This is the monologue for the latest episode of Why? Radio: “Why Did Homo Sapiens Evolve Into Artists?” with guest Valerius Geist. Click here to listen to the episode.
There is a debate that is consuming universities across the country. Administrators are now only interested in cultivating the so-called “practical” subjects. At my own University of North Dakota, they want to give money to the schools of business and aviation, and invest in rural medicine and energy production. They are mostly uninterested in music, English, philosophy, and the arts. They even have little time for pure science—physics or biology for its own sake is deemed worthless because it does not guaranteed a financial return on investment. For the UND administration, even the STEM subjects are only worthwhile when they concern themselves with areas like information technology or unmanned aircraft systems. Down-to-earth, marketable, fashionable practicalities, that they think, makes UND more attractive to granting agencies and parents.
This is, I must say, a very odd orientation to have. What they mean by “practical” makes 99% of even their own experience invisible. Pretty much every administrator redecorates his or her office during the first weeks of the job. They all hang art on the walls and want nice desks. They wear formal business clothes, groom themselves, and have fashionable and appropriate hair styles. More money is spent on the way administrators want things to look than on copier paper or parking passes. Art is, whether they acknowledge it or not, more than just practical. It is a human necessity.
Today we will ask why this is. What does art provide that humanity cannot get from something else? To find an answer, we will turn to evolution. Neanderthals did not have art; neither did Homo erectus. Art developed alongside our ability to herd livestock and grow crops. This means that it must have a purpose. Nothing useless evolves. Or to put it another way, art is a necessary component of the survival of the fittest.
I am not going to anticipate what purposes art serves; I will leave that to my guest. But I would like to suggest that to understand art evolutionarily, is to see it in terms of the skills it requires: creativity, imagination, communication, collaboration, mutual understanding, as well as color differentiation, object manipulation, dexterity, cataloging and classification, scent identification, and aural reproduction. Studies of contemporary school children show time and time again that students who learn art do better in math and writing. It teaches them problem solving and critical thinking. It inspires everyone to think differently, to see the other perspectives better, and to improve our own self-awareness. Surely these skills were just as important for early humans as they are for those of us who live in the 21st century.
It is easy to think of evolution as somehow separate from our day-to-day lives. We live in cities and towns, early humans were at home on the African plains. We think of ourselves as individuals, but only describe our ancestors’ tribes. When we hunt, we do so for sport or tradition, but there is little there to recall the scarcity and desperation that early hunters faced. It takes more imagination to see our continuity with the creatures who came before us than it does to see what we have in common with those who live on the other side of the world, even those in cultures that we don’t understand, with practices that may horrify us.
But there is nothing more natural than the connection between early human beings and the people whom we call our friends and family. Scientists can show with precision and detail all the steps between them and us, the progressive developments that got us from there to here. They can also show, as we shall see, that we could not have developed scientific practices if we had not learned how to be artists, and we could not have become entrepreneurial if we were neither imaginative nor creative. There is no clear and distinct difference between art, science, business, engineering, and other human endeavors. You can’t have one without the others.
What some university administrators refuse to see is the holistic nature of the human experience. UND’s leadership is blind to the fact that their scheme to be the most influential university in the world when it comes to drones will necessarily fall short if there is no meaningful attention to the arts. Without lessons in creativity, neither students nor professors will be capable of innovation. This has been true since the moment that our species could be identified as human. In fact, what I suspect today’s episode will show, is that if we didn’t have art, we couldn’t be called human at all.