In the mid-1950s, young Ellen Franzen got a taste of intellectual adventure at Washington State College and set out to pursue it, the hard way.

But it could well be there was no other way. She could, she muses, have married her high school sweetheart, whom she’d followed to Pullman, and gone back to Walla Walla. Who knows?

Ellen Dissanayake with a carving of a 'yam goddess' from Papua New Guinea
Ellen Dissanayake with a carving of a ‘yam goddess’ from Papua New Guinea (Photo Ingrid Barrentine)

Instead she found herself in Sri Lanka. And Papua New Guinea. And Nigeria. She was amazed at the world she saw, but understanding it required that she take an unorthodox route. “‘What is art for?’ is not a question that bothers very many people,” the by-then Ellen Dissanayake confided in the first sentence of her first book published in 1988 (University of Washington Press), its title repeating that very question. But it bothered her. Obsessed her. And even before she’d formulated the question, she was on her way to finding the answer.

She had no idea that one day her intellectual endeavor would be discussed seriously by thinkers and scholars as diverse as child psychologists, neuroscientists, evolutionary biologists, and music theoreticians. Art is not