Monday, 20 October 2008

The origins of art, part 3: Neoteny and culture

Art coincided with the emergence of modern humans. So why is Homo sapiens intellectually and creatively superior to its predecessors, given that they too possessed labour and tool-making? What caused the Homo genus to make the qualitative leap that made art and culture possible?

One contributing biological factor proposed by anthropologists is neoteny, a form of paedomorphosis in which bodily development is retarded so that childlike characteristics are retained into adulthood. Humans physically resemble the infants of other ape species rather than the adults. In humans neoteny is manifested in features such as the lack of body hair, large eyes, flat faces, the smooth vertical forehead, and our very slow rate of maturation — our growth to adulthood takes approximately twice as long as other apes. The prehistorian Desmond Collins wrote that “there are so many features in adult humans which are matched only in the juvenile stage of apes that it is almost a game to collect them.”[1]

ChimpsInfant and adult chimps: it is the infant that more closely resembles ourselves. Reproduced from Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny.

Neoteny also has implications for childbirth. Our proportionately larger brains required an enlarged cranium, which posed the problem of how to give birth to a child through a pelvis that had narrowed as an adaptation for plains walking. Neoteny solves the problem by delaying the growth of our brains until we are safely out of the womb: whereas at birth most mammals’ brains are basically fully-formed, the human brain is only one quarter of its mature size.[2] One of the costs of neoteny is that our physical development is so delayed after birth that our infants are completely helpless, without even the most basic ability to survive unaided — we may even think of infants in their first year as extra-uterine fetuses. Another cost is that we have experienced a loss of agility and body strength compared to other apes.

The evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould drew the conclusion:

I believe that human beings are ‘essentially’ neotenous... because a general, temporary retardation of development has clearly characterised human evolution.[3]

It is likely that neoteny contributed to several stages of human evolution. But it appears that this most recent development has been the most decisive.

Neoteny poses dangers for the theorist. The art critic Peter Fuller proposed that the origins of art lay mostly in the long and absolute dependence of human infants upon their mothers. The helpless human baby is unable to walk immediately or to go to its mother and suckle at will. It is thus, Fuller argued, separated from reality as an animal never is. As it realises there is a separation between the mother and itself, it fills the space with a world of imagination and illusion:

When infants are hungry, they do not seek the breast, they imagine it; and the mother, if she is good enough, dips reality into those imaginings, so that infants believe they have created reality through fantasy. The adult is never free of this longing to create a world through imagination again... Its imagination acquires this infinitely labile, transforming, and world-creating quality which, as far as we can surmise, is unique in the animal kingdom.[4]

Fuller’s argument is that whereas animals conceive no complex symbolisations, the key human faculty is the imagination, and this faculty derives “above all” from the relationship of the infant with its mother. He also places extraordinary emphasis on facial expression: “Leonardo and Poussin were not alone in seeing physiognomic expression as the very root of a painting’s capacity to move us”. This is a reductionist view that tries to ascribe art to biological causes. Art is the result of a dialectical process that spans our entire evolution and flows from our material engagement or labour, which is barely mentioned at all in Fuller’s essay.

We can however agree with Fuller that neoteny is likely to be one of the key developments that separated Homo sapiens from our hairier, heavier predecessors. One of its outcomes may be the encouragement of social bonding. Our children are so helpless that they need parental care for many years, and may still be growing when the next newborn arrives. Organising to support these dependents requires a high degree of socialisation, and lays the foundations for the human family. Gould approving cites a couplet from Alexander Pope’s poem Essay on Man:

A longer care man’s helpless kind demands,
That longer care contracts more lasting bands.

Another is that we keep our love of play into adulthood and are always, like juveniles, trying new things and testing our environment. Such trial and error can discover new ways of behaving and helped us become the most adaptable species on earth. Curiosity and exploration develop our intellect and imagination, and encourage the ingenuity of the products of our labour — labour upon which we depend for our survival and upon which our existence as humans is predicated. We remain adaptable long past our childhood.

