Science and the arts have long been regarded as mutually exclusive domains, where many see artistic expression as something that science can’t explain or reduce in any way, or as something that just shouldn’t be explored by any kind of scientific inquiry. To put it another way, many people have thought it impossible for there to ever be any kind of a “science of the arts”. The way I see it, science isn’t something that can be excluded from any domain at all, because we apply science in a very general way every time we learn or conceive of new ideas, experiment with them, and observe the results to determine if we should modify our beliefs based on those experiences. Whenever we pose a question about anything we experience, in the attempt to learn something new and gain a better understanding about those experiences, a scientific approach (based on reason and the senses) is the only demonstrably reliable way we’ve ever been able to arrive at any kind of meaningful answer. The arts are no exception to this, and in fact, many questions that have been asked about the arts and aesthetics in general have not only been answered by an application of the aforementioned general scientific reasoning that we use every day, but have in fact also been answered within many specific well-established branches of science.
Technology & The Scientific Method
It seems to me that the sciences and the various rewards we’ve reaped from them have influenced art in a number of ways and even facilitated new variations of artistic expression. For example, science has been applied to create the very technologies used in producing art. The various technologies created through the application of science have been used to produce new sounds (and new combinations thereof), new colors (and new color gradients), new shapes, and various other novel visual effects. We’ve even used them to produce new tastes and smells (in the culinary arts for example). They’ve also been used to create entirely new media through which art is exemplified. So in a large number of ways, any kind of art has been dependent on science in some way or another — even by simply applying the scientific method by hypothesizing a way to express art in some way, even through a new medium or with a new technique, where the artist experiments with that medium or technique to see if it is satisfactory, and then modifies their hypothesis if needed until the artist obtains the desired result for what they’re trying to express (whether through simple trial and error or what-have-you).
Evolutionary Factors Influencing Aesthetic Preferences
Then we have the questions that pertain to whether or not aesthetic preferences are solely subjective and individualistic, or if they are also objective in some ways. Some of these questions have in fact been explored within the fields of evolutionary biology and psychology (and within the field of psychology in general), where it is well known that humans find certain types of perceptions pleasurable, such as environments and objects that are conducive to our survival. For example, the majority of people enjoy visually perceiving an abundance of food, fresh water and plush vegetation, healthy social relationships (including sex) and various emotions, etc. There are also various sounds, smells, tastes, and even tactile sensations that we’ve evolved to find pleasurable — such as the sound of laughter, flowing water, or rain, the taste of salt, fat, and sugar, the smell of various foods and plants, or the tactile sensation of sexual stimulation (to give but a few examples). So it’s not surprising that many forms of art can appeal to the majority of people by employing these kinds of objects and environments within them, especially in cases where these sources of pleasurable sensations are artificially amplified into supernormal stimuli, thus producing unprecedented levels of pleasure not previously attainable through the natural environment that our senses evolved within.
Additionally, there are certain emotions that we’ve evolved to express as well as understand simply because they increase our chances of survival within our evolutionary niche, and thus artistic representations of these types of universal human emotions will also likely play a substantial role in our aesthetic preferences. Even the evolved traits of empathy and sympathy, which are quite advantageous to a social species such as our own (due to them reinforcing cooperation and reciprocal altruism among other benefits), are employed by those that are perceiving and appreciating these artistic expressions.
Another possible evolutionary component related to our appreciation of art has to do with sexual selection. Often times, particular forms of art are appreciated, not only because of the emotions it evokes in the recipient or person perceiving it, but also when they include clever uses of metaphor, allegory, poetry, and other components that often demonstrate significant levels of intelligence or brilliance in the artist that produced them. In terms of our evolutionary history, having these kinds of skills and displays of intelligence would be attractive to prospective sexual mates for a number of reasons including the fact that they demonstrate that the artist has a surplus of mental capacity to solve more complex problems that are far beyond those they’d typically encounter day to day. So this can provide a rather unique way of demonstrating particular aspects of their fitness to survive as well as their abilities to protect any future offspring.
