I wanted throughout to demonstrate that viewing art as play with pattern actually offers a purchase on the details of the most intricate art, as well as of art in foraging or other small-scale societies.

DSW: Was there any convergence of explanation or illustration?

BB: In some ways, the four co-curators were like the proverbial blind men describing different parts of the elephant. With Mark Changizi, I agree we harness nature, yet not only human nature but other patterns in the natural or the neural world. Steven Pinker’s emphasis on the appeal to pleasure was close to my emphasis on our appetite specifically for the pleasures of pattern, and the astonishing Aboriginal shell necklaces he displayed would have fitted splendidly in my part of the show. Steve also had a series of female faces and figures, clad or not, morphing into one another on eight screens that would have been ideal for Geoffrey Miller. Geoffrey featured a poupou, a carved wooden panel, from the very same wharenui (Maori meeting house) from which I had selected two panels. He was emphasizing individual display, I the communal nature of Maori art, and its incorporation of stories of tribal ancestors. The male commissioner of the wharenui is known—an example of conspicuous consumption as well as tribal display—but not the names of the individual carvers, although two known master carvers and their apprentices seem likely to have worked together in these panels. One of the great thrills of selecting for the show was choosing a handaxe for Geoffrey—which I could also have featured since its symmetrical patterns fit my argument as well as his—behind the scenes in the British Museum. I remember pulling out trays of handaxes all labeled “Olduvai” and “Leakey.”

DSW: What questions remain most open after the exhibition?

BB: How can we describe and explain the whole elephant of art? How can we assess the individual and social benefits of art, in different arts and different societies at different times? How can we test hypotheses in the present when our knowledge of the past conditions where art originated is so gappy?

There’s a huge amount still to discover, in terms of evidence and argument, but at least an evolutionary perspective invites us to test the costs and benefits of arts, individually and socially, in cross-cultural and even cross-species ways. An evolutionary perspective does not accept art just as a given, but seeks an explanation, just as evolution seeks to explain culture in general rather than to assume it, wrongly, as simply the air humans, and only humans, breathe.

DSW: Tell us about your new book series, Evolution, Cognition, and the Arts.

BB: David Michelson, from your university, SUNY Binghamton, completed a Ph.D. a few years ago on the universal (evolutionary) and individual (personality) aspects of the response to fiction. After becoming acquisitions editor at Academic Studies Press in Boston, he wanted to set up a journal and a book series linking evolution and the arts. Joseph Carroll took over the journal project, calling it Evolutionary Studies in Imaginative Culture, and mustered a spectacular array of prominent researchers for the first issue, which will appear in the spring. I agreed to lead the book series, which I’ve called Evolution, Cognition, and the Arts. Books take longer to write and produce than papers, but we have contracted the first books and have others in the pipeline, ranging from evolutionary perspectives on masterworks across the American literary canon—about which little evolutionary criticism has been published—to theoretical perspectives linking literature, philosophy, and biology or the arts and neuroscience. Most mainstream publishers in literature and the arts have remained wary of evolution, and it’s thrilling now to have a quality outlet scholars interested in the conjunction of art and evolution can naturally turn to. And work by Anglophone scholars on evolution and the arts has too often paid insufficient attention to results coming from elsewhere. The first three books lined up for the series are by an American, a German, and an Italian. Long may the cross-border and cross-disciplinary dialogue continue!