Pinker takes issue with ‘lame and flabby’ theories for art that confuse questions about its worth and value at a social level, with questions about its function in a Darwinian sense. The proper question to ask is: ‘Is art a heritable trait that enhanced the reproductive rate of our ancestors?’ The answer, he finds, is that art is a by-product, a kind of side effect of other adaptations, such as the desire to obtain status via ‘conspicuous consumption’ (Veblen) of sumptuous goods, and to identify oneself as a member of the fashionable elite.
Art is also a vehicle for engagement with our evolved aesthetic sense. There are adaptive explanations why certain faces, bodies, patterns and habitats give humans aesthetic pleasure: ‘they are cues to understandable, safe, productive, nutritious, or fertile things in the world.’ Artists can choose to play with or flout the audience’s preference for such sensory stimulus, or to create ‘supernormal’ doses of it. Art is, in this way, akin to cheesecake: a ‘pleasure technology’ we have invented for no other reason than our own enjoyment and satisfaction.
Steven Pinker is a Canadian-American psychology professor and experimental psychologist, cognitive scientist and linguist, whose influential publications include The Language Instinct (1994), How the Mind Works (1997) and The Blank Slate (2002).