Thursday, April 26, 2012

Art: In the beginning...

Posted By on Thu, Apr 26, 2012 at 9:40 AM

It's no wonder E.O. Wilson, author, biologist, researcher and numerous other titles bestowed upon him, is a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. He's known for popularizing the term "sociobiology" or even being the father of it, for crying out loud.

But at 82 years old, the man has something else going for him: He can write.

Obviously I just joined the party, but not since Yves Alain Bois have I gotten so invigorated by an academic article. In this case, "On the Origins of the Arts" which Wilson wrote for the May/June 2012 issue of Harvard Magazine, an extraordinarily lovely feature on the development of the arts in human history. (I found the article courtesy of

  • Photograph courtesy of the French Ministry of Culture and Communication, Regional Direction for Cultural Affairs, Rhône-Alpes region/Regional Department of Archaeology

Beginning with our physiological components (the senses) and moving onto early forms of artistic expression (cave paintings, jewelry) and then finally music (a possible offshoot of language), Wilson discusses the ways art and aesthetics grew more pronounced and specialized.

It starts this way:

The creative arts became possible as an evolutionary advance when humans developed the capacity for abstract thought. The human mind could then form a template of a shape, or a kind of object, or an action, and pass a concrete representation of the conception to another mind.

In this particularly lovely passage, Wilson demonstrates the way art influenced feelings of fear and bewilderment:

Burials began at least 95,000 years ago, as evidenced by thirty individuals excavated at Qafzeh Cave in Israel. One of the dead, a nine-year-old child, was positioned with its legs bent and a deer antler in its arms. That arrangement alone suggests not just an abstract awareness of death but also some form of existential anxiety. Among today’s hunter-gatherers, death is an event managed by ceremony and art.

Along the way, Wilson also talks about the similarities between the humanities and the sciences, which he compares by way of juxtaposing the writing of literary authors and scientific researchers. Each with an entirely different motive in mind, Wilson says, "Innovators in both of two domains are basically dreamers and storytellers. In the early stages of creation of both art and science, everything in the mind is a story."

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