The Integrative Biology of Art and Aesthetic Experience

offered as Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 413,
University Studies 413, or
(for graduate level) EEB 593

Neil Greenberg


GOALS.  Our seminar, Art and Organism, is in general encouraged by the sentiment expressed in a landmark report from the Carnegie Foundation:  The student who can begin early in life to think of things as connected, even if he revises his view with every succeeding year, has begun the life of learning.” Seeing “the connectedness of things,” is, we conclude, the goal of common learning.” (From A Quest for Common Learning: The aims of general education by Ernest L. Boyer & Arthur Levine, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching 1981, p. 52). 

As a point of departure, consider that all meaning–even the “meaning of life”–derives from its connectedness within and between every level of organization we can discern.  This leads, of course, to a vast network, incomprehensible in its entirety but very illuminating–sometime exhilarating–as we follow specific paths of connections such as those between specific phenomena that are often characterized as exemplars of art and science... I believe we are wired to find joy in this activity. And it may never end! Imagine, if you can, filling a balloon with more and more knowledge: the larger the balloon grows, the greater is its interface with the surrounding ignorance.     

Whatever connections you perceive are necessarily within you –textbooks and lectures at best approximate those elements of the path that the authors believe they share with you and also at best point you in hopefully helpful directions. But within you the exact path is unique and will have more-or-less the same meaning.  HERE is the source of creativity that we bring to our understanding and share in hopefully beneficial ways for our tribe.  


WEBSITE. The Art and Organism web pages, like artists and organisms themselves, are a motley, eclectic agglomeration of more-or-less mutually accommodating traits that exist in the service of the overall idea. Like organisms, they are in a constant state of disintegration and renewal.  Each page is, like the entire A&O enterprise, a work in progress, with its own history and function. At any given moment web pages are born, manifest more-or-less exuberant growth, then mature, then die. Some leave a legacy manifest in their replacement or reinvention elsewhere. Each seeks to prosper on its own as well as keep the balance or harmony and vigor of the whole project. They respond well to constructive criticism.

You may have a sense that our pursuit is endless … and you may be correct in that.  See the A&O notes on “process versus product.” 


The course icon/logo is a woodcut of a medieval scholar/pilgrim discovering where earth and sky touch –experiencing a breakthrough from one worldview to another. (notes on the illustration)

My philosophy of Teaching

A recent conference presentation about ART & ORGANISM (2021)




PREMISE: Art and Science are concepts central to the most wholly human of our cultural endeavors, and yet they are  undeniably linked to, if not wholly emergent from, our basic biology. But biology embraces many different kinds of questions, methods of investigation, and centering concepts. The essential elements of four main biological approaches to behavior will be summarized, integrated, and brought to bear on art and aesthetic experience.

Art and aesthetic experience as well as science may be understood as parts of the ensemble of behavioral traits that characterizes our species. And like other traits, their causes and consequences may be illuminated by considering the fundamental biology from which they emerge and how they contribute to the survival of individuals or groups. To do this, we will employ the ethological approach: the discipline that brings the essential elements of developmental biology, ecology, evolutionary biology, and physiology into focus and integrates them in the service of illuminating behavior. As we explore the power of biology to provide insight into behavior, we will discuss the biological development and evolutionary origin of traits and their contribution to helping humans and other organisms meet essential needs. Classes consist of lectures followed by discussion   Overview of Topics

The course is informed by

  • ETHOLOGY (the integrative biology of animal behavior; emphasizing “real animals in their real world.”)  and
  • EXISTENTIAL PHENOMENOLOGY (a philosophy that emphasizes “real people in the real world” (people as they are not as they should be).


