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.Â 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.”