Sunday, 19 October 2008

The origins of art, part 1: The beginnings of humankind

Art is so fundamental to our humanity that we can claim that creativity, in the broadest sense of making, is what separates us from other animals. We are animals ourselves, but the revolutionary step into self-consciousness has only occurred in humans, and was one of the most significant new developments in evolution since life on Earth first appeared.

Other species do participate in activities that resemble art — termites are famous for their feats of architecture, and some spiders pursuing a mate perform what we like to call a dance. But these behaviours are instinctive and necessary to the animals’ survival. Humans, by contrast, make things even when there is no need for them to do so. The dividing lines between human and animal capabilities will always be blurred, but to begin we shall explore art as a human activity. Once we understand its nature we can better assess the difference between human and animal ‘aesthetic’ activity.

To understand how art began, we need to explore how humans were formed as a species and what processes were unleashed when our ancestors learned the skill of making. The relevance of this to art may not at first be obvious, but art becomes possible only after an immensely long and complex process of development. Since the first great flowering of culture in the Upper Paleolithic the change in our biology has been marginal, because that period — approximately 40,000 years — is tiny in evolutionary terms. Yet our evolution defined the physiology with which our special cognitive capacities are bound up. So, as usual, it is best to start at the beginning.

The beginnings of humankind

Marxism is interested only in scientific explanations of human origins: dialectical materialism and evolutionary theory complement each other. It is worth remembering how recent this method of interpretation is. As the American Marxist George Novack pointed out,

these ideas and facts, so commonplace today, were the subversive thoughts of yesterday. We readily adopt this scientific view of organic evolution without realising that this very act of acceptance is part of a reversal in human thinking about the world and the creatures in it, which has taken place on a mass scale only during the past century. Recall, for example, the prevalence of the Biblical myth of creation in the Western world up to a few generations ago.[1]

There is of course no firm dividing line between those two worldviews. The critique of religion within the Christian world dates back to at least Voltaire and the Enlightenment. But it was Darwin, and contemporaries such as the relatively unsung Alfred Wallace, whose scientific discoveries were to strike a decisive blow against religion — as least as far as credible theory is concerned. (Unfortunately, religion has not seen being proved wrong as a reason to cease operations.)

The generally accepted scientific view of human evolution, backed by a vast body of evidence, begins (very roughly) six million years ago when the primate family branched into two. One branch led to gorillas, orang utans, chimps and the other surviving primates. The other was to lead to a succession of human species. We have no certain fossil record for the species from which they diverged, which is known as the ‘common ancestor’, but anthropologists assume that one must have existed.

Three million years ago the Earth entered upon its most recent ice age (which we are technically still in today). The causes are still disputed, but may have been because our planet moved on its axis and spent longer periods facing away from the sun. The resulting fall in temperatures, besides the creation of the polar ice caps, led the humid forests to shrink and give way to grasslands. Some species reliant on the forests died out, while others survived and evolved into the great apes. Our own ancestors adapted to a new diet, moving from the forests to the plains. This was the decisive point at which human evolution diverged from the other primates.

Friedrich Engels, like all the scientific community of his day, had relatively little data about human evolution. Nonetheless, he successfully identified some of its processes and key stages of development:

First, owing to their way of living which meant that the hands had different functions than the feet when climbing, these apes began to lose the habit of using their hands to walk and adopted a more and more erect posture. This was the decisive step in the transition from ape to man.

All extant anthropoid apes can stand erect and move about on their feet alone, but only in case of urgent need and in a very clumsy way. Their natural gait is in a half-erect posture and includes the use of the hands. The majority rest the knuckles of the fist on the ground and, with legs drawn up, swing the body through their long arms, much as a cripple moves on crutches. In general, all the transition stages from walking on all fours to walking on two legs are still to be observed among the apes today. The latter gait, however, has never become more than a makeshift for any of them.[2]

Engels does not discuss the cause of this move to a bipedal posture — the adaptation to life on the grasslands. Apes living in the forests use both feet and hands for locomotion. The apes that moved out of the forests, by contrast, won more evolutionary advantage from an erect posture that required less energy than moving on all fours, and which freed their hands for other activity. (We shall discuss the role of the hand in the next article.) This was the time of our remote bipedal ancestor, Australopithecus, whose most famous member was Lucy. Striking evidence of the bipedality of Australopithecus was discovered at Laetoli in Tanzania, where a set of footprints was preserved in volcanic ash.

