Saturday, October 17, 2009

Chimps, Tools and Us

Cave Painting at Lascaux

I've been thinking of this for a long time, but have never put it to words. Why did people develop art in the first place? Why do we have a creative impulse? Initially, one would surmise that it is not a survival skill; the ability to draw something is not very useful during a hunt. But, what about the ability to create tools? Until recently, it was thought that people were the only beings that made tools (2007 Washington Post article, Chimps Seen Making Tools). The theory is that toolmaking was the primary skill that propelled the human species to "leap forward"... that it was this skill that led us as a species to where we are today... to cities, skyscrapers, cars, computers, etc. Toolmaking is a skill, but creativity is the source. (Interestingly enough, in the Washington Post article, it was the females that did the toolmaking; researchers believe that females are more creative than males...) So, when we think of "creativity" it should not have only the narrow definition that people give it today in the sense of imagination, but it should have a broader definition that includes the very act of bringing something into being, also innovation, seeing possibilities unseen... for instance, a branch is not just a branch, but could be a weapon, or a fishing pole, or an implement for writing. I once posed this question to a friend of mine and he said that maybe artistic skill (from an evolutionary standpoint) was a sexual trait in that it enhanced a potential mate's desirability. And so through the eons of human development, human beings self-selected this creative impulse. It's an interesting theory. This brings us back to the female/male question. If females are the creative ones, then it is the male who selects the most creative female... yet historically male artists greatly outnumber female artists. Does civilization so encumber women that their natural creative tendencies are stifled?


  1. You're the first person that asked the same question as me: what motivated or got people to draw in the first place? What was the significant of it. We now have primitive paintings in caves and it's just interesting looking at them. You put forth a good question about female and male artists.

  2. From an anthropological theory point of view it is probably safe to say we will never be able to answer these "why" type questions. Anthropology is good at revealing "what" happened, roughly what path development took. When it comes to "why" almost any behaviour can be explained by multiple interesting and plausible hypotheses, but from a scientific standpoint most will not be testable.

  3. That is true Al, but it sure is fun to think about, isn't it? After all, science can be so dry sometimes.