One of the greatest strengths of studying and teaching evolution and human behavior is its enormous scope; to span the entire history of the human species and suite of human behavior. This also, rather obviously, extends to the evolution of human cultures as the species has pervaded the world. After teaching evolution and culture for over two decades, I have found two major impediments to the understanding of this relationship and its importance to humankind. The first is the persistent belief that culture and evolution are separate, which many in Evolutionary Psychology have fought for decades to dispel. The second is the view that artistic abilities are somehow impractical and therefore must only provide a social, cultural, or even spiritual (as opposed to practical) benefit. By extension, artistic expression has been trivialized by both Evolutionary Psychology and the larger population. The most obvious example of this is the cultural (as opposed to scientific) definition of the meme and its demotion to brief comedic content, which I will discuss later. 

While some of these points may appear obvious, particularly to this readership, the lack of content on the arts (and in culture in general) in evolutionary textbooks perpetuates these issues, even in those who have taken a course or read a book on evolution and human behavior. It is a repeated criticism of Evolutionary Psychology that the majority of its academic content focuses on mating, leaving precious little space for cognitive process, cultural variation (e.g., evoked culture), and cultural evolution (see Burch, 2020, for a critique of Evolutionary Psychology textbooks, particularly in their portrayal of women and mating).  

The quickest and clearest way to obliterate the separation of evolution and culture is to simply state that evolution has created humans and humans create culture. Humans create cultural rules and practices according to evolutionary pressures and preferences. Moreover, just as different environments provide different selection pressures on a population, this variation creates different cultures. Not only is this a simple concept, it has existed for decades (Tooby & Cosmides, 1992). However, we still see the academic literature avoid discussing cultural differences in an evolutionary context, and many textbooks give no voice to cultural evolution at all. This is particularly frustrating as there are so many amazing examples of biocultural evolution that show just how vital variations in practices and preferences are to human survival and reproduction. Paul Sherman, for example (Sherman & Billings, 1999; Sherman & Hash, 2001), has spent decades studying the adaptiveness of using spices to kill microbes, particularly in more equatorial cuisines, and how food aversions and cooking preferences change during pregnancy are crucial to protecting fetuses. Culture is subsumed by evolution, and cultural practices are crucial to survival and reproduction in their respective environments. 

Even more problematic is that while evolutionary psychologists may see the error in the separation of evolution and culture, many fall prey to the second misconception. Research or literature reviews on evolution and the arts are lacking in evolutionary journals. The journal dedicated to research in this area, Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Cultures, ceased publication in 2022. This gap is so noticeable that one journal, Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, has recognized the oversight and recently broadened its scope to invite more submissions on this topic. 

While we do not have time to discuss the full timeline, art in the human species has been perceived as this extra suite of features that serve a predominately cultural, aesthetic, or spiritual purpose. Like so many other topics in Evolutionary Psychology, art has been framed within mating and reproduction. For example, Geoffrey Miller (2001) has long argued that artistic expression is a sign of intelligence and therefore sought after in mating competition. This perspective, even if inadvertently, perpetuates the idea that artistic expression is extra, if not extraneous, and is a display of other more “useful” qualities like intelligence. This argument is at its core a misunderstanding of what artistic expression is. This perception is universal and has been subsumed into the definition of art. The Oxford Dictionary defines art as “the expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Artistic expression is the mastery of tool use, it is invention, it is the building of shelter, and the preparation of food. Artistic expression is not just the manifestation of creativity; it is the display of extensive practice and skill. In a word, art is practical. The concept of artistic expression has been separated from practical skills, yet all art emerges from practical skills and humans have been displaying artistic expression in practical inventions for millennia. Artistic expression and creativity are crucial to human survival. 

Much of the research on the arts has focused on more ‘contemporary’ art, in times and cultures of great wealth and expanse, but the ‘arts’ have been a part of survival and reproduction throughout human history. For example, elaborate trims or carvings on house frames that actually divert rainwater, beading on clothing that denotes marital status, or cosmetic pigments that contain antimicrobial properties. All of these have practical purposes in addition to displaying creativity and skill. Art is at its core the combination of skill and innovation. However, researchers continue to ignore the practical components of art. For example, take Morriss-Kay (2010, p.158). “The earliest known evidence of ‘artistic behaviour’ is of human body decoration, including skin colouring with ochre and the use of beads, although both may have had functional origins” (italics added). Later, Morriss-Kay admits the functionality of face paint as camouflage for hunting prey and states “the ritual and decorative functions of body decoration could have arisen secondarily to their survival-enhancing functions” (p. 161).  Human creativity and innovation have enabled us to inhabit every continent, to survive in every environmental niche. It is how we have taken over the world.  

Art is the integration of creative and practical skills to produce a novel work that conveys a message. Perhaps it is too ambitious to argue for the redefinition of artistic expression to recognize its utility, but it is clear that art provides far more than beauty or emotional power. This narrow view creates artificial limits on the study of artistic expression in the human species, both in terms of time and scope.