THE ART and SCIENCE of ART and SCIENCE — The biological view of art and aesthetic experience clarifies the distinctions between “art” and “science” at the same time as it underscores the mutual dependence of the ways of knowing they relate to. The more deeply one digs into their essential characteristics, the less distinct become the boundaries between them. The topics and links below are exemplary of the resources in support of weekly lectures and discussions. Overview of Topics

CONNECTIONS — “The connectedness of things” seems to validate HOLISM, “the idea that natural systems (physical, biological, chemical, social, economic, mental, linguistic, medical, etc.) and their properties should be viewed as wholes, not as collections of parts. This often includes the view that systems function as wholes and that their functioning cannot be fully understood solely in terms of their component parts) see Wikipedia on Holism.

ART and BIOLOGY — WHAT is “art” or “science?”  versus WHEN is ART and SCIENCE.   What knowledge can we be confident of? Mystery: the mainspring of science and religion. Adaptation, Fitness, Natural Selection; wants and needs. 

  • The Causes and Consequences of the creation and appreciation of art.  Art (like science) is a distinctive constellation of multiple cognitive functions (many of which overlap in their causes and consequences).  
  • The “Aesthetic Experience” [more] . What experiences aren’t aesthetic?  [to be an artist…] [to be your self…] [Beauty] Truth? The war between individuation and sociality parallels the tension between truth and reality. Creativity. What makes an aesthetic experience “transformative”
  • TRUTH, “The Natural History of Truth,” Truth and Beauty,” Reality-Testing,” what is “more real than reality?” “more true than truth?”

ART:  Two helpful perspectives that converge on a rich understanding of art are those of EXPRESSION and RECEPTION art (the behaviors involved in both the creation and viewing of art).  A clear connection to biology is the fact that ART ultimately meets biological NEEDS.   ART is a way of KNOWING and of BEING KNOWN that is distinctive because it EMPHASIZES and AMPLIFIES specific cognitive competencies from amongst the many that overlap and interpenetrate in both process and product, most significantly an urge to deeper self-knowledge which (in seeming paradox) most often involves communicating with others.   “TO KNOW” and “TO BE KNOWN” appear to obey a fundamental “law of connectedness” that define each other.  The processes of art involve our nervous systems & can be interpreted by means of Bayesian inference.   (& see A&O notes on ART as COMMUNICATION)

IT is helpful to regard art as a process, the product of which is an artifact.    One such  need is communication–and I want to argue this is true within as well as between people:

  • To EXPERIENCE ART is to go beyond the immediate needs of biology: to take something which has become (or been made) “special” (Dissanyake).
    • The cognitive implications are huge: to the extent we appreciate a specific work of art we have found a sort of communion with an artist (“The antennae of our race”—Ezra Pound called artists) and likely to see things beyond the bounds of mere habit.  In this sense, an artist is also the canary in the coal mine: early warning systems for movements into potentially dangerous territory. (Danger and Beauty together can evoke the “sublime“.) It also implies possessing the  resources, such as leisure, to explore and can thus be seen as a potentially attractive trait in sexual selection.   This MAY be an element in the many species that work to manifest their value as a reproductive partner: bower birds to peacocks. Observations that tend to validate the evolutionary argument for the emergence of art are at the A&O Page: NEEDS MET BY ART.  (arguably, needs when met ultimately serve inclusive fitness, most conspicuously when they are therapeutic) 


DEEP ETHOLOGY:  Development – Ecology – Evolution – Physiology — the biological causes and consequences of art and aesthetic experience [overview of DEEP] [detail] The archaeology of MIND —  

