Friday, 17 April 2015

Visual Grammar Chapter 8 - Why Nature Created Art

Links to Other Chapters in this Series

Chapter 1: A First Lesson in Drawing
Chapter 2:  Introducing the Dynamic Workspace
Chapter 3 : Words - Plastic Facts
Chapter 4 : Humpty Dumpty's Plastic World of Oneness
Chapter 5:  Nature's Boundaries of Well being and Self-hood
Chapter 6:  Shouting Hotspots and Ghosts
Chapter 7:  Drawing the Illusion of Movement

Chapter 8: Why Nature had to Create Art

Chapter 8 - Why Nature Invented Art

The Cartesian Theatre
If you ask someone "where is consciousness" they will generally point to a position in their head behind their eyes.  If you ask "what is consciousness like?" they are likely to tell you "it is like having a multi-sensory cinema in my head with all the sensations of the outside world: sounds, smells and tastes.   I often have words running through my head and conversations with myself about what I want to say and do".  Some neuroscientists say we do more talking in our heads to ourselves than to other people in the outside world.  The little person in the head is well known to philosophers and psychologists, she is called the homunculus.

Homunculus watching the Cartesian Theatre
Even though no one seriously believes there is little person in their heads we all find it difficult to suppress the feeling we have a soul, private conversations and a mulitsense-surround theatre.   In 1991 a  philosopher called Daniel Dennett derisively called the private show "The Cartesian Theatre" (literally Descartes Theatre).  This was a little unfair to Descartes who four hundred years earlier had tried to rationalise the interaction between body and soul without ever mentioning theatres or cinema screens, but Dennett's witty terminology has struck a cord.
Descartes tried to rationalise the relationship between Body and Soul
Another philosopher (who also looks like an ageing beatnik) called David Chalmers came up with a less abusive phrase, he called it The Hard Problem of Consciousness.  The Hard Problem re-frames the Cartesian Theatre as a question (my wording): "I know I am not a zombie machine, I cannot disprove it, I just feel it. What is my rich experience of life (which some call soul)? How do we account for it and how did the machine create it?", the machine in this case being the brain.

War of the Beatnik Philosophers

The philosophical world remains divided between the two viewpoints (do not worry if you cannot understand the cartoons that make fun of the two sides)

Ryan North making fun of David Chalmers  2005

People making fun of Daniel Dennett

The Hard Problem has always been there, and people have wondered about it in their own ways and in their own cultures.  In the days before science it was a religious question, and the usual solution was to have a belief in the separation between body and soul.  Because most religions see the spirit as immortal they have a soul that enters the body at birth and departs at death.  In this 13th century French illustration of the Death of Flavain, a blasphemous horse, the artist has drawn Flavain's spirit as it is leaving his body and being met by a demon from Hell.

Dit de Foveyne or Histoire de Fauvain. 1325

The belief in separation between mind and body is called "Dualism".  As science emerged during the renaissance it became obvious that the immaterial soul needed to interact with the material body. This is why Rene Descartes tried to rationalise dualism, but by the mid 20th century Descartes' theories were completely untenable.  Dualism did not die, instead the hard problem was pushed into a siding by the Behaviourist who had extreme views that the brain was entirely mechanical and consciousness was an "Epiphenomena".  That is to say that during most of the 20th century scientists and philosophers saw Consciousness as being a freebie ghost that was a functionless by-product of the complex technology of the brain.  Behaviourists discouraged scientists from the study of Consciousness, or even emotions, because they thought they were beyond the reach of scientific scrutiny. They also said studying spirit was irrelevant because the brain had no need for consciousness. This was a modern dualism with a the useless spirit that was dependent on the machine that created it without a reason. This view is still current, how often do we hear people speculate about whether computers or the internet might spontaneously develop the magic ingredient of consciousness?

Today there is a strong consensus amongst brain scientists that Consciousness is directly connected to the physical evolution of the Brain.  Brain Science can demonstrate this by using modern technology to turn on and off emotions and stimulate feelings, they can turn on voices in our heads, they also study the effects of disease, strokes, accidents and dementia on specific areas of the brain, they relate genes and chemistry to character traits and give us pills that change the state of our minds. Today Body and Soul are recognised as single thing even if  Consciousness and the Hard Problem remain mysterious.