It is debatable today whether bipedality was the decisive factor as Engels believed. One may read theories about how humanity was launched by cooking, technology, language, sexual selection, or all sorts of things. In reality, our evolution was probably the result not of one single ‘Eureka!’ cause but a combination of genetic and cultural elements. Engels is probably correct however that the most powerful cause was labour, i.e. the discovery of tool-making and the new properties, symbols and ideas generated by it. Many modern archaeologists agree that humans ‘made themselves’ through their material engagement with the world.

These pre-human primates diversified their diet by scavenging meat left behind by predators. The increase in calories fuelled an increase in brain volume, and in turn a more demanding brain required a reduction of energy elsewhere, probably the gut, and thus a higher quality diet. The need to be intelligent enough to avoid plains predators, the social complexities of expanding groups, and tool use all urged a growth in our mind. The average human brain is unusually large, with a volume of 1350 cc compared to 350 cc for our nearest surviving relative, the chimpanzee. The size ratio of brain to body is also important — the human body is only 50 times the weight of our brain, compared to 130 times for chimpanzees and 1000 times for elephants. Brain size, however, even proportionate brain size, does not explain everything: whales have bigger brains than we do, and we are outdone in brain-to-body ratio by the shrew. As the neurologist Terrence Deacon has pointed out [3], there must also have been a change in the structure of the brain which is at least as important.

Although fossil evidence suggests the shift to an erect posture may have taken place 4 million years ago, Australopithecus had chimp-sized brains and is not regarded as human. Many archaeologists consider the first humans to have been Homo habilis, a tool-maker which appeared about 2.3 million years ago and is the first species in our genus, Homo. Other human species of this period have been labelled Homo rudolfensis and Homo ergaster, and it is difficult as yet to draw firm lines between these and other human species during the Lower Paleolithic. It is likely that several species of early humans co-habited. These species were not only using tools but were making their own, creating cutting edges — for example to strip meat from bones — by breaking one stone against another, skills more advanced than anything modern chimpanzees are capable of. The capacity for making tools is so significant that it is commonly seen as the dividing line between humans and animals: hence such labels as Homo faber and ‘man [sic] the tool-maker’. This technology, known as the ‘Oldowan’ after the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where many such implements were found, was in use for over 1 million years.

Oldowan chopping toolsOldowan chopping tools. Photo: Didier Descouens.

It is important to note, of course, that dating such remote periods is rarely an exact science, and sources will differ in their estimates. Marxism and science can only draw upon the best of current knowledge.

About 1.8 million years ago, humanity made its next step with the evolution of Homo erectus, a species which was similar to us, sharing our fluent stride and run and maturing slowly as we do [4]. At this time early humans spread out of Africa into the East. They were making cleavers, handaxes and other quite sophisticated tools, which were not only functional but had qualities we would consider ‘aesthetic’, such as symmetrical form. This technology, which is known as the ‘Acheulean’ and belongs to the Lower Paleolithic period, lasted until as recently as 200,000 years ago, making it the dominant technology for most of human history. No technical advances were made for over a million years.

The Lower Paleolithic offers very little evidence for symbolic or artistic activity. The very first claimed art objects do however date to the period of Acheulean technology, dating to up to 280,000 years ago. Fragments of ochre found at the Kapthurin formation in Kenya and the Duinefontein site in South Africa may have been used as body ornaments. There are also very early examples of the so-called ‘Venus’ figurines, such as the object found near Tan-Tan in Morocco, which bear marks of carving and are claimed to resemble crude female figures. (For various good reasons, the term ‘Venus’ should be dropped — not least because it is meaningless, given that the figurines in question haven’t the least connection to the Roman goddess.) Such figurines are probably naturally occurring objects, whose likeness to human forms was, it has been alleged, appreciated by our ancestors and modified by them. These early objects’ purpose is unclear and their claim to be art is debatable.

Indisputable artistic activity only appears with the advent of modern humans during the Middle/Upper Paleolithic period. The oldest known art objects generally (though not entirely) accepted by scientists are pieces of ochre carved with crosshatching and jewellery made from perforated shells dating back 77,000 years, found in the Blombos cave in South Africa. Ochre is a soft red or yellow stone whose powder can be used to create paint.

Objects from the Blombos CaveBifacial flakes, bone tools, and possibly the first known true art — a block of ochre bearing an engraved pattern. From the Blombos Cave. Photo: Henning (Wikimedia Commons).

