead ringers for an optimal savannah: semi-open space (neither completely exposed, which leaves one vulnerable, nor overgrown, which impedes vision and movement), even ground cover, views to the horizon, large trees, water, changes in elevation, and multiple paths leading out.”

Further, art does that which machines cannot do, or don’t do very well: selecting and understanding what is useful through the clutter (what we call common sense or culturally specific behaviour), binding unusual elements together effectively, and creating flexible, malleable, and adaptable survival and innovation tactics.

Art is a quality control mechanism of effective survival strategies. When we are drawn to a work of art, when we label such a work as beautiful, touching, or inspiring, we, in effect, filter through our senses and cognition the survival effectiveness of the art form we experience:

There is virtually no evidence that artworks activate emotion areas distinct from those involved in appraising everyday objects important for survival. The most reasonable evolutionary hypothesis is that the aesthetic system of the brain evolved first for the appraisal of objects of biological importance, including food sources and suitable mates, and was later co-opted for artworks such as paintings and music.
Steven Brown and Xiaoqing Gao (2011): The Neuroscience of Beauty. How does the brain appreciate art?

Art as a device to enhance our survival is key to our continued existence in a profoundly technological world. Art can act as the bridge between a deeply altered world and humanity; it can deliver the means to a better understanding and control of our ecosystem; and it can provide the seeds to a thriving humanity in a machine-dominated world.

What does it mean for education? It means an overhaul of our education system, so that art penetrates every nook and cranny of that system. Art has a place in the humanities of course, but also in the STEM disciplines, in medicine, and in business. It means understanding art as a biologically driven simulation, innovation and manufacturing mechanism that can further our individual and collective existence. It means that the teaching of art as a cognitive and survival-enhancing system must be ubiquitous.

For thousands of years now, we have considered art as this extraordinary phenomenon, the ultimate proof of our uniqueness. Art is the expression of the beautiful complexity of the human character, its depth, its richness, its desire to question, understand and be moved. There is no denying the power of art, its ability to further our understanding of the world. But if art enriches our lives it is mainly because it is a fantastic survival system, one that allows us to explore new survival structures and then disseminate them to the entire species through emotional means. Art in that sense is not really different from the way bacteria share DNA or ants disseminate information: all are effective and flexible means to address survival challenges and to mould the environment to each species’ specific needs.

For many people, we have entered the Anthropocene, the era where man’s influence on the planet creates geological changes. Let’s suggest that the Anthropocene has already mutated into something even more troubling: the geological era of machines and technology. In this new, remodeled world, art is one of the most effective means of extending ourselves in time and space.

Dr. Dyens is deputy provost (student life and learning) at McGill University.

‘Most, though not all, anthropologists agree that human culture, imagination and ingenuity suddenly flowered around 45,000 years ago. The evidence ranges from fantastic cave paintings and elaborate graves to the first fishing equipment and sturdy huts. And whether scientists call it the great leap forward, the dawn of culture or civilization’s big bang, they agree that the change was momentous, giving humans the cohesion and adaptability to expand their range into Europe, Asia, and eventually Australia and the Americas. “In its wake,” (Richard G.) Klein says, “humanity was transformed from a relatively rare and insignificant large mammal to something like a geologic force.”’ Mitchell Leslie: Suddenly Smarter, Stanford Alumni.

“What people select as beautiful qualities primarily reflect signs of fertility brought on by hormonal changes. (…) The rise in estrogen in pubescent girls gives them fuller lips, while testosterone in boys produces a prominent chin, a larger nose, a fuller jaw. Estrogen causes the growth of the breasts and buttocks, while testosterone encourages the growth of muscles and broad shoulders. So for a female, full lips, full buttocks, and a narrow waist broadcast a clear message : I’m full of estrogen and fertile. For a male, it’s the full jaw, stubble, and broad chest.” David Eagleman (2012): Incognito. The Secret Lives of the Brain. Penguin.

‘But narrative especially helps coordinate groups, by informing their members of one another’s actions. It spreads prosocial values, the likeliest to appeal to both tellers and listeners. It develops our capacity to see from different perspectives, and this capacity in turn both arises from and aids the evolution of cooperation and the growth of human mental flexibility.’ (p. 176) Brian Boyd (2009) : On the Origin of Stories, Harvard University Press

‘Stories encourage us to explore the points of view, beliefs, motivations, and values of other human minds, inculcating potentially adaptive interpersonal and social capacities. (…) Stories provide regulation for social behavior.’

Ollivier Dyens
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  1. Back2basic / December 15, 2014 at 16:30

    To All Higher Educator Leaders in Canada:

    Hopefully, Dr. Dyens’ idea of “Art can enhance humanity’s survival” will inspire an overhaul of our education system, so that art penetrates every nook and cranny through the integration and penetration of art across all disciplines including STEM fields, medicine, and business.

    However, in order to achieve Dr. Dyens’ idea, the very basic intuition fee needs to be subsidized at the level which all students whether they are undergrad or grad, can afford to learn “ART” before, during, or after their major’s requirement.

    If this tuition fee for “ART” will be an extra weight on students’ debt after their graduation and without employment, then this wonderful idea will ONLY enhance the rich, unscrupulous and unethical foreigners to be in the Higher Education sector whereas this extra debt will restrict many potential Canadian born Students who will certainly deserve to be in the Higher Education sector.

    This is the reality of economy in all Canadian families. Back2basic

  2. Julia Sloan Marchand / May 12, 2023 at 15:43

    Everyday, yes- I mean that literally, I argue that Art Ed should be deeply connected to and integrated into all aspects of k-12 learning. Unfortunately, in my experience as a Teaching Artist, most people don’t understand that Arts Ed. is about teaching big skills: “Art also acts as a device for creating effective metaphors, analogies, play on words, and allegories…”

    Perhaps more exposure to and understanding of contemporary artists and arts practices would make it easier for people to connect Art to big ideas. Unfortunately, we probably need to have better art education to help people understand contemporary art…sigh

    Well, in the meantime, I’m so glad I came across this article (almost 10 years after it was was published here). The arguments and language will be helpful in my continued quest for more quality Arts Education for all.

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