Jonathan L. Friedmann, PhD.
Ethology, the biological study of animal behavior, concerns itself primarily with uncovering survival advantages in animal activities. Balancing a desire to find purpose in animal behavior and avoid the sin of anthropomorphism, ethologists refrain from ascribing emotions or extraneous pleasures to non-human species. What appears to the untrained observer as a creative act or outpouring of feeling is reduced to a survival impulse or an instinctive behavior. It is, of course, wise to keep from seeing too much of ourselves in other animals. Our tendency to anthropomorphize everything around us says less about reality than it does about ourselves. Yet strict adherence to the ethologist’s code can create undue distance. As Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson asks in his controversial bestseller, When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals: “If humans are subject to evolution but have feelings that are inexplicable in survival terms, if they are prone to emotions that do not seem to confer any advantage, why should we suppose that animals act on genetic investment alone?”
This question is all the more penetrating given the impressive spectacles exhibited by many species. A gibbon swinging fervently from branch to branch, a dolphin thrusting itself out of the water, a cat hunting backyard critters for sport. The German language has a word for such behavior: funktionslust, meaning “pleasure taken in doing what one does best.” This, too, is thought to be adaptive. Pleasure derived from an activity increases an animal’s proneness to pursue it, thus increasing the likelihood of survival. A gibbon who spends extra time swinging in the trees is better fit to flee leopards and snakes when they attack.
But is that all there is to it? Masson points out that a loving animal (again, a controversial concept) may leave more offspring, making lovingness a survival trait. But the same animal may also provide excessive care to a disabled (and therefore doomed) offspring, exposing itself to hazards in the process.
The presumed practicality of funktionslust is further challenged by the performance of songbirds: the roughly 4,000 species of perching birds capable of producing varied and elaborate song patterns. To the standard scientist, the sounds these birds produce—no matter how inventive—serve the basic purposes of establishing territory and advertising fitness to potential mates. But some researchers argue that survival alone cannot account for the amount or variety of imitation, improvisation and near-composition evident in birdsong, nor the seemingly arbitrary times and circumstances in which the songs are often heard.
David Rothenberg and other birdsong experts see this music-making as approaching pure funktionslust, or pleasure derived from a native ability exceeding any evolutionary purpose. In his book Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song, Rothenberg proposes that songbird patterns rival human music in terms of structure, aesthetics, expressiveness, interactiveness and extra-practical life enhancement. A philosopher and jazz clarinetist who “jams” with songbirds in the wild, Rothenberg has been accused of the double infractions of anthropomorphism and evaluating birdsong with the bias of a musician. In his defense, he concedes that birds, not people, are the arbiters of their own songs, and only they can know what their repertoires mean to other birds. But he calls it art nonetheless, quoting Wallace Craig: “Art is a fact and after all it would be rather ridiculous from our evolutionistic ideology to deny the possibility that something similar may occur in other species” (“The Song of the Wood Peewee,” 1943).
Following this argument, we might deduce that songbirds experience beauty in their songs. This proposition harmonizes with the work of Denis Dutton, a philosopher of art who posits an evolutionary basis for the human perception of artistic beauty (The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution). Dutton identifies Acheulean hand axes as the earliest hominid artwork. Prevalent from 500,000 to 1.2 million years ago, these teardrop carvings have been located in the thousands throughout Asia, Africa and Europe. This sheer number and the lack of wear on their delicate blades suggest they were not used for butchering, but for aesthetic enjoyment. Indeed, they remain beautiful even to our modern eyes. The reason for this, explains Dutton, is that we find beauty in something done well. We are attracted to the meticulousness and skill evident in the axes. They satisfy our innate taste for virtuosic displays in the same way as well-executed concertos, paintings and ballets. Beauty is in the expertise.
If this attraction existed among our prehistoric ancestors, why not in songbirds? Taking funktionslust in a logical direction, might we assume that songbirds sing for the joy of it, and that their skilled displays feed aesthetic yearnings of other songbirds? These questions point to a possible compromise, in which animal behavior retains its evolutionary explanation and art finds evolutionary justification outside of the drive to survive.
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