The trivialization of the meme is an obvious example. Just as the importance of art in human history has been viewed as fanciful or impractical, the concept of a meme has shifted to define something extraneous and only for entertainment value. Memes are concepts, thoughts, ideas, inventions, etc., that are passed from human to human. Cultural practices and preferences are memes. Learned skill sets are memes. Artistic expression is the conveyance of memes. Because of the word’s use in contemporary culture to describe silly or comedic visuals or messages, the practical importance of memes, which encompass art, is lost. For example, an actual meme is the invention of eyeglasses that enable people to see. This meme is the iteration and evolution of memes that came before, including the creation of glass and the understanding of human vision. However, if you ask someone the definition of a meme, they will point to a funny line from a movie or a photo of a cat asking for a cheeseburger (to be more accurate, “I can has cheezburger” is the classic meme). Both of these modern examples of memes are also the successor (and precursor) of iterations, but their practicality, in terms of survival or innovation, is absent. Essentially, the trivialization of “meme” is a reflection of the trivialization of the arts.  

This is an important lesson in evolutionary courses; memes are responsible for the human species taking over the world, and memetic evolution is cultural evolution. Food provides a multilayered example; the passing on of knowledge (memes) has enabled the human species to not just learn which foods are toxic, but also how to prepare food properly and how to even domesticate plants into innumerable less toxic and more nutritious crops. Brassica, for example, has had nearly every part of the plant bred into different crops cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts. The concept of memes is the basis for cultural evolution, the connection between seemingly fanciful art and practical skills, and the adaptiveness of creativity. 

For humans, art and creation are crucial to survival and reproduction; to lack skill sets or creativity is to be woefully behind your peers. It is precisely because art is so practical that creativity and artistic expression is a basic human need. Humans need to create, and without those abilities and opportunities, humans suffer.  

It is important to note that the history of research on artistic expression and mental health has focused on the extremes of both in contemporary cultures; the concept of the “mad artistic genius” instead of examining the broader population. In fact, research on the broader population has repeatedly found positive associations between art and positive mental health and negative associations between art and negative mental health (Zhao, et al., 2022). Art is vital to human evolution and the human condition. 

This is why art, art education, art in practice, and hands-on creativity have such an enormous impact on human well-being and mental health; it creates a large suite of practical skills as well as opportunities for creativity and invention. This is clear just by observing someone in the creative process; there is heightened focus, enthusiasm, discipline, and perhaps most importantly, an enormous emotional response to the accuracy of the final product and what was envisioned. Art has a goal and that goal is seen as extremely important. Humans take enormous pride in their creations when they meet that goal. Think of this in terms of human history and the vital needs a new innovation could meet; creativity was life-saving. The arts are not extraneous, they are not a distraction, and they are not primarily for beauty. This is a point educators, clinicians, and the larger population need to consider; creativity or creation is a vital human endeavor for the creator and the broader species. Tasking students, for example, with creating something novel that has meaning not only requires the previously taught skill sets, it generates application, problem-solving, discipline, and ultimately a sense of worth and pride in the student. It taps into a deep human need to be creative and useful. 

Moving forward

It is important to reframe the arts (even redefine them) as necessary for human survival. Evolutionary Psychology is uniquely placed to make this argument, and this redefinition has massive implications for both education and mental health. For this argument to be made, Evolutionary Psychology texts need to make room for cultural evolution, cognition and innovation, and artistic expression. 

Once the role of evolution in culture is made clear, the adaptiveness of memes and artistic expression can also come into focus. Once the adaptive function of art is made clear, its role in human functioning and well-being becomes rooted in evolutionary theory. This legitimizes the study of art not only in Evolutionary Psychology but also in the broader culture. 

While conceptually the study of evolution and the arts is ever expanding, it is still painfully remote in the Evolutionary Psychology curriculum. This holds the discipline (both the specific topic and the larger field) back. The study of the arts is not given the import and academic space it deserves, and Evolutionary Psychology is perpetually pigeonholed as the study of mating. Before the study of evolution and the arts can move forward, the discipline has to recognize, reclaim, and reframe the topic. An important first step is giving the study of cultural evolution and the arts the space it deserves in Evolutionary Psychology textbooks and journals. 


Burch, R. L. (2020). More than just a pretty face: The overlooked contributions of women in evolutionary psychology textbooks. Evolutionary Behavioral Sciences, 14(1), 100.

Miller, G. (2001). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. Anchor.

Morriss‐Kay, G. M. (2010). The evolution of human artistic creativity. Journal of Anatomy, 216(2), 158-176.

Sherman, P. W., & Billing, J. (1999). Darwinian gastronomy: Why we use spices: Spices taste good because they are good for us. BioScience, 49(6), 453-463.

Sherman, P. W., & Hash, G. A. (2001). Why vegetable recipes are not very spicy. Evolution and Human Behavior, 22(3), 147-163.

Tooby, J., & Cosmides, L. (1992). The psychological foundations of culture. The adapted mind: Evolutionary psychology and the generation of culture, 19(1), 1-136.

Zhao, R., Tang, Z., Lu, F., Xing, Q., & Shen, W. (2022). An updated evaluation of the dichotomous link between creativity and mental health. Frontiers in Psychiatry, 12, 781961.