My Theory of Human Evolution (aniline dye)

From The Story of Science, a great new BBC TV series, I learned that in 1856 William Perkin, a British chemist, while trying to synthesize quinine (to cure malaria), created the first aniline dye, called mauveine. It could be used to dye cloth mauve.

Mauveine was the first synthetic chemical dye. It led to the first chemical factories. Hundreds of tons were made. Other aniline dyes were developed and manufactured in large amounts.

Why does this shed light on human evolution? Because humans, unlike other animals, make art and decoration. We enjoy art and decoration, including color. To dye a dress mauve didn’t make it last longer or smell better or fit better — it just made it prettier. Our enjoyment of decoration created demand for mauveine, which began the growth of the chemistry industry. Lessons learned from the manufacture of aniline dyes helped begin the manufacture non-decorative chemicals. These included ammonia, which led to chemical fertilizers. Mauveine wasn’t useful in a simple-minded way but it was useful in a subtle way.

This is an example of art/decoration as stepping stone.  Because we enjoy art and decoration, we pay for it (long ago we traded for it). The payment allows people to spend more time creating art and decoration. While doing this, they learn. What they learn later helps everyone make conventionally useful stuff. I believe this stepping-stone function is why art and decoration came to be.

An alternative view: Art evolved because it gave us “the ability to shape and thereby exert some measure of control over the untidy material of everyday life.”

4 Responses to “My Theory of Human Evolution (aniline dye)”

  1. G Says:

    There’s a line in The Book of Five Rings that goes, “do nothing that is of no use.” This line always confounded me more than any other.

  2. Nathan Myers Says:

    I’m trying to understand this in natural-selection terms, where the vocabulary is restricted corresponding to the mechanisms available. You seem to be saying that an inclination to decoration and superfluous luxuries was selected for as a consequence of the incidental benefits that tended to come to people who so indulged. It’s a subtle argument, and (therefore) hard to test. Just-so stories help to explain the idea, but don’t constitute evidence. I wonder what could serve as evidence. Of course it’s easiest to understand it in terms of Darwinian sexual selection; that is, the inclination to decoration could be reinforced simply by mating success, without its conferring any survival advantage. In that case any benefit really would be truly incidental, as would (mild) harm.

    I also wonder on what time scale this process would have operated. Of course during all of recorded history those in a position to record history had surpluses and didn’t have to choose between luxuries and necessities, but by then the tendency must already have been well established. Almost everything in our evolution perforce happened before any referenceable history.

  3. Seth Roberts Says:

    Nathan, I think decorative stuff first appears around 50,000 years ago, although I haven’t looked into it. Humans do lots of signaling, especially of status, so decoration surely served that function as well. But signals can (and do) take many forms; to say something evolved because it served as a signal doesn’t explain much.

  4. G Says:

    I don’t know what’s so difficult about this. Art is an expression of subjectivity. Humans have a true, developed subjectivity. They have gone beyond the proto-self of the more complex social animals; humans are and know that they are.

    Knowing that one ‘is’ involves defining what one is, which includes things like ‘purpose’ and ‘value’. This is the beginning of peculiarly human forms of suffering, but also of all ideation. There cannot be ideation without a subject who has the idea. The subject is as much construct as the object, but always in the background; object, obviously, is whatever’s in the foreground of attention.

    As the self develops in complexity it produces more complex thoughts and can do more complex things with nature. Because nature is all of one piece, learning to manipulate it even for ‘trivial’ reasons will always lead to learning to manipulate it for ‘serious’ reasons. (Oscar Wilde might have a word or two to say about this distinction)

    I think it would be impossible for evolution to create self-aware creatures with genuine intelligence that were on a short mental leash of pragmatism. Doesn’t the notion sound like an oxymoron? A self-aware being that merely labours for pure survival, like an ant, in total austerity, devoid of philosophy or spirituality? Something obvious is being overlooked through excessive abstraction and mechanistic approaches.

    I just read the Dissanayake article – she’s definitely onto something with her ideas about special transitional moments, and “the ability to shape and thereby exert some measure of control over the untidy material of everyday life.” – yeah, that sounds good enough, but I think it would be reductive to say “this is the point of it and why it evolved.”

    I just think it’s innate to selfhood and will opportunistically serve whatever function it can as we go along. Now it’s a major way to make money and attract mates.

    I say, think of art as something with the same roots as other forms of mentation, rather than some oddball phenomenon. I think it only stands out from, say, conversation because we don’t display conversations in galleries. Except when they’re in the letters of historical VIPs.