Artistic expression (as well as other displays of intelligence and surplus mental capacity) can be seen as analogous to the male peacock’s large and vibrant tail. Even though this type of tail increases its chances of being caught by a predator, if it has survived to reproductive age and beyond, it shows the females that the male has a very high fitness despite these odds being stacked against him. It also shows that the male is fit enough to possess a surplus of resources from its food intake that are continually donated to maintaining that tail. Beyond this, a higher degree of symmetry in the tail (the visual patterns within each feather, the morphology of each feather, and the uniformity of the feathers as a whole set) demonstrates a lower number of mutations in its genome, thus providing better genes for any future offspring. Because of all these factors, the female has evolved to find these male attributes attractive.
Similarly, for human beings (both male and female), an intelligent brain that is able to produce brilliant expressions of art (among other feats of intelligence), illustrates that the genome for that individual is likely to have less mutations in it. This is especially apparent once we realize that the number of genes in our genome that pertain to our brain’s development and function accounts for an entire 50% of our total genome. So if someone is intelligent, since their highly functional brain was dependent on having a small number of mutations in the portion of their genome pertaining to the brain, this shows that the rest of their genome is also far less likely to have harmful mutations in it (and thus less mutations passed on to future offspring). Art aside, this kind of sexual selection is actually one prominent theory within evolutionary biology to explain why our brains grew as quickly as they did, and as large as they did. Quite simply, if larger brains were something that both males and females found sexually attractive (through the feats of intelligence they could produce), they would be sexually selected for, thus leading to higher survival rates for offspring and a runaway effect of unprecedented brain growth. These aesthetic preferences would then likely carry over to general displays of artistic ability, thus no longer pertaining exclusively to the search for prospective sexual mates, but also to simply enjoy the feats of intelligence themselves regardless of the source. So there are many interesting facets that pertain to likely influential evolutionary factors relating to the origin of artistic expression (or at least the origin of our mental capacity to do so).
Neuroscience & The Arts
One final aspect I’d like to discuss that pertains to the arts within the context of the sciences, lies in the realm of neuroscience. As neuroscientists are progressing in terms of mapping the brain’s structure and activity, they are becoming better able to determine what kinds of neurological conditions are correlated with various aspects of our conscious experience, our personality, and our behavior in general. As for how this relates to the arts, we should also eventually be able to determine why we have have the aesthetic preferences we do, whether they are based on: various neurological predispositions, the emotional tagging of various past experiences via the amygdala (and how the memory of those emotionally tagged experiences change over time), possible differences in individual sensitivities to particular stimuli, etc.
Once we get to this level of understanding of the brain itself, when we combine it with the conjoined efforts of other scientific disciplines such as anthropology, archaeology, evolutionary biology and psychology, etc., and if we collaborate with experts in the arts and humanities themselves, we should definitely be able to answer a plethora of questions relating to the origin of art, how and why it has evolved over time as it has (and how it will likely continue to evolve given that our brains as well as our culture are continually evolving in parallel), how and why the arts affect us as they do, etc. With this kind of knowledge developing in these fields, we may even one day see artists producing art by utilizing this knowledge in very specific and articulate ways, in order to produce expressions that are the most aesthetically pleasing, the most intellectually stimulating, and the most emotionally powerful that we’ve ever experienced, by design. I think that by putting all of this knowledge together, we would effectively have a true science of the arts.
The arts have no doubt been a fundamental facet of the human condition, and I’m excited to see us beginning to learn the answers to these truly remarkable questions. I’m hoping that the arts and the sciences can better collaborate with one another, rather than remain relatively alienated from one another, so that we can maximize the knowledge we gain in order to answer these big questions more effectively. We may begin to see some truly remarkable changes in how the arts are performed and produced based on this knowledge, and this should only enhance the pleasure and enjoyment that they already bring to us.