Miller agrees with Brian Boyd that art is a signaling system—like a bee’s dance, a bird’s song, or a gorilla thumping its chest—but reaches a very different conclusion about the purpose and function of that system. It’s easy to explain the ‘receiver’ end of art, says Miller; we consume it like ‘eye candy’, in the sense that it stimulates our pleasure-responses to certain stimuli, the shapes, colours and patterns for which we have a ‘sensory bias’. But on the ‘sender’ side: why bother? Why invest ‘limited time, energy, and risk in growing ornaments, making sounds, or creating works that receivers might enjoy,’ when such efforts might be better put to more practical ends? The answer, says Miller, lies in Darwin’s explanation of art more than a century ago: that it arose—long before humans—as a mechanism for attracting mates. Art making is one of the many ways animals ‘signal their health, resourcefulness, intelligence, and / or general fitness’ to potential mates, in the same manner as do the splendid (but otherwise useless) feathers on a peacock.
Darwin’s view fell out of favour for much of the twentieth century, but new evidence points to its validity—as does the discovery, very recently, that human art-making sensibilities are much, much older than we thought, and are apparent in Acheulean hand axes up to half a million years old. The ‘carefully exaggerated symmetry’ of such tools point to an emerging aesthetic sense that persists, today, as a signal of ‘good genes, good bodies, and good brains.’ Art has, of course, come to fulfill many secondary functions—on a personal, social, and economic level. These cannot be dismissed. But we are here, after all, to talk about origins.
Geoffrey Miller is an American professor of psychology, and author of The Mating Mind (2000) and Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior (2009).