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Art Without Humans? Care To Stone This Author?

by Gary John Gresl

This article, presenting a subject that some might think heretical, could be an exercise in futility. But, while it might be considered useless to some, the subject might also be thought of least...curious and worth some speculation.

Where in the chain of human evolution did art-making begin? Or, did art-making exist before human intellect began defining what art could be? Was there, in the evolving processes of Nature, an art-making before humans, and are humans only part of, an extension of, a preexisting, perhaps eon old art-making?

For any reader who elevates Art and Art-Making to the level of religion, and/or thinks of Art as among the highest achievements of Humankind, it is likely that my considerations here will be negatively judged. Also, for the reader who remains more or less a fundamentalist in religious terms, even the idea of humans evolving from more distant animal relatives will make the notion I propose impossible to accept. However, I am not alone in these explorations.

Studies and persons could be cited from the days of Charles Darwin to the contemporary Stephen Jay Gould, the literature filled with credible research and publications, scientific discoveries and basic reasonable observations, made by reknowed thinkers and scientists for over 150 years. Even a review of everyday popular culture presents accepted evidence which suggests that the general culture has embraced evolutionary thought. One cannot even avoid reasoned proof of evolution if one subscribes to cable TV, watching anything from Arts and Entertainment to Animal Planet. (Again, I understand fundamentalists have other beliefs, and they do have their own channels). The reader will also probably recall mainstream news reports over the years dealing with aspects of intelligence as it applies to the skills and actions of certain animals, gorillas, chimps, elephants, porpoise and parrots among them.

And at least one book has been written with a greater exploration of the notion that art and aesthetics predates humankind, and exists without humans. That book is Art as Revelation, by Frank A. Wilson. (1981, Centaur Press Ltd. Fontwell, Sussex, England). Briefly, while Wilson’s book might be considered more convoluted and speculative than scientific, I include just one quote from that book as he discusses a natural history of art. He states on pg. 2: Human art could not have arisen without a long evolutionary antecedent; indeed human sensitivity to music, and colour, as well as to the beauty of the human form and face, suggest a prolonged and elaborate evolutionary expertise which, in biological terms indicates their importance in the process of humanization. Nature does not waste such effort for inconsequential activities. Aesthetic sensitivity is therefore likely to be as much a human characteristic as our upright gait.

It so happens that Wilson’s reference to humans having a response to the human face, acquired thru evolution, gets some scientific support in an article in the magazine, Discover, February, 2000. This material titled Isn’t She Lovely? (The Science of Beauty), by Brad Lemley, discusses human response to the form of the human face, and how our response must be hard-wired thru a long evolution. It is also mentions how there are learned societal factors playing a role as well, especially considering the initial often negative response of one race being exposed to an other. This initial rejection response might also be the result of a creature’s inbred genetic hard wiring directing away from a look that is not the built in acceptable norm.

Consider these:
1. Did humans arrive instantaneously full blown from the mind of a Creator?
2. Was there a probably slow rather linear process involved in the evolution of humankind?
3. Were there ancestors of humans in the evolutionary process leading to modern humans?
4. Over the centuries, particularly over the past century, has human decision making broadened/expanded the definition of what art can be, to include objects from all human cultures, the work of the primitive and naive, the art of children, machine made and mass produced objects, splashed and dripped paint, earth and crop works, conceptual art?
5. Are humans generally egocentric, believing themselves at the apex of creation, ascribing powers/abilities to themselves alone thru self-proclamation? (This self proclaiming can also be derived thru belief in religious scriptures and dogma...basically words humans have written and sometimes ascribed as coming from a Greater Being.)
6. Is the place and intellectual achievement of humans threatened if the definition of what art is can extend backward in time to include evolutionary ancestors, or to include other species currently existing on Earth?
7. Is it possible that there are such categories of art as Art of the Chimpanzee, Art of the Parrot, Art of the Elephant, and Art of the Birds? If we define what art is, why is that categorization not possible?
A good friend of mine, an artist, is fond of using the image of an early human being picking up a stick or piece of charcoal and making a mark on a surface. This event might be supposed as the earliest recognition of some artistic expression, and a start to the process of art-making. That early human, consciously or unconsciously, found the activity somehow curious and/or pleasurable and/or stimulating, even a means of expression, and art was therefore born. My good friend, an artist of high intellect, talent, and good nature, believes that art is among the highest achievements of humankind alone and chuckles at what I suggest in this article. Perhaps you, the reader, will merely chuckle as well, and put down your stones...I come in peace.


This planet has existed for millions, yea billions of years, and has been slowly transforming/evolving all of that time. Life has existed on this world for many millions of those years, and has likewise been slowly going thru a process of evolution. I suggest that creatures on earth, earlier forms leading to humans, and perhaps non-related creatures predating human existence, (as well as other creatures currently existing on Earth) might have possessed or possess at least rudimentary/elementary artistic and aesthetic abilities. I am not suggesting some mystical or metaphysical background, but something physiological, with a history to be judged by scientific reasoning and principles.
Aesthetics refers to perception, to recognizing and finding appeal in the appearance of objects and environment. The appealing, the useful, the necessary...consciously or unconsciously recognized and chosen above other existing options.

Is it possible that the ancestors of humans had sensitivity to line and texture and color and balance and shapes, the stuff of which art is made (especially known by humans who have taken ART 101)? You may ask just how could such creatures have gained such sensitivity without training or by at least following example? Well, awareness and abilities developed as a result of the creatures interaction with the physical world, and was utilized in everyday living, competition, food provision, breeding and sheltering.