I have read many books on Consciousness, most have sections on Art, but Art is rarely brought centre stage. The role of "Art" in evolution is hardly acknowledged. I am left with an impression that Art is widely regarded as an amusing by-product of Consciousness to be enjoyed for its entertainment value. Thinking of Art in this way is to fall into the Cartesian trap of separating subjective experience from bodily need and implies Art is a metaphysical freebie that has arrived without a reason or status.

Religious orthodoxy was ravaged by the revolution that has been going on in Brain Science, but Art was left alone, this has left us with a society that has out dated ambiguous attitudes towards Art.  This leads to silly analysis of Art, recently there was a whole series of Reith lectures about Art that was shallow, yet the intelligentsia of our society could not hold back from praising the ineptitude of a low brow speaker.  Others go too far the other way and measure Art as a life enriching substitute for lost religious and moral values, an approach that is equally doomed to demean the function of Art.   It is my contention that Art is deeply embedded with an evolutionary purpose that has had an important role in shaping our success as a species. When people measure Art by auction prices or its position in a National museums or collections, they  miss the point.  Our knowledge of Brain will forces us to evaluate Art.  This will be excellent news for Artistic integrity and humanity.   

Each one of us experiences Consciousness in the privacy of our minds, we know it is a place where no other person or machine can see or feel what it is like to be us.  The way I experience "Stretch and Squash" "Blue" "The Scent of lemons" and even "Time and Motion Perception" are personal to me, and there is no way that either you or I can directly compare our subjective experiences  with each other.   These subjective experiences are called Qualia.

You will get a better idea of what Qualia are by understanding how and why they evolve. 

How Qualia Evolve 
Suppose you are an early colour blind rat-like mammal that smells beetles for a living.  You experience of the world is mostly vivid smells, the most vivid smell you like most is that of beetles which you love to eat.  Everything you see with your eyes is in tones of of grey.  This is how you see an apple tree

Gradually over millions of years your beetles die out because of climate change, but you discover you can still make a living by eating apples.  Your body evolves longer legs and fingers to climb and live in trees where the apples are, but you are not very good at finding the apples.  You evolve a new sort of sensor in your eyes, a sensor that can measure the difference between red, green, blue and brown.  Every time your eyes see red the sensors sends a "code 1" to the brain, when it sees green it sends a "code 2", when it see brown it sends a "code 3" and when it sees blue it sends a "code 4".

So your brain still sees the tonal picture of the tree but now they have codes attached, a bit like this:

Your brain now knows which areas are red and which are green, but your self-aware consciousness (which is the executive command system) wants an effortless method to see the ripe fruit.  The subconscious prepares the information the executive brain wants by creating a set of four qualia, one for each colour; red, green, brown and blue.  The subconscious then converts the codes into qualia and this is what the conscious mind sees.

This means you have much faster and efficient method of finding your food, meanwhile your love of the smell and taste of beetles diminishes.  Every species is set up by evolution with qualia and tastes that gain them survival advantages.

How Qualia Suppress or Enhance Empathy

The beetle eating rat-like mammal has very different qualia and tastes from the monkey it became.  The monkey could never explain to it rat-like ancestor what it is like to see red apples, and the rat-like ancestor would probably be unable to tell the monkey about the pleasures of smelling and eating beetles.  Sometimes the Qualia we experience are impossible for other people to experience or imagine.  For instance how does one describe what it is like to see Blue to a person who has been blind from birth? 

The type of Qualia we experience is determined by the sense organs and the biological software that nature has provided us with.  Animals that are close cousins generally have more qualia in common with us, the more distant the cousin the more difficult it becomes to communicate, for instance a blind bat flying around your garden does not see the houses and trees through it's eyes but it does experience the structure of houses through it's ears (echo-location perception). If  we imagined a conversation between a bat and ourselves it might go like this

Human "look at that white house"
Bat "What is looking? what is white?  Hear that XX&***## House"
Human "What is hearing a house?  What is XX&***##?"

Even if bats could talk we would have a lot of trouble understanding them because we do not share the same qualia. 

