The aim of Dissanayake’s work over several decades has been to identify aspects of the deep structure of the arts. That is to say, there are underlying principles of our nature as humans that influence the making of our own arts and our responses to the works of others. In this lecture, Dissanayake proposes two sources for these underlying aesthetic principles. One is our prehistoric past, when all humans lived as hunter-gatherers and faced common existential problems; the other is our past as individuals, who all began life as helpless infants. Universal emotional needs and artistic proclivities arise from our biological nature as humans, and are intrinsic to who we are as individuals and as a species.

This Power Lecture took place on 22 March 2013, as part of the Sydney Ideas program at the University of Sydney.



Ellen Dissanayake is an independent scholar, author and lecturer whose writings about the arts synthesise many disciplines, including evolutionary biology, ethology, cognitive and developmental psychology, cultural and physical anthropology, neuroscience, and the history, theory and practice of the various arts. Combining her interests in the arts and evolutionary biology, and using insights drawn from fifteen years of living and working in non-Western countries (Sri Lanka, Papua New Guinea, India and Nigeria), she has developed a unique perspective that considers art to be a necessary component of our evolved nature as humans. She is the author of three books—What Is Art For? (1988), Homo Aestheticus (1992) and Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began (2000)—as well as over seventy scholarly and popular articles and book chapters. For more information about Ellen, click here.