Iexpect that some who saw the poster for this series of lectures on ‘Art and Science’, organized to celebrate 150 years of the British Association, wondered what contribution to this topic might be made by someone associated with the Marxist tradition of writing about art, a tradition which has always stressed sociological and historical factors, and in which the very category of ‘Art and Biology’ would appear to have no place.footnote About ten years ago a comparable series of lectures was organized at the Institute of Contemporary Arts—in fact by one of the contributors to this series, Jonathan Benthall—and a Marxist was asked along to give the final talk. He told everyone that he found it worrying that the ICA was—I quote—‘turning deferentially to science for social and cultural wisdom and guidance’. He proceeded to argue that there was no such thing as ‘human nature’ accessible to science, that all the findings of science were historically relative . . . and so on.footnote1 Perhaps you thought that was going to be my role in this series. But I want to begin by disillusioning you. It isn’t.

Recently, I have come to realize that the natural sciences—especially the biological sciences—have a great deal to teach us about art, and that the sociological traditions have ignored biology at their own peril. For example, a couple of years ago I was asked to contribute to one of those interminable conferences—‘Art, Politics and Ideology’—which were so typical of the late 1970s. In the course of a heated exchange with a prominent post-structuralist art historian, I found myself saying to her, ‘Well then, how do we know the Laocoön is in pain?’ To which she replied, ‘We know the Laocoön is in pain because we have studied the modes of production prevailing in Greece at the time it was made and the signifying practices to which they gave rise.’ To which I replied, ‘But Comrade, he’s being strangled by a sea monster.’ ‘Yes,’ she retorted, ‘but we have no means of knowing whether or not he’s enjoying it . . . . ’ And she was not joking. It was then that I realized that it was high time that I turned deferentially to science for some social and cultural wisdom and guidance.

I cannot, however, claim that I am the only writer coming out of the Marxist tradition to start thinking in this way. Indeed, Marx himself once recognized that art could not easily be accommodated within his theories; he wondered about how it was that if the Greek arts were bound up with certain forms of social development (as they so manifestly were), they could still afford us pleasure today. Since Marx’s time, this question has become ever more acute with the uncovering of the arts of ancient cultures of which he knew nothing. As the late Glynn Daniel, an eminent prehistorian, once pointed out, if we want to understand prehistoric art we certainly need to know something about the chronology of prehistory and its various cultures; but, even without such knowledge, we can enjoy in a discriminating way the artistic creations of prehistoric man. Until very recently neither Marx, nor any of his followers, had anything at all intelligent to say about this huge problem of the aesthetic transcendence of great works of art.

In the last few years, however, some thinkers within the broad Marxist tradition have begun to recognize that—the great historical transformations of human societies notwithstanding—there are very important elements of human experience that remain ‘relatively constant’ and are subject to change only through the infinitely slow processes of biological evolution, not through social, political, or economic developments. Sebastiano Timpanaro is one such thinker who has influenced me deeply: he points out that man as a biological being has remained essentially unchanged from the beginnings of civilization to the present, and that ‘those sentiments and representations which are closest to the biological facts of human existence have changed little’. Much art, Timpanaro suggests, touches upon and indeed draws its strength from such sentiments and representations: it deals with birth, infancy, love, sexual reproduction, ageing, death, and our sense of smallness given the limitlessness of the cosmos.footnote2 Of course, the experience of such things is necessarily socially mediated; but if, using socially inflected conventions, the artist is able vividly to speak of such fundamental elements of experience, there is no great mystery as to why his work has the potentiality to outlive its time. We are moved by the Laocoön at least in part because—whatever our knowledge of Greek society—we know something of the capacities of the human body in struggle and suffering, and these have not changed much since Greek times.

But it isn’t just a question of enduring sentiments and representations. Raymond Williams has pointed out that the deepest significance of a relatively unchanging biological human condition is probably to be found in some of the basic material processes of the making of art: in the significance of rhythms in music and dance and language, or of shapes and colours in sculpture and painting. Williams argues that where such fundamental physical conditions and processes are in question, there can be no reduction ‘to simple social and historical circumstances’: the material processes of the making of art involve biological processes which can be, and often are, the most powerful elements of the work.footnote3

The scattered clues in thinkers like these set me off on a long journey in search of the biological roots of art, a journey which took me through mountains of ethological, biological, archaeological, and psychoanalytic evidence which I was peculiarly ill-equipped to climb. Certainly, my conclusions remain speculative: but I believe that they amount to a new hypothesis about the nature and origins of artistic activity which is, at least, rooted in materialist knowledge.

I think we have to begin by recognizing that when we are dealing with the problem of art, we are always dealing with two separate but closely related questions: aesthetic response and aesthetic (or perhaps ‘expressive’) work. The sorts of questions we need to begin by asking are what are the rudiments of these twin roots of art in species other than our own, and what can we learn from the study of them about the nature of these phenomena in our own species.