  • DEVELOPMENTChange within an individual as it grows and matures … is inevitable in any organism that must cope with a changing environment. [development in A&O] assimilating or accommodating new experiences
    • Epigenesis –the interplay of inner and outer worlds [more] The developing organism reflects an “essential tension” that evokes flow it is always in motion. Creativity is coping with change: innovations in evolution and everyday life: nature and nurture of creativity and intuition as a balance of conscious and nonconscious cognition
    • Individuation and socialization begins for most organisms as soon as its first cells become become distinguished from one another.  
  • ECOLOGY.  How well do organisms “fit” their environment? — To be “adaptive,” art must have functions that meet needs, contribute to fitness [needs], and benefits must exceed costs [optimality]. [ecology in A&O] The self and the soul: the socially constructed soul: social referees and child development. The biological self as the supreme expression of intuition.
    • Communication between LEVELS OF ORGANIZATION–cells, organs, and organisms is arguably controlled by environmental circumstances.
  • EVOLUTION.  The “ultimate” causation of art and aesthetic experience CHANGE between generations as organisms deploy the legacy of past generations in their current environment and undertake transmission of biologically relevant information to subsequent generations. . [evolution in A&O] Consciousness? the protean nature of consciousness, and the essential tension driving the dynamic reciprocity of apparent dualities. Prefigurements of art in other species (including children).
    • Ritualization is the process whereby specific traits become progressively more distinctive in the service of an organism’s signalling attributes of significance to other individuals.  May be widespread in principle but is particularly prominent when communicating sexual status.
  • PHYSIOLOGY.  The the “proximate” causes of art and aesthetic experience. HOMEOSTASIS, the dynamic balance in mind and body; tipping points Art and the brain: what is the artist communicating? and to whom? Harmony and balance [more on homeostasis] [what would a systems approach to art be like?].  [physiology in A&O – the body, the brain and the medium of communications] The interplay of input, integration, and output, is a system, and the balance of its components can engender “alternative” states of consciousness. “love?” visual input. And the key INTEGRATIVE systems are motivation, affect, and cognition.
  • CONSCIOUSNESS, COGNITION, and NEUROAESTHETICS. We may not end up with a satisfying definition of consciousness but we will have a grand time looking for one.   
  • DYSFUNCTION. Sometimes the cerebral symphony hits a sour note — but to some degree, we are all “abnormal” [more].  Like consciousness, the pursuit of order and the cosmic harmony can be thrilling … sublime [more]  Read Scholl’s, “Nobody is Normal” 


most recent offering:


offered as University Studies 413, EEB 413, or (for graduate level) EEB 593



Grades are based on
(a) participation in class discussions and “open diary” quizzes and “check-in’s” (responses to questions based upon whatever notes you have in your class diary or journal [more on journals])
(b) the six best six brief “reports” and “check-in’s” developed from the exercise and assignments list.
(c) an individual term project including (1) oral presentation (including Powerpoint or demonstration) and (2) paper to be submitted at the conclusion of the semester. Visit ART & ORGANSM – PRESENTATIONS and PAPERS – RESOURCES

Main resource is A&O WEBSITE, text, selected readings, and discussions.    Read about A&O notes pages.  Readings are selected from a diverse collection of scientific, artistic, and cultural resources including (for example) Human Ethology by I Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1989) Chapter 9.; What is Art For?   An interpretation of the evolutionary significance of art by Ellen Dissanayake (1998) University of Washington Press.  “The Biological Foundation of Aesthetics”  (Edited by I Rentschler, B. Herzberger, and D. Epstein, published by Biurkhauser). And many articles, several on-line presentations.

Your CLASS JOURNAL: is a key reference: this is your personal document in which new material from class and your personal passions are more-or-less integrated.  This is yours alone and private, but can be used in multiple class exercises.  If there is ever an open-book quiz, this will be the book. (Read A&O – Diary)

  • Please look at how journals and diaries have worked for other people. (e.g., Maria Popova’s 2014 essay at Brain Pickings blog).  As for me, C.D. Lewis’s observation works: “We do not write in order to be understood; we write in order to understand (from The Poetic Image 1983) The cognitive processes involved in the act of writing seem to synergize with other processes that taken together, help us understand what we’re thinking in ways we still do not understand.   

Brain-Breaks: Occasionally you’ll see a butterfly on a page–click it when your brain hurts (not guaranteed to make it better, just different, which is often enough).  Or an “Interdisciplinary Eye:” click the eye when you feel discursive (you never know where these things will lead . . .)


freely-associated interconnected websites