The recognition and use of basic physical aesthetic principles developed unconsciously in these creatures responding to the appearance of things...those shapes, colors, textures, lines, arrangements of space. Of course! The bodies of creatures take on visual, auditory, tactile and olfactory clues thru the senses in order to live and achieve...they load their senses and then respond. Living creatures make choices, acting upon the input...that is how living things survive, prosper and adapt. They utilize and interpret, thereafter responding and acting, as if reading messages from the surroundings...line, texture, color, shape, balance, movement and arrangements in the environment.

Humans are advanced animals on Earth, currently the dominant and most intelligent of beings (despite the negative ills we continue to foist upon Earth). Humans are derived from earlier ancestors who evolved over the course of millions of years, and these ancestors interacted with the environment, responding to stimuli, and forming a basically linear progression from simple organisms to complex organisms. (Not without its twists and turns and branches). However, because there is a basic step by step progression, one form building upon and retaining elements of the earlier forms, does it continue to make sense that the roots of art-making are only begun and exclusive to the more recognizable human animal? Or, did at least some of this process of making aesthetic judgments, using colors, shapes, textures, patterns, arrangements...aspects of art-making, begin in our preceding not quite human ancestors?


Humans have been recognizable as humans for an extremely short time, compared to the whole time that life has been evolving on this planet. Of course human thought/mind derives from the physical processes of interaction of the human body (and its internal chemical, electrical and mental makeup) with all elements of the environment...the rocks, soil, plants, weather, magnetic field, electrical processes, solar influences, other animals, humans, and unseen but detectable universal elemental forces. This was going on with earlier life forms as well...those earlier creatures experienced almost all of what we experience in the environment and those earlier creatures led to what we are today.
And of creatures currently on Earth, other than humans? It is risky business to choose current examples which might prove that some aspect of art-making and aesthetic choices exist in contemporary animals, as humans can find it difficult to believe that humans are not alone in their abilities. And, undoubtedly there is good argument to expose animal abilities and motivations as being somehow different from humans, and therefore not credibly art related. However, here are a few things to consider and discuss.

We have only recently recognized that some animals indeed utilize tools in their everyday lives, whether stick or stone, leaf, mud or excretion. And, what of aesthetic judgment and some form of art-making? How about actions and materials utilized during breeding activities, especially in bird species...that response to the look of plumage, the dance of a partner, the arrangement and materials in the decorated nests of Bower Birds? What visually does a beaver consider consciously or unconsciously when locating and then deciding where to plant another stick in its lodge? Does it have to do with balance, pattern, negative and positive space? What visually motivates an eagle when pushing another branch into its nest? Are the songs and movements of whales and dolphins a form of art form? What has been ingrained in the genes of insects, the brains of lizards, the minds of mammals and humans over the millennia? What patterns are instilled genetically, and when a beast stares at a horizon line, or views the sky, shadows and hills, or apparently enjoys the sunshine and rain...perhaps even frolicking or singing or there something akin to an artistic act afoot? How close are humans to their animal relatives?

Some will argue that I anthropomorphize and sentimentalize, imposing human characteristics upon other living things. Balderdash! I contend that such persons have their blinders on, fail to read the record...and do not see from where we humans come. We cannot escape from our lineage.


Human intelligence now studies and defines. Our abstract thought is part of the evolutionary process. Indeed, some state that we are the mind of Earth. I suggest that we are only part of the mind of Earth, formed relatively recently in the progression to consciousness. If art-making is considered only a human species exclusive activity, then it is only because that this is what our species decides.
Human sensibilities find admiration for shapes and processes in Nature, and for objects of our own making. Humans determine if there is beauty in a rock, a plant, an animal, the products of other living creatures, and in the smile of a Mona Lisa or configuration of a building. Stated simply, only humans decide...

Broadening acceptance for what art can be has been accelerating during the 20th century. What was nonart decades ago is now accepted as art. There is recent respect and inclusiveness for visual and material products of all cultures, extant or extinct. We accept the art of children, the primitive and naive, the outsiders/misfits and insane. There is inclusion of new and formerly craft expressions including furniture, posters, photographs, prints, industrial design, cartoons, motion pictures, and emerging forms of expression generated thru the use of computers. It is only for humans to extend the boundaries of art to include the potential in ancestors of humans, some mammals and primates at least. Perhaps such acceptance could reach other Orders of Fauna as well.

Without question, preceding human presence, there were acts of change, reorganization and creation. Natural forces of an evolving physical world, selection, success and failure, recognized by the human mind as part of our own past, can lead us to view our art making as an extension of what has already been present. Yes! Brains were already present, and I contend that art-making in some elementary form was already present before humans made their first artistic marks. Nature, thru slow evolutionary time consuming steps created humans who continue the natural traditions begun in the brains and acts of our antecedents.

While human sensibilities find admiration for the Natural Universe around us, humans did not invent the naturally created elements used in art-making. Humanity instead recognized those elements and gave them a name, but the utilization of those elements was going on before modern humans, and is going on around us today. Humans built upon what was already started, and today define what art can be, without objection from other living things.

Our sense of self-importance, our egotism, makes claim to art as our sole achievement. Perhaps, if we could more sensitively appreciate the interrelationships of living things, the status of other less evolved intellects, of how we got to this point in our own evolution, we might find a greater beauty and stimulation than we now imagine. Perhaps we could discover fresh reasons to create art objects, while finding kinship and beauty in other creatures...being aligned, indeed, part of a larger aesthetically aware community. Despite our dominant place on Earth, we are only part of the process.

Where we saw a sharp line dividing human and animal, now that difference is blurred
-Jane Goodall

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