Our own species, Homo sapiens or ‘wise human’, appeared 200,000 years ago (according to estimates based upon DNA), probably in Africa, and developed further into Homo sapiens sapiens, or modern humanity. (The sexist use of the word ‘man’ as a synonym for ‘human being’, incidentally, is not the fault of the Latin — Homo means not ‘man’ but ‘person’ or ‘human being’.[5]) This species is believed to have migrated from Africa [6], replacing other archaic species of human: it had reached China by 68,000 years ago, Australia 60,000 years ago, and Europe 40,000 years ago. Since the disappearance of the Neanderthals 28,000 years ago, Homo sapiens has been the only surviving species of the Homo genus. These people had an unprecedented level of culture: they buried their dead, created rituals, made and wore jewellery, sewed clothing, carved artifacts, painted cave walls, and diversified into different communities with different cultural behaviours. Over several thousand years they have created — and are still creating — immensely diverse art.

Many religious people believe that human consciousness was created fully-formed through a single act of divine will. No concrete evidence for this has ever been produced, so it is reasonable to dismiss it. Our consciousness arose through an evolutionary process which had no preconceived goal — we are the result of a remarkable combination of events. Evolution vindicates dialectical materialism, the Marxist theory that matter is in constant motion, striving towards more complex forms [7]. A species evolves out of many quantitative changes which are in tension with the old form; eventually the new forces overcome the old and there is a qualitative change, giving rise to a new form. These collisions propel matter in developmental leaps: nothing in existence is fixed or eternal. Marx did not invent dialectics, but he adapted it to a materialist outlook. In the words of his contemporary Paul Lafargue, Marx

did not see a thing singly, in itself and for itself, separate from its surroundings: he saw a highly complicated world in continual motion. His intention was to disclose the whole of that world in its manifold and continually varying action and reaction.[8]

In human beings, evolution created a species that was quite new. It “both grew out of the old and outgrew it” (Novack).

We shall discuss dialectics in greater detail another time. To understand what took forest primates on the journey to modern civilisation and to the creation of art, we must combine dialectics with another fundamental process in human evolution — labour.

[1] George Novack, ‘How Humanity Climbed to Civilisation’ from Understanding History (1956–68). This work also includes a discussion of evolution from the dialectical materialist standpoint.
[2] Friedrich Engels, The Part Played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man (1876), later included in Dialectics of Nature. It is immediately clear that some of the scientific data used by Engels have been superceded, and in fairness to him we should point out that the article is a draft only and was never finished. However his argument remains a fine example of the dialectical method applied to evolution.
[3] See discussion in Chapter 5 of Terrence Deacon, The Symbolic Species (1997).
[4] In his book Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human (2009), the anthropologist Richard Wrangham has argued that the transition to habilines was the consequence of adding meat to our ancestors’ diet, and that the transition to Homo erectus resulted from cooking our food, made possible by the discovery and control of fire. The increased energy obtainable from cooked food gave us an essential biological advantage and our bodies adapted to consuming it.
[5] A further aside in case of confusion: the word ‘homosexual’ draws not upon the Latin homo but the Greek homos, meaning ‘same’.
[6] There has been a dispute between the ‘Multiregional’ theory, which maintains that after Homo erectus left Africa 1.7 million years ago the local populations all evolved into Homo sapiens independently, and the ‘Out of Africa’ theory that Homo sapiens began in Africa and spread into the rest of the world in a second great migration around 60,000 years ago, replacing all human species descended from Homo erectus. Modern DNA analysis shows that humans are remarkably homogeneous, with very little genetic variation. This and other evidence favours the Out of Africa theory, with all modern humans descended from a population that may have been as small as 10–50,000.
[7] Some readers who think of Darwinism as ‘red in tooth and claw’ may find it hard to reconcile it with the egalitarianism of Marxism, but in fact the ‘survival of the fittest’ is a distortion of Darwin’s theory. Darwinism explains how organisms with characteristics best suited to particular environments adapt and develop, while organisms that find themselves in environments to which they are unadapted, or less well adapted than others, may disappear. This process takes many generations. As Ellen Dissanayake observed, “For the true Darwinist, it is the inclusive survival of the fit that matters, not the exclusive survival of the fittest” (from Homo Aestheticus). The idea of aggressively competing selfish individuals was an invention of Social Darwinism.
[8] Paul Lafargue, Reminiscences of Marx (1890).

Further reading
This blog is not the place to discuss human evolution in detail. Readers who wish to know more may find the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and the BBC’s Human Beginnings rewarding.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The quotation is machine translation, but I think you will enjoy:

"It causes great harm to the fact exaggerate the role of fashion without looking behind with her the contents. Surge formalism. For example, some artists paint pictures devoid of any content. They spread across the screen a mess of patches and the table is ready . It is the art of extreme formalism, called abstract art, art without content. True art requires that the highest art form corresponds to a deep content. "

(Little Handbook of Dialectical Materialism, O. V. Yakhot and Podosetnik, Editor Arguments, 1967, Sao Paulo, Brazil)