Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Depictions of violence in rock art

A street fight, via Wikipedia.
To understand the phenomena of murder, war, genocide, and other forms of human intraspecific violence, we need to know whether to invoke evolutionary biological explanations or restrict ourselves primarily to socio-cultural theories. If the incidence of violent conflict was high and recurrent for a substantial period during human evolution, and given that being killed drastically reduced fitness and killing may have increased it, then strong selective pressures would have favored physical and psychological adaptations to violence. Conversely, if interpersonal violence was rare or nonexistent until much more recently – until the rise of agriculture about 10,000 years ago, say – not enough time would have elapsed for natural selection to have forged significant new adaptations, and socio-cultural explanations of violence would thus predominate. (It should be noted, though, that recent human evolution has been very rapid, so this judgement may have to be revised in future as more evidence comes in). More precisely, whether adaptations to violence exist or not depends on the intensity of the selection pressures and their duration, and the intensity of the selection pressures is in turn a function of the frequency of violence and the magnitude of its impact on fitness. Thus, to determine the plausibility of positing traits that are adaptations to violence we need to know: (1) how frequent violence was, (2) whether it was recurrent in human evolutionary history and (3) how large its impact on inclusive fitness was.

Determining (3), of course, depends in part on the values we assign to (1) and (2). Being killed before reproduction obviously reduced fitness to zero, and being killed after reproduction eliminated all the kin altruism the individual would otherwise have engaged in. The impact on fitness of being injured depended on the severity of the injury, but it seems clear it would have been negative and serious. What we need to deduce the magnitude of (3) over human evolutionary history, then, is sound empirical estimates of (1) and (2). Unfortunately, however, these estimates are extremely difficult to make because the available evidence is sparse and often ambiguous. Broadly speaking, there are two lines of evidence available to us: studies of contemporary hunter-gatherers and the paleoanthropological and archeological record. There are several controversies around both lines of evidence, but for this post I'll focus on one type of evidence from the archeological record: depictions of violence in rock art.

A beautiful example of such a depiction is a San pictograph "Veg 'n Vlug" (Afrikaans: "Fight or Flight") that is near Clanwilliam in the Cederberg of South Africa. (Note: I've used the Auto-Level feature in Paint.NET to bring out some of the details):

John Parkington describes (large pdf; pp. 62 - 65) the scene thus:
The fight element is created by painting around a small recess in the rock surface to give the impression of a small cave from which a group of humans peer, one of them shooting arrows. A second group of humans, arranged as a procession and depicted apparently moving along a pair of red lines, face the cave occupants and also shoot arrows. From the ‘cave’ several people, most of them male, flee along more pairs of red parallel lines. One human figure, clearly lying prone is connected by these same lines to a strange seated  figure holding the end of the lines, neither of them directly connected with the cave itself. From the neck of the strange seated figure a single red line leads to another small figure with upraised arms.
Contrary to the hypothesis - favored by neo-Rousseauians like Brian Ferguson - that human evolutionary history was entirely (or largely) peaceful, then, we have at least an existence proof of such violence. Or do we? Ferguson has argued that pictographs seemingly depicting violence should not be interpreted literally, but rather metaphorically. In other words, "Veg 'n Vlug" doesn't depict an actual event, the artists meant something else entirely, or is perhaps an attempt at sympathetic magic. (To be clear, as far as I know Ferguson has never written about this specific pictograph. I'm illustrating the kind of argument he's made about other rock art depictions of violence). And there are certainly aspects of "Veg 'n Vlug" that isn't literal. Parkington continues from the above quotation:
This bald, but reasonably literal description gives no hint of the intriguing and enigmatic details that impart a deeper, but still obscure meaning to this apparently unified composition. Take the double red lines for example. They cannot, as might appear at first glance, be footprints or a path, because they connect the feet of those in the procession to the bow of one of the cave occupants and emerge from the bowstring to enter the mouth (or face) of the bow and arrow-wielding figure. The strange figure reeling in the lines from the feet of the prone, perhaps dead, figure cannot be manipulating footprints or a path in any literal way. It is likely that the double, parallel red lines are painted to illustrate some connectedness between people that is intangible but central to the meaning of the composition. The attachments to feet, hands, equipment and mouth probably indicate the nature of the connection but are not explicit enough to provide a definitive narrative.
So what does this mean? Well, clearly, the pictograph cannot be strictly literal. Perhaps the artist(s) intended to convey some, now obscure, metaphorical meaning. Perhaps aspects of the drawing represent something abstract. Contra Ferguson et. al., though, I don't think it is reasonable to conclude that a metaphorical interpretation obviates a literal interpretation.

Take my avatar and favorite painting, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery by Joseph Wright:

The painting has two, complementary, meanings. Whether Wright had in mind a specific instance of a scientist[1] demonstrating an orrery (a clockwork-driven model of the universe), it's clearly the kind of thing that went on at the time. That is, there certainly were orreries, scientists, and scientists demonstrating orreries and the painting represents an instance of the latter. The painting conveys much more than just 'such-and-such' happened, though. Many metaphorical interpretations are possible, naturally, but Wright seems to have intended it as a celebration of science, of the Enlightenment. The point could be argued, but suppose we agree A Philosopher represents the Enlightenment. Does that mean we have to abandon a literal reading? Insist that the painting tells us nothing about orreries and scientists? Obviously not. Literal and metaphorical representations can, and often do, co-exist.