Even when we share the same qualia our appreciation of each other may diverge dramatically.   Let us suppose dung beetles had noses like ours, we would still have problems getting along with the beetle because Nature has given us different tastes.  A conversation with a Dung Beetle might go something like this:
Dung Beetle "Delicious smell of poo over there. Let's go and eat some"
Human "I feel sick"

Each species evolved a set of qualia and a set of tastes that have been chosen by Nature for their survival usefulness.  People do not like the smell of poo because it is a health hazard, dung beetles love the smell of poo because it is their primary source of food and survival.

We all know it is easier to share a friendships with people who have the same tastes and values.  We could hardly have a good night out with a dung beetle, but members of our species share the same evolutionary heritage.  We all like apples and hate poo!  The more we have in common with each other the more we like each other, in fact a lot of our social conversations are spent checking this out and seeking reassurance, a process that is called "Empathic Attunement".  A conversations between humans might go like this:

Lady "I like this dress, do you think it suits my figure"
Husband "It's delightful, you look sexy"
Lady purrs with delight :-)  :-)  :-)

This belief that we can feel how other people experience qualia inside their heads is called empathy.  Empathy is to do with imagining the innermost qualia (feelings, emotions and thoughts) of other minds, but it goes far deeper than that.......whether we want it to happen or not Nature has equipped us the specialist tools to feel inside the minds of others. 

Body Language
Our universal facial expressions are an example of Nature's insistence that we must share qualia.  Through our Body Language, we and other animals, broadcast our primary emotions of fear, anger, pride, pleasure, disgust, pain and sadness.  Nature has also given most higher animals kit that automatically responds when we see these emotions broadcast from others; for instance if a cat pulls back its ears and backs away into a crouching position we all know that cat is feeling threatened and is dangerous.  Humans have got some of the most sophisticated body language of any animal; if  you smile at a stranger they will instantly respond with a smile back.  Body language is like a synchronized Wifi connection between a mobile phone and a computer; the brains of two individuals control and update each other by using a system of broadcasted signals and responses.  When someone enters a room broadcasting inner sadness we see that sadness immediately, this response switches on a special set of neurones called mirror neurones that activate similar feelings of sadness in our own brains.  The mirror neurones are physical evidence that emotions are contagious and spread rapidly across a social group.

Empathy acts like Wifi between Brains

Body language is very good at broadcasting emotions but it fails to tell our fellow humans what it feels like to see the "Rubber Pencil Illusions" or "Blue" or smell "The Scent of Lemons", or experience "Time"?

Dogs can use body language, barking and growling to express their raw emotions to other dogs, but dogs cannot express to another dog the subtle qualic experiences of pleasurable smells.  Humans are different from all other animal species because we have evolved new ways to tell each other about the "Scent of Lemons" and other refined experiences that our qualia give us.  We do it through Language and Art, that is why humanity rule the world and dogs don't

Why Nature Invented Art

When we rely on body language alone we can roughly gage the emotional moods of other people, but body language gives us little insight into what is causing the changes of mood.  When we understand the cause of change of mood we also gain the opportunity to predict how others will react to our behaviour.  This is called "Theory of Mind".   Language and Art gave our species the new mind-sense to share detailed knowledge of the subjective qualia that  cause our moods to change.   Sharing qualia enables "Empathic Attunement" within social relations inside the group, giving our species obvious benefits of social cohesion and bonding. 

Recreating the sequence of events that led to the development of Empathic Attunement and Theory of Mind in our species would help us better understand how Art was evolved by Nature.  Unfortunately the development of key players; language, singing, body painting and dancing leaves no archaeological footprint.  The story has to be gathered and guessed at from the sparse evidence that has survived and can be dug up; Burial sites, Hearths, Bones, Tools, Musical instrument, Jewellery, Paintings and Sculpture.

I have falsely divided the development of Art into three levels: Aesthetic Appreciation, Patterns and Figurative.

Aesthetic Appreciation

It seems that qualia for aesthetic appreciation are found in many species because there are a biological advantages to recognising beauty.  One aesthetic value is "Symmetry Perception".   Balance and Symmetry perception is a qualia that brings a broad range of benefits to a wide range of animals (including image compression, spacial, predator and health perception), even bees have symmetry perception (excellent summary here).  Symmetry perception is done effortlessly because it is deeply embedded in the biological software of the super-fast subconscious minds.

