Institut Jean Nicod

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Tentative project title : The end of aesthetic evolution : Toward a macroevolutionary model of adaptive and null intersexual selection mechanisms

I am currently a second-year PhD candidate under the supervision of Jérôme Dokic and Zoi Kapoula. Questions germane to aesthetics and evolutionary biology form the cynosure of my research program which seeks to examine ontological communalities and divergences between aesthetic and biological evolution.

Recent transdisciplinary efforts to better understand the ultimate function of artistic creation and the aesthetic response have relied heavily on Zahavian formulations of costly signaling theory (Zahavi, 1997). The theory of costly signaling as applied to non-human ethological examples of proto-artistic and aesthetic behaviors imputes extrinsic, instrumental value to animal ornamentation, in keeping with Wallace’s (1895) account of sexual selection, which holds that male ornaments are perceived and evaluated by females as fitness indicators. In marked contrast, a Darwinian formulation of sexual selection allows for the attribution of female aesthetic agency. According to this formulation, female choice is predicated on intrinsic features of the signal itself rather than on ancillary, instrumental values that the trait may or may not signal : parasite resistance, antipredator defenses, parental investment, etc.

Prum (2010) recently advanced the LK-null model of intersexual selection in a concerted attempt to rehabilitate and quantitatively model a Darwinian concept of aesthetic evolution. The LK-null mechanism yields a variety of arbitrary, unrestricted evolutionary outcomes. This contrasts with macroevolutionary predictions of evolutionary trends triggered by adaptive intersexual selection mechanisms, which are believed to constrain evolvability and limit the production of novel aesthetic variants.

The theory of costly signaling was designed to explain the existence of seemingly ostentatious and luxuriant phenotypes in non-human animals ; however, the logic of the mechanisms that the theory postulates may predict the progressive elimination of the very behavioral and morphological phenotypes it was devised to explain. Consequently, the subsumption of art under the broader theoretical category of “costly signal” implies the expectation that aesthetic evolution will come to an end, insofar as costly signals tend toward a high degree of convergence between populations and the steady and progressive elimination of variation within populations.

My current research endeavors are focused primarily on the projected long-term effects of adaptive intersexual selection mechanisms, expressed in terms of constrained evolvability within and between populations, which I believe to be structurally homologous to the projected evolutionary trends which emerge from the late Collin Martindale’s most recent model of the psychodynamics of creative ideation and aesthetic reception (Martindale, 1990, 2009).

Martindale anticipates the end of art. He conceives this broadly in terms of an evolutionary threshold beyond which the production of new aesthetic variants will no longer be able to keep pace with the aesthetic mandate of "meaningfulness" on which positive, hedonic evaluations of a given artwork depend. This Hegelian tragedy of sorts (Martindale, 2009), which pits art’s relative novelty against its communicative value, receives indirect support from the application of the theory of costly signaling to art and aesthetics insofar as costly signals tend toward the elimination of aesthetic variants in favor of communicative value. However, I will argue that the observations Martindale evokes in his argument for an upcoming "end of art" can be understood differently, in terms of the immanent vulnerability of human and biotic art worlds to the establishment of the LK-null mechanism (Prum, 2010) and, in the human art world, of the consequent inauguration of a new era of intrinsic, coevolutionary aesthetic evolution.

This coevolutionary dynamic between signals and their evaluation seems to fit with recent "recapitulative" theories of artistic creation and aesthetic reception which argue that the aesthetic response mirrors or reproduces the process of artistic creation and vice versa. This dynamic is thought to be one of the defining features of artworks, distinguishing them from other categories of objects (Tinio, 2013). Indeed, the historic entrainment of signals and their evaluations can be adduced as a kind of universal heuristic in the service of a transphyletic theory of hedonic responses to sensory experience. Preliminary experimental work aimed at harnessing some of the peculiar features of this coevolutionary process using posturographic and eye movement analyses will be presented.