What this illustrates, I'm suggesting, is that however we interpret the non-literal aspects of "Veg 'n Vlug", we need not abandon a literal reading. In other words, even if there are abstract or metaphorical meanings we can assign to the pictograph, it still depicts two groups engaging in violence. It's necessary to go a step or two further, in fact. Not only can metaphorical and literal readings co-exist, we should apply Occam's Razor and favor a kind of interpretive parsimony: the simplest interpretation - the one that requires the fewest new assumptions - is likely the correct one. And in nearly all cases, the literal interpretation is the simplest.

Whatever metaphorical or abstract readings we assign to any pictograph do not necessarily obviate literal interpretations. And interpretive parsimony - favoring the simplest possible interpretation - cautions against metaphorical readings in the first place, and demands especially strong evidence before we elevate metaphor over straightforward representation. In short, unless we have strong reasons to think otherwise, pictographs like "Veg en Vlug" represent evidence of ancient violence.

[1] The word 'philosopher' at the time had multiple meanings, one of which was what we would now call a scientist.


  1. Can I also highly recommend Wright's "Experiment with an Air-Pump" where a scientist is depicted killing a dove (spirituality) in a vacuum. This is taken as a metaphor as the death of spirituality at the hands of rationality. The irony is that the scientist is most likely Robert Boyle who was deeply religious.

  2. Thanks... I love nearly all his paintings, especially his so-called "candlelight masterpieces".

  3. Why on earth should we apply Occam's Razor here?

  4. I set out my reasons in the post. If you disagree, feel free to present an argument.

  5. "we should apply Occam's Razor" is not a reason for applying Occam's Razor, just a statement that we should.

  6. Erm. Because... erm... as a general rule of thumb, the simplest explanation is likely the correct one? And... erm... we want our explanations to be correct?

    I'm not sure I can think of any domain in which we shouldn't apply Occam's Razor. (Suitably modified, naturally).

  7. "as a general rule of thumb, the simplest explanation is likely the correct one?"

    Why should we think this applies to art? In any case, parsimony based approaches often break down. Phylogenetics is one obvious example. Reconstructing phylogenies by parsimony finds the reconstruction that requires the fewest number of evolutionary changes. Sounds good, right? But its not. It does really badly when the number of changes is actually quite large. Maximum likelihood and Bayesian approaches can get it right though.

    Art is precisely one of those cases where we might expect more complex explanations a priori. Occam's Razor is a nice heuristic that often works, but it shouldn't be used as a substitute for argument.

  8. I think you're misunderstanding Occam's Razor. It tells us to prefer the explanation that requires the fewest additional assumptions. In other words, the explanation that requires the fewest additional untested premises is likely the correct one. I know next to nothing about phylogenetic reconstruction other than what I've read in Dawkins (ha! see what I did there?), but parsimony based approaches don't necessarily seem to be an embodiment of Occam's Razor, especially if other data are available.

    My point about "Veg 'n Vlug" is simple: we need to be careful about making largely untestable assumptions about the mindset of the artist(s). Sure, maybe the lines represent the unity of mankind, the arrows our petty hatreds, and the bows our Collective Mother. But, then, maybe not. Given that we have so little information - and that there are nearly an infinite number of possible interpretations - it's entirely reasonable to frown on such speculation.

  9. I don't disagree with your main claim, but as far as making untestable assumptions about the mindset of artists, I go one step further than you: I don't think you get to rule out metaphorical interpretations. I don't think Occam's Razor works here.

    As for parsimony based approaches for phylogenetics embodying your currently espoused version of Occam's Razor, that would depend on what you consider to be assumptions/premises. There is no fact of the matter.

  10. I don't think we should rule out metaphorical interpretations either. I said specifically that interpretive parsimony cautions against metaphorical readings. Especially when it comes to art produced thousands of years ago by illiterate people.

    "currently espoused version of Occam's Razor"? :-)

  11. I see. So thats what this was about. You're just a bigot. You think illiterate societies don't have the cognitive apparatus to comprehend metaphor? And they must have ben violent...

  12. lol... You really TRY to read everything I write as uncharitably as possible, don't you?

    Illiterate societies don't leave behind written works which we can use to constrain our metaphorical interpretations. If we find a Roman-era painting of a half-man half-goat figure, say, dancing around, we can use the written information left behind by the Romans to fill in the background details and thus constrain our metaphorical readings. We can't do this with illiterate peoples.

    So, read that comment of mine again. Interpretive parsimony cautions against metaphorical readings especially when it comes to illiterate peoples. I have no doubt all behaviorally modern human beings are capable of using and understanding metaphor. (And the people who drew "Veg n Vlug" were certainly modern in this sense). With illiterate peoples, though, WE lack the ability to properly INTERPRET the metaphors THEY left behind because our imaginations are not, and cannot be, bridled by the people in question's weltanschauung.

  13. You people are so fucking boring.

  14. What tipped you off?

  15. I know your work anywhere, my love. Which is why your anonymous blog never fooled ME.

  16. Gay. Who the fuck is Jeff?