A Series of Essays published on This View of Life

The closing decades of the 20th century were a renaissance for the study of evolution in relation to human affairs. Previously, the study of evolution had become centered on genetic evolution (the so-called Modern Synthesis), as if they only way that offspring can resemble their parents is by sharing the same genes. Starting in the 1970’s, some evolutionary thinkers went back to basics by defining evolution as Darwin did—any process that combines the three ingredients of variation, selection, and replication, no matter what the underlying mechanisms. Cultural evolution became the formal object of study. Terms such as evolutionary anthropology, evolutionary psychology, and evolutionary economics were coined, signaling the need to rethink entire human-related disciplines from an evolutionary perspective.

Studying the arts from an evolutionary perspective was part of this trend. Pioneering works include Ellen Dissanayke’s What is Art For? (1988), Joseph Carroll’s Evolution and Literary Theory (1995), William McNeill’s Keeping Together in Time (1997), a chapter of E.O. Wilson’s Consilience (1998) on the arts, an edited volume titled The Origins of Music (Wallin, Merker, and Brown 2001), Kathryn Coe’s, The Ancestress Hypothesis (2003), and Brian Boyd’s The Origin of Stories (2010). I was helping to initiate the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective with my Darwin’s Cathedral (2002)—a topic closely related to the arts—and teamed up with Jonathan Gottschall to co-edit The Literary Animal (2005). Jonathan went on to write the bestseller The Storytelling Animal (2013) and his most recent The Story Paradox (2021).

Understanding the nature of the arts from an evolutionary perspective should not just be an academic pursuit. Cultural evolutionary theory is increasingly being used to inform positive change efforts in real-world settings. Insofar as the arts play an important role in the organization of human society and the process of cultural evolution, they need to be included in these practical change efforts.

Now, This View of Life (TVOL) is proud to sponsor a series of short essays on Evolution & the Arts that looks both backward and forward. How far have we come? What have been some of the limiting factors? How can progress be catalyzed in the future? Our authors span the range from the original pioneers to young career scholars just entering the field.

TVOL is the magazine of ProSocial World, whose purpose is “to consciously evolve a world that works for all”. ProSocial World looks forward to working with the authors to help implement some of the catalytic ideas that emerge from their essays.