A Biological Perspective on Art and Aesthetics
(Jan 12-Apr 29)

Ecology and Evolutionary Biology 413
University Studies 413

Time TUESDAY, 5:05-7:45
Place (tentative): Austin Peay 411 ("The Old Board Room")

Instructor, Neil Greenberg
office / hours

PREMISE: Art is a concept central to one of the most wholly human of our cultural endeavors, and yet one 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 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 it emerges and how it contributes 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

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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 represent. The more deeply one digs into their essential characteristics, we find that the boundaries between them become less distinct. The topics and links below are exemplary of the resources in support of weekly lectures and discussions.


The Biological Background: Ecology and Evolution
  • DEEP Biology: Adaptation, Fitness, Natural Selection; what are the needs of beasts, men, and gods? origin of empathy?
  • What is the bottom-line of being? READ notes from a recent conference on the evolution of art (click here)
  • Adaptation; Dr Panglossolalia and adaptationism

The Biological Background: human DEVELOPMENT and ECOLOGY of Art and Science
  • Development :
  • Determinism: innate/acquired/, nature/nurture, and EPIGENESIS
  • On being right for the wrong reasons
  • Ecology

The Biological Background: EVOLUTION of Art and Science
The Biological Background: PHYSIOLOGY of Art and Science
Proximate causes and consequences
The Biological Background: Input and Perception
  • From sensation to perception; sorting through it all
  • bias: Constraints and possibilities: "the four idols" of Sir Francis Bacon
  • Kuhn, Stent, Vygotsky, and the hopeful monsters of reason
  • Truth

The Biological Background:Integration and Meaning
The Biological Background:output and expression
  • Communicating: "fossil poetry" and logos
  • Corporealization of the psyche
  • automatization versus autonomization
  • where do communicative signals come from (evolution and development)

The Biological Background to Sociality/ The Social Background to Art
  • Open and closed genetic programs
  • biological and environmental determinism
  • Meaning: its origins and archeology; deep and surface structures; mindmaps

Art and Other Organisms
  • How does ART contribute to consciousness?
  • Why do we need consciousness? Is it socially constructed?
  • Prefigurements of art in other species including children)

Art as Inquiry
Art and Cultural Evolution
  • Coping with change
  • the varieties of stressful experience
  • comfort, affection and the denial of death

Artist as Seer
  • Visionaries and prophets in the Kingdom of the Blind
  • Francis Ford Coppola comments on craft in "Hearts of Darkness"

Project Reports
  • Full panoply, formal reports


To help me keep on top of how well we're communicating with each other about art and organisms I will keep track of how engaged you appear to be with course content, ambitions, and ideals. To do this, I'll assign some points to various forms of feedback I get. It is reasonable to get 1000 points worth of response from an involved ("A") student. ALSO, I enjoy the pleasant surprises that emerge from responses to potentially stressful ambiguity of questions or assignments and the creative new ideas that often emerge. With respect to points, the web-pages are peppered with questions and provocative comments You can get involved with some or all of them. They all carry point value. There's also "term work." So, there is

(a) responses to embedded questions (or exploration of new ones from your fertile imaginations), participation in class discussions (about 20%);

(b) "open diary" (journal) written responses to questions based upon whatever notes you have in your private class diary or journal [more on journals]) (about 20%) additional sources of points will be found on a list of exercises and assignments.

(c) an individual term project including oral presentation (20%) and final report to be submitted by term's end (40%) [more on term project]

DATES? 2011 Paper is DUE MAY 2 at latest ... Access to on-line Exam will be provided when the paper is received ... EXAM time is .

Readings and other resources are selected and assigned weekly as the course an this year's particular themes unfold. Exemplary of Readings are
  • Human Ethology by I Eibl-Eibesfeldt (1989) Chapter 9.;
  • What is Art For? (an interpretation of the evolutionary significance of art by Ellen Dissanayake, University of Washington Press, Seattle, 1988). /
  • "The Biological Foundation of Aesthetics" and other essays in Beauty and the Brain: Biological Aspects of Aesthetics, (Edited by I Rentschler, B. Herzberger, and D. Epstein, published by Birkhauser) (On Hodges Library reserve, on-line, or handed out in class).
  • Videos ( episodes from the series by ethologist Desmond Morris: The Human Animal; and The Power of Art, by Simon Schama)


Brain-Breaks: click the butterfly when your brain hurts (not guaranteed to make it better, just different)
The Interdisciplinary Eye: click the eye when you feel discursive (you never know where these things will lead . . .)

Glossary of terms in A&O

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. Each 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 senesce and 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.

register for
Independent Study - 25712 - EEB 593 - 011
after consulting with instructor
Associated Term: Spring Sem 2011
Registration Dates:
20/sep/2010 to 21/jan/2011
Graduate, Undergraduate
Neil Greenberg (P)

UT Knoxville Campus
Personalized Self Instruction Schedule Type
Independent Study Instructional Method
1.000 TO 15.000 Credits

View Catalog Entry

A&O is indexed at