Full disclosure, I am writing this essay from the perspective of someone who was a student of evolutionary psychology when evolutionary perspectives on the arts were just starting to take off in the 90s and works by Joe Carroll and Jon Gottschall were particularly inspiring. I too was interested in the intersection of the humanities and sciences, both in seeing the arts as artifacts that can better inform our understanding of human nature but also in the possibility of achieving a better understanding of specific cultural products and their popularity via an evolutionary approach. I’m going to give you a couple of examples of both approaches and then elaborate a bit on what I think are some unanswered questions that are avenues for future work that have perhaps hindered progress so far. 

The road so far, in my opinion, on the psychology side has focused mainly on the use of art or artifacts as data in the service of psychological research. Here the cultural transmission of popular culture and its products, for example, can be used to test predictions based on evolutionary theory. In this sense, the products of popular culture can be seen as artifacts of human nature in much the same way as archeological artifacts are used to test theories about human evolution and culture. I highlighted this approach with Don Symons in our book, Warrior Lovers, using pornography and romance as unobtrusive measures or artifacts of male and female sexual psychology. Popular culture as artefactual data has also been used to provide evidence in support of the well-documented, but still sometimes contested, finding that sex differences in jealousy exist (and are not the result of using hypothetical scenarios or forced choice survey instruments). Barry Kuhle examined the nature of jealousy-driven interrogations after actual infidelities via video footage from the syndicated reality show Cheaters. As many researchers had previously documented, men were more likely than women to focus on the sexual aspects of their partner’s infidelity, while women were more likely to ask questions about the emotional aspect of their partner’s cheating. Here the point was not to analyze the appeal of Cheaters but to use the program as data to test an adaptation-based hypothesis about male/female mating psychology. 

I think the road so far from the humanities side, which has been a more challenging one for many reasons, has been about being better able to explain the popularity and/or enduring essential components/content of various specific artistic products from classic novels to horror, romance, music, and pornography to name just a few and to do so better than other theories popular in the humanities. I’ll discuss two examples of such research projects here before moving on to some unanswered questions or roadblocks as well as future useful frameworks. The first is work of my own on the fan fiction genre known as “slash.” Slash is a genre of male-male romantic/sexual stories based on fictional characters in which both members of the romantic pairing are expropriated male media characters. Popular pairings have ranged from Kirk and Spock from Star Trek, Steve Rogers and Bucky Barnes from the Marvel universe, and Dean and Castiel from the television show Supernatural. Media and cultural studies scholarship on slash has focused on several interpretations including reworking masculinity, androgynous romance, or evidence that the readers/writers, the majority of which are female, are alienated from their female bodies. However, an evolutionary analysis of the content of slash fiction suggests that it is best understood as a subgenre of romance, that embodies that romance tradition of overcoming obstacles to find love and commitment that will endure over time with a highly desirable strong protective partner. In other words, slash is best understood as a variation on the theme of what we already know about female sexual psychology. When it comes to the genre of horror films, questions are often raised about the origins of the appeal. Researchers like Mathias Clasen have taken a biocultural approach that integrates evolved psychology with cultural contexts, suggesting that our evolved danger management mechanisms have shaped the features of horror stories. Our ancestral environment was filled with dangers from predators, pathogens, and other humans. Our cognitive adaptations that detect and manage dangers are the same adaptations that make horror films both frightening and fascinating. The monsters of the horror genre are apex predators, designed to capture our attention. Our fascination with such monsters is likely the product of the adaptive inclination to attend to dangers present in our ancestral environment and to acquire as much information as possible about them in a safe manner, similar to the role that rough and tumble play has as training for adult physical conflicts. Consuming horror allows for problem-solving without the risk of real danger. 

These examples are just a small sample of the richness of the increased understanding that we have already seen through the application of an evolutionary perspective on the arts, the road we have been traveling. What are some of the roadblocks that have been experienced? The first is that there are some non-trivial barriers to getting those in the humanities to get on board with evolutionary theory as an analytic tool, as many in the humanities may be averse to scientific explanations of human nature in the first place and, like most scientific disciplines as well, be somewhat resistant to paradigm shifts. The opportunity they are missing out on is to increase our understanding and appreciation for the way the arts are shaped by essential aspects of our evolved psychology. Evolutionarily informed scholarship on the arts can be compatible with non-evolutionary work in the area; it does not need to replace it. For example, a number of non-evolutionary studies are simply examining the topic of interest at a different level of explanation, often a more proximal one than some evolutionary studies will take. But what this means is that the integration of the findings of both types of studies will go further than either one in explaining the phenomenon under investigation. For example, the finding that rap/hip hop and rock music contain lyrics with messages of rebellion and impulsiveness fits well into evolutionary predictions about the factors that influence young males. Evolutionarily minded research on young males and young male syndrome highlights increased risk-taking as a result of sexual selection and sex differences in variability in reproductive success. Rebellion and impulsiveness facilitate risk-taking and it should be no surprise that young males are the biggest consumer segment for such types of music. Can other music preferences be predicted on the basis of evolutionarily relevant variables like life history strategy or sociosexuality? And do changes in music preferences over time reflect strategies involving different allocations of effort and resources? 

In addition, the longstanding debate over whether the arts, their creation or consumption, are an adaptation or a by-product has not been resolved, scholars are still weighing in on both sides. One view holds the arts as a by-product of our ancestral psychological mechanisms that activate in response to the vicarious experiences and modern media cues with the same pleasurable response that they did to the original input. The other perspective holds the arts to be adaptive, for example by helping with problem-solving and social and cultural learning. Conclusive evidence, however, has been elusive so far and has perhaps hampered progress from the psychology side of things. One area of current and future work that seems quite promising is that developed by Edgar Dubourg and colleagues. Their Behavioral and Brain Sciences target article on the appeal of imaginary worlds and the connection between the appeal of such worlds and our adaptations for exploring our environment explains cultural variability in the appeal of such fiction across time and space as well as their recent rise in popularity (examples ranging from Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter and Star Wars, as well as Game of Thrones). Their latest collaborative effort establishes a framework from which to study fiction which lays out how successful fictional elements activate evolved cognitive mechanisms that arose due to ancestral challenges from finding mates, to exploring the environment, engaging in coalitional conflict, and avoiding predators. This theory-driven approach to studying fiction is a substantial move forward on the road ahead of us in integrating evolutionary approaches to the arts. 

For those interested in further reading, I would suggest the following: 

Carroll, J. (2011). Reading human nature: Literary Darwinism in theory and practice. State University of New York Press.

Clasen, M. (2017). Why horror seduces. Oxford University Press.

Dubourg, E., & Baumard, N. (2022). Why imaginary worlds? The psychological foundations and cultural evolution of fictions with imaginary worlds. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 45, e276.

Gottschall, J. (2012). The storytelling animal: How stories make us human. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Kuhle, B. X. (2011). Did you have sex with him? Do you love her? An in vivo test of sex differences in jealous interrogations. Personality and Individual Differences, 51(8), 1044-1047.

Kuhn, T. S. (2012). The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago press.

Salmon, C. & Symons, D. (2001). Warrior Lovers: Erotic Fiction, Evolution and Female Sexuality. New Haven: Yale University Press.