Venture far enough into the deep shade of West New Guinea’s Tamrau Mountains and you’ll come upon a perplexing network of cone-shaped huts — too small to house any human — erected from sticks and roofed with orchid stems. At the mouth of each dwelling, carefully arranged piles of rotted treasures spill out across the forest floor in colorful mandalas. These are the temples of the Vogelkop bowerbird.
Woven atop a platform of soft mosses and supported by a slender sapling, each three-foot-tall “bower” reveals the meticulous care and uncanny vision of its architect. Some are strung with beetle carapaces, stones, and indigo petals. Others display mounds of fruit and fungi, or bottle caps and shards of glass.
The birds are finicky builders who fuss over the selection of every last foraged ornament, even killing insects with the express intent of using them as decorations. Adjust a single stick or bone, and the bowerbird will put it decidedly back into its rightful place.
Male bowerbirds construct these spires for the sole purpose of attracting the attention of female mates. Nevertheless, the whole affair seems to reveal a certain aesthetic awareness both in the male’s keen skill and in the female’s ability to critique his design. Nowhere else in the animal kingdom does a creature curate such pristine arrangements, and with such apparent personal taste.
This astounding behavior has inspired some researchers to ask the question: do bowerbirds produce art?
The question is in and of itself problematic. As evolutionary biologist and ethologist John Endler points out, not only do definitions of art vary widely, but they oftentimes controvert each other. To remedy this, he consolidated elements of half a dozen definitions to arrive at the following conclusion: That visual art can be defined as “the creation of an external visual pattern by one individual in order to influence the behavior of others.”
At first glance, it might seem evident that the birds deserve the word. They envision a desired outcome, and then they manifest that vision through a series of deliberate actions in hopes of securing a mate. By Endler’s definition, they could be the Michelangelos of the animal world.
Yet beyond the circumstances in which the birds’ biological cues necessitate that they find a mate, they would not build bowers at all, and certainly not for the aesthetic experience of it. If their behavior is governed by an evolutionarily driven instinct, can we truly equate it to creativity, or call it artful?
Which begs the greater question, are animals capable of creativity at all?
Many zoos and sanctuaries attempt to foster creative environments for their animals as a means of alleviating stress and exercising imagination. Chimp Haven, a sanctuary located in Keithville, Louisiana, uses painting as part of its rehabilitation plan for chimpanzees who have been rescued or released from laboratories.
“If you stick your dog’s paws in paint and let them run around the floor, that’s not art. It’s happenstance,” said Karen Allen, Chimp Haven’s communications director, in an interview with WIRED. “But we give these chimpanzees a canvas, and they do what they’re going to do. They pick their colors, they pick their tools. There’s usually some sort of symmetry. There’s always white space. It’s really interesting to see how they do all this.”
Naturally, Allen’s stance on the works produced by the sanctuary’s chimps stems from her experience as a denizen of the 21st-century. Two-hundred years ago, a scenario in which a monkey uses the tools it’s given to daub lines on canvas would bear no more significance than the scenario in which a dog traipses around with paint on its paws.
Coherency and intent are merely a matter of perspective.
This is perhaps best-evidenced by the story of Congo, a chimpanzee who rose to international fame during the mid-1950s when his handler, British zoologist Desmond Morris, began showcasing his drawings and paintings. Within two years of his public debut, the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London mounted a boundary-shattering exhibition of Congo’s selected works, igniting a furious public controversy over what could constitute as art.
Surrealists rejoiced: Picasso himself purchased one of Congo’s pieces. From the outset, Morris held with absolute intransigence that Congo approached the act of painting with a defined sense of purpose.
“It was truly art for art’s sake,” he wrote in a recent press release. “If I tried to stop him before he had finished a painting, he would have a screaming fit. And If I tried to persuade him to go on painting after he considered that he had a picture, he would stubbornly refuse.”
Yet the fact that the artistic community would entertain the merits of a chimpanzee’s paintings with any seriousness only underscores the importance of the period in which they were received. The Abstract Expressionists had already paved the way for a new era of brazenness, and cultivated an environment in which radical deconstructions of form were not only accepted, but celebrated.
Ultimately, the willingness of the 1950s art world to accept Congo’s work more accurately reflected where humans stood in their cultural evolution than where the chimp stood in his. By anthropomorphizing an animal’s instincts, we impede our ability to recognize the more subtle machinations of that creature’s creative processes. Even to apply the term “art” to another species is to miss the point completely.
What might it indicate about us that our attempts to assess an animal’s capacity for creativity involve placing it before a canvas and paintbrushes? Or that we consider the crowning achievement of creativity to be a piece of art at all?
When the first of our broad-browed ancestors held flint to the ground and struck a cobble against it, he procured a solution from his environment where none previously existed. This, too, constitutes a stunning feat of ingenuity.
The advent of tool-use in early human societies marks a colossal milestone in the advancement of our kind. The appearance of tool-use–however inchoate–in other species is no less monumental.
“The psychological processes that make humans able to act creatively are themselves inherited and shaped by millions of years of evolution, but their functioning leads to novelty,” Alex Kacelnik, founder of the Behavioural Ecology Research Group at the University of Oxford, explains to BTR. “And so it is with mechanisms acting in other species.”
Kacelnik and his team have completed extensive research on the behavioral creativity demonstrated by New Caledonian crows, a clever group of birds that can select and even manufacture tools for their own purposes.
In a remarkable 2002 experiment, when a female crow was given a straight wire for a task that demanded a curved instrument, she wedged one end beneath a piece of tape and pulled upwards with her beak on the other to create a hook. To the group’s knowledge, that instance was “the first time any animal [had] been seen to make a new tool for a specific task, without an extended period of testing.”
For Kacelnik, it is through a combination of evolutionarily inherited knowledge and spontaneous problem-solving that creativity expresses itself, be it in animals or in human populations.
“Unraveling the way that the know-how of an animal articulates heritable, learned, and innovation capability is the goal of all serious comparative cognitivists,” he says. “Nobody would argue today that all behavior, whether in humans or in flies, is totally slave or totally free from this articulation.”