A&O READING – Sensory Exploitation in Biology and Art (MS 2009)

This is a 2009 manuscript stored in the PhilSci Archive

although unpublished at the time I made this available for A&O class, it is valuable resource for evolutionary thinking about art, particularly with respect to the role of sensory bias



Jan Verpooten and Mark Nelissen

Departement of Biology University of Antwerp

PhilSci Archive


 In this paper we argue that sensory exploitation, a model from sexual selection theory, deserves more attention in evolutionary thinking about art than it has up until now. We base our argument on the observation that in the past sensory exploitation may have been underestimated in sexual selection theory but that it is now winning field. Likewise, we expect sensory exploitation can play a more substantial role in modeling the evolution of art behavior. Darwins theory of sexual selection provides a mechanistic basis to explain the evolution of male display traits. This mechanistic approach has proven useful to developing hypotheseabout the evolution of human art. Both Boyd and Richerson (1985) and Miller (1998, 1999, 2000, 2001) have applied an indirect-benefit model from sexual selection to the evolution of art behavior. We argue that the mechanistic possibilities sensory exploitation has to offer as a model have remained underexplored so far, so we propose a concept based upon it. From the sensory exploitation perspective it follows that exaptive exploitation of psychosensory biases is a primary force in the evolution of art production (notice that the use of a model from sexual selection does not imply art evolved as a sexual display – we only use it for its mechanism) and that the indirect-benefit model only provides secondary forces. Thus, sensory exploitation may operate alone under some conditions but usually secondary processes as a result of indirect benefits are expected to kick in. The concept of sensory exploitation will need to play a central role in articulating all of the existing hypotheses about art.


 Keywords: sensory exploitation, sensory biases, evolution of art, sexual selection, mimicry, indirect benefits, signal evolution, cultural transmission, iconic representations