We humans have preference for recognising bilateral symmetry on the vertical axis, this has become a key component of our perceptions of bodily and facial attractiveness.  I found this advert by ID Hospital, the poor girl had a very slight asymmetry of the jaw which was ruining her life.

It seems the corrective plastic surgery improved her life:  "I felt very uncomfortable because it seemed people were always looking at my face. I felt my mind losing control because of the crooked mouth and asymmetrical face. But everything has changed. Whenever I meet new people, I can finally smile confidently thanks to the beautiful jaw line that ID Hospital gave me."

So humans have a high level aesthetic appreciation of bilateral symmetry, and this taste is commonly expressed in our architecture and art objects.

Taj Mahal, India

The earliest examples of bilateral symmetry in Art are the Giant Stone Axes that are sometimes found amongst tools made by our pre-human ancestors 250,000BP.   They seem to have no practical use so there is speculation about why they were made.  It can be argued that the makers were sharing their taste for bilateral symmetry with others in their tribe, in which case these are rare examples of Art objects made by our pre-human ancestors.
Giant Stone Axes 250,000 BP

Other animals do express aesthetic sensibility.  Most famously if you give paints and brushes to chimpanzees they will paint abstract pictures.  The most famous artworks are by of Congo the Chimpanzee who in the 1950s painted over four hundred pictures: "When a picture was taken away that he didn't consider complete, Congo would reportedly begin to scream and "throw fits".[1] Also, if the ape considered one of his drawings to be finished, he would refuse to continue painting even if someone tried to persuade him to do so"

Painting by Congo 1950s

Some birds seem to take lot of pleasure in decorating their nests.   Male bower birds make aesthetic displays to attract females.

Nest of a Bower Bird

Nest of a Bower Bird

There are all sorts of examples from the animal kingdom of pattern making; spiders make webs.  The giant stone axes made by our pre-human ancestors stand out because they may represent the works of an animal species that is using Art to enhance empathetic attunement?  I do not believe Congo was making paintings to share with his friends, the bower bird is at least decorating his nest for another bird to enjoy, but do they stand back and together look at his work?  I think not.

Patterns and Decoration

The earliest decorated objects are half a million year old, that is 250,000 years before the giant stone axes were made and 300,000 years before our species Homo sapiens evolved.  They are engravings on a shell from Java made by Homo Erectus (Java Man), a hunter-gatherer species with a brain just a little smaller than modern humans (Erectus 950 cc / Sapiens 1,200 cc).

Earliest known decorated object made by Java Man 500,000 BP

As I am writing news has arrived of an Eagle Claw Bracelet belonging to a Neanderthal (130,000 BP).

Neanderthal Eagle Claw Bracelet (130,000BP)

The first physical evidence of Decorative Art objects by our species, Homo sapiens sapiens, are abstract zigzag patterns on shells and bones from the Blombos Caves in South Africa (80,000 BP).

  Zigzag engravings on a piece of Ochre (70,000 years old)

We do not know for certain whether the people of these early cultures painted their bodies because the evidence perished with them.  Many aborigine tribes from Africa, Australia, Asia and America have traditions of using Ochre body paint, like this member of the Karo tribe from the Omo valley in Ethiopia. The aborigines use a lot patterns, it seems a good guess that the tribes that made the Blombos Ochre stick decorated their bodies with ochre patterns.

This is a Tapirape girl from Brazil

this as a Kikuyu woman from Kenya

 and Australian Aborigine ceremony

If you like these sort of things you will find several thousand ethnic images on my pinterest page.

Pierced shells found in the Blombos caves suggest that the South African cave people were already decorating their bodies with shell necklaces in 70,000 BP.  

Shells from the Blombos Caves (70,000 BP) 

Again it is easy to find similar necklaces worn by present day aborigines..  This picture of a Tasmanian woman wearing a shell necklace was painted in 1837

Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. painted 1837
The shells were then threaded on kangaroo tail sinews or on string made from natural fibres, smoked over a fire, and rubbed in grass to remove their outer coating and reveal the pearly surface. The shells were later polished with penguin or muttonbird oil.

I am not sure if the love of creating and sharing visual patterns is confined to our species and the extinct hominids.  We all love the auditory patterns of bird song, and bird song is culturally passed from bird to bird down the generations, but are bird song equivalent to creative melody of human music?

