Archaeology and Evolution: Does Art “Evolve”?
Exploring the caves of southwestern Germany, archaeologists have uncovered some amazing artifacts of early human culture. Last May, a so-called “Venus” figurine dating 35,000 years old is the earliest known representation of the female figure — well, okay, not a figure most women would recognize, but we should grant the out-sized proportions whatever artistic license and sacred meaning its creators intended. This week Dr. Nicholas Conrad of the University of Tübingen (Germany, duh), who uncovered the Venus, reported evidence of a 30,000 year old flute made of bird bone, the earliest found evidence of human musicality.
These findings are important, and awesome, and the more we can find, the better.
Here’s the “but” (cuz it’s me writing, so expect a “but”): Why does Conrad suggest that southern Germany “may have been one of the places where human culture originated“? Let’s parse that statement a little. First, note the “one of” qualification. Given the history of previous racist assumptions held by earlier practitioners of his field of inquiry, Conrad is right to imply that the origins of human culture are probably spread throughout the world; in particular, Africa, the Middle East, southern Asia and elsewhere along the path of human migration over tens of thousands of years.
My beef is with the term “originated.” How do we know that the bone flute artifact is not just one stop on the path of our species’ musical “evolution”? Bone tends to be more hardy than other likely materials for flute construction, such as wood, which would succumb to rot or to reclamation by the jungle. If our friends at Wikipedia are correct (they’re getting more reliable), homo sapiens occupied most of Africa some 100-150,000 years ago, and began migrating out of Africa about 70,000 years ago. Our species is roughly 200,000 years old. Geologically speaking, that’s a blink of an eye, but in terms of human development, a very long time for a species to move about, settle, hunt, gather, develop social relations, and cohere group identity, in which culture plays a central role. We can at least speculate that there are several kinds of musical instrument lost to history beneath the fecund soils of sub-Saharan African jungles or the sands of the Sahara itself as it creeps southward.
I’m not accusing Carlson of racism or of making racist assumptions, mind you. One could certainly make an argument (provided more archaelogical evidence, of course) that European forms of musicality originated in Germany, or that a significant branch of human musical invention took off from this point. It’s more a matter of care in how we phrase the significance of these findings, because they contribute to a larger impression of human cultural development, which in turn has had a significant influence on how we understand human evolution. The NYTimes articles I have linked to above show typical Euro-centric conflation of “evolution” and human creativity. Their author John Noble Wilford is an experienced science reporter and is no doubt aware of debates on this issue, yet here again we find a very casual use of the term “evolution” with all its cultural assumptions of a linear progression from lower to higher orders — of being, of consciousness, of sophistication, and so on.
This progression myth diverges significantly from the Darwinian theory of descent through modification in response to environmental challenges to survival and via genetic diversity that enables adaptation. The roles of chance, luck, and time play significantly here. Intentionality, not so much. When art evolves, humans move it forward in response to inherited conventions, prevailing theories, and the cultural needs of the moment; this is an active participation with history and context. As with our technology and our ability to transform our environment dramatically (including our food, for better or worse), art has an impact on our social relations, worldview, concepts of history and humanity, part of feedback loop with the actions we take in the world.
In short, art (and science, religion, and other aspects of culture) affects human development — as social creatures, not as biological creatures. I don’t rule out the possibility that a cumulative effect of our artifice — the net effect of our impact on our living environment — will have a future influence on development, provided we have the necessary genes to allow for whatever adaptation is needed. Certainly global warming is clear evidence of our transformative potential, though not a very good or “artistic” one. And in more recent times, we have been fucking with the gene pool to make our descendants more resistant to diseases, or to take on attributes we find preferable (oh yeah, no bigotry problems here, nooooo.) So far, however, these biological changes have taken a very long time, and will more than likely take another Very Long Time before we “evolve” into another species altogether.
Barring extinction, of course.