Neoteny is connected to the human animal’s dependence upon learned behaviour rather than inherited, instinctive behaviour. In Culture and Socialism, Trotsky made this important point:

Let us recall first of all that culture meant originally a plowed, cultivated field, as distinct from virgin forest and virgin soil. Culture was contrasted with nature, that is, what was acquired by man’s efforts was contrasted with what was given by nature. This antithesis fundamentally retains its value today.

Culture is everything that has been created, built, learned, conquered by man in the course of his entire history, in distinction from what nature has given, including the natural history of man himself as a species of animal... From the very moment when man separated himself from the animal kingdom — and this occurred approximately when he first took into his hands primitive tools such as stones or sticks and armed the organs of his body with them — from that time the creation and accumulation of culture began, that is, of all kinds of knowledge and skill in the struggle with nature in order to pacify nature.[5]

Trotsky is right to separate humans’ social achievements from their instincts. The creation of art is not a genetic, instinctive behaviour: humans can survive without practising any artistic activity at all.[6] Unless they are deliberately passed on from one generation to another, our uniquely human skills are lost.

Art is the product of cultural evolution, a learned behaviour that allows us collective communication. We are social beings, therefore our tool-making, our art and our culture are also social. No infant emerges from the womb knowing how to make an axe or mix paints. As cultural beings, our species found it beneficial to retain a longer period of learning and behavioural flexibility. Human culture, not least language, is complex and the human infant needs a long period of development to assimilate it. Thus Gould has asserted, “We are preeminently learning animals, and our extended childhood permits the transference of culture by education.”[7] This point of view was also endorsed by Albert Einstein, who wrote:

Memory, the capacity to make new combinations, the gift of oral communication have made possible developments among human beings which are not dictated by biological necessities. Such developments manifest themselves in traditions, institutions, and organisations; in literature; in scientific and engineering accomplishments; in works of art. This explains how it happens that, in a certain sense, man can influence his life through his own conduct, and that in this process conscious thinking and wanting can play a part.[8]

An adult human never, in fact, ceases to be capable of behavioural change. Even elderly humans have a flexibility of behaviour normally associated, in other animals, only with the very young, and our retention of curiosity and playfulness has profound consequences for our creativity. We shall examine this in detail when we consider Marx’s idea of the “realm of freedom”.

As discussed in the previous post, the unique character of Homo sapiens cannot be reduced to biology or any other single process. Neoteny itself needs to be understood not just in biological terms but as part of a complex evolutionary dialectic of human labour, cognition, and social behaviour.





[1] Desmond Collins, The Human Revolution: From Ape to Artist (1976). It is important to remember of course that chimps and gorillas are not our ancestors, so thinking of them as somehow representing earlier stages of ourselves can be misleading.
[2] Readers can find anthropological discussions of neoteny in, for example, Desmond Morris, The Naked Ape (1967) and Stephen Jay Gould’s Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977).
[3] Stephen Jay Gould, Ontogeny and Phylogeny (1977).
[4] Peter Fuller, ‘Art and Biology’, New Left Review 132 (1982). (Note: to read the linked article requires a subscription to NLR.) The overemphasis I criticise here can be ascribed to Fuller’s move to the right, analysed by Julian Stallabrass in ‘Success and Failure of Peter Fuller’, New Left Review 207 (1994).
[5] Trotsky, Culture and Socialism (1927). To my knowledge this essay is available in only one place online.
[6] Culture has not been incorporated into our genes, but that does not mean that our toolmaking and other cultural behaviours could not exert evolutionary pressure. Our learned skills have a real influence upon natural selection, e.g. by modifying the environment in which natural selection operates (the so-called ‘Baldwin effect’).
[7] Stephen Jay Gould, ‘A Biological Homage to Mickey Mouse’, reproduced in The Panda’s Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History (1980). In this essay Gould examines how Mickey Mouse’s appearance became more neotenous, i.e. juvenile, as his creators made him more inoffensive.
[8] Albert Einstein, ‘Why Socialism’ from Monthly Review (May 1949). In this essay, Einstein — yes, the Einstein — concludes that capitalism is responsible for “the crippling of individuals” and advocates a socialist economy.

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