The archaeological evidence seems to point to early hominid communities having creative aesthetic, decorative and pattern making cultures.  These communities  were already  making stone tools, sitting around hearths and probably developing language skills.  Chimpanzees show reverence for their dead, hominids probably began  burying their dead about 400,000 years ago.  The evidence points to these hominid communities developing Art to share qualia, at the same time they were developing technological and linguistic skills.  Nature was creating a species that had levels of empathic attunement that exceeded anything else in the animal kingdom.  But in all this archaeological evidence there is no hint of figurative art.

  The Birth Figurative Art

The birth of figurative Art coincided with an explosion technological creativity which happened soon after migrants from Africa settled in Southern Europe in about 47,000BP; the tools the new migrants made were from a wider variety of materials, including carved bone and antler.  The flint blades are finer and more specific for purpose.

 Aurignacian Sites

We have very few examples of decorative pieces of Palaeolithic art before the arrival  of Cro Magnon Man and it is a great puzzle why there are not more.  It seems our species, which had been around for 160,000 years, suddenly became very creative.  Some scholars suggested there was perhaps a new language gene that made all the difference.  Whatever the reason it is my belief that the early people, including our pre human ancestors, had had millions of years to develop the qualia that were ready to be exploited by figurative Art.

Hominids had been making tools for over 4 million years before figurative art arrived (As I am writing (April 2015) news has arrived of the earliest stone tools ever being found in Kenya).  We have seen how after early monkeys started to eat fruit they developed qualia for colour sight, now after the apes moved from the forests on to the plains they depended on new food sources, including hunting dangerous animals in groups.  For this new lifestyle they needed a new set of qualia.   We can guess that when the early hunters were tracking animals by sight they evolved special qualia that would improved their skill at interpreting the meaning of footprints, these skills include creating sequences of past events and then imagining the future intentions of their prey.  It also helped if they could imagine themselves into the mind of their prey animal (theory of mind).   We can imagine the hunters huddled in groups around tracks of animals.  Maybe in a combination of sign language and proto spoken language they asked each other "Do the tracks show that one of the animals is injured?  What sort of injury is it likely to be?  How long ago was it here?  Do you think it will head into the forest to hide?  Would another animal be nearby to protect it?"

Time lines and theory of mind would have been good animal tracking qualia for human to have; the same qualia that create empathic attunement in human groups.  The qualia that made for empathy within the group of hunters would have made hunters understand the pain of  wounded animals as they gradually succumbed to the plans and strategy of the hunt.  Because of this building cycle of Theory of Mind and Empathic Attunement going on in the human mind the tracks of animals would have seemed to contained the spirit of the animals

The early people would also have been aware of their own footprints in the mud and sand.  If a member of the family had a limp they would know his tracks, and maybe even identify the tracks of their children or other individuals in their group

The spirit of their tribe was in the character of the tracks they made as they moved across their territory.  When another group ventured into their territory they would have known about them them from the out-of-character tracks they left behind

They would also have noticed that they were in control of making footprints.  This sort of behaviour includes imbuing objects they make with their spirit, a faculty that is way beyond cognitive powers of any other species.  No other animal has the qualia to do this.  Much of my analysis is speculative, but it is easy to imagine.  If my conjecture is right figurative art was born long before we see it preserved as paintings on the walls of caves.

In October 2014 they announced they had discovered the oldest cave paintings in the World at the Maros karsts islands in Indonesia.  The paintings, which had previously been dated as 12,000BP, are in fact much older and include this hand print which 39,000 years old

Maros karsts islands Indonesia 39,000BP

The the El Castillo caves in Spain are the oldest cave paintings in Europe and they contain disk paintings of about the same age.

El Castillo Disks 40,000 BP

In the same Spanish caves are a panel of hands which is estimated to be 37,600 years old

The Panel of Hands, El Castillo Cave 37,300 BP
A hand stencil has been dated to earlier than 37,300 years ago and a red disk to earlier than 40,600 years ago, making them the oldest cave paintings in Europe. Image courtesy of Pedro Saura

Read more at:
hand stencil has been dated to earlier than 37,300 years ago and a red disk to earlier than 40,600 years ago, making them the oldest cave paintings in Europe. Image courtesy of Pedro Saura

Read more at:
Stencilled Hand prints are found all over the world.  These come from the cave of Hands in Patagonia, Argentina (9,000BP)

Cave of Hands Argentina - 10,000BP photo © Michael Turtle, 2012,
hand stencil has been dated to earlier than 37,300 years ago and a red disk to earlier than 40,600 years ago, making them the oldest cave paintings in Europe. Image courtesy of Pedro Saura

Read more at:
Australian Aborigines still make these kind of hand prints....and the commentary on the internet to this picture says "An Aborigine sprays paint on his hand as a symbol he is part of the tribe"

 Nat Geo video about Gagudju of Australia.

Until a few months ago the oldest known animal paintings were at the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave in France (32,000BP).  They are very sophisticated and show a lot of movement, the caves had been scraped before paint was applied and the images overlaid as if the artists were trying to animate the movement of the animals under the flickering half light of flame torches.

the Chauvet-Pont-d'Arc Cave cave painting include spectroscopic effects
and here is a video tour of the Chauvet caves

There have been scholars who have accused anthropologists of having a Euro-centric view of the development of modern man.  It seems they may be right, these deer-pig images from Indonesia have always been considered to be about 12,000 years old, but when they were dated by Carbon analysis it has been discovered that they are nearly 8,000 years earlier than the French animal pictures (40,000BP). 

Indonesian Deer Pig dated about 40,000BP
But in Europe there are works of figurative Art that are equally ancient to the Indonesian paintings.

The sculptures of the Venus of Hols Fels which exaggerates feminine beauty using peek shift

The Venus of Hols Fels (40,000BP)

and the Lion-Lady of Hohlenstein Stadel which exploits the plasticity of subconscious visual grammar to  create a lady with a lions head.

The Lion Lady (40,000 BP)

The fact that the earliest artists we know of used peek shift and plasticity in their sculpture is an important indicator of their approach to art.  They were not trying to imitate the world, the inspiration for their Art came from qualia and tastes that are generated from the irrational plastic world of the subconscious mind.   

Qualia are cultural, mutable and inventable
In the brief introduction we have flown across a huge expanse of  brain science.  You may be left with an impression that qualia are fixed assets of the mind; red is red because evolution made red!  This is not how it is.  The way we perceive qualia is influenced by the cultures in which we live.  

In his poems Homer always refers to the sea as being the colour of wine, rather than blue or green

And jealous now of me, you gods, because I befriend a man, one I saved as he straddled the keel alone, when Zeus had blasted and shattered his swift ship with a bright lightning bolt, out on the wine-dark sea.
—Homer, The Odyssey, Book V

This puzzled scholars for many years until they realise that the Greeks had no words for blue or green.     Another  Greek, Xenophanes, thought the rainbow was made up of three colours: porphyra (dark purple), khloros (greenish-yellow), and erythros (red).  There is an excellent summary here

There is an irony here; The Qualia we have were generated by evolutionary pressure and are built into our genetic make up, but the way we perceive the world is determined the impact of our culture and free will on our qualia.   Our inherited qualia are mutable and we have the ability to invent and subvert qualia.  I have personal experience of this happening in my own mind.  Every night I draw faces from the television screen,  really this is a scribbling exercise where I will be concentrating on the relationships of say the eyebrow, the cheek bone and the position of the eye in the space in between.   After doing these exercises for several hours a night I sometimes have hallucinations at night where I see the structures I am studying in graphic 3D detail.  This is usually good news because I know I have set up a qualia/schema for the structure. Over the years I have set myself up with structural templates which means I cannot look at a face without also seeing the qualia of the structures I have taught myself to see. 

This is basically how I see the structure of the face.  

When we look at Michaelangelo's pictures we can see how the qualia he has invented for the muscular male torso are interfering with his perception of a baby's body.

Madonna and Child drawing, 1520-25, Michelangelo Buonarroti
Each individual perceives the world individually and collectively.  This is the mercurial heart beat of Art

If you have reached this point I thank you for reading this far, I hope my thoughts have been useful. 

We live in a culture that has developed an obsession about the value of Art, the word Art has an almost supernatural status.  This is a mistake because Art is actually a ubiquitous, almost banal element of our psychological make up.  We do it all the time, some of us more skilfully than others, to improve Empathic Attunement with those around us.   When we separate ourselves from the purpose of Art we create Bad Art and that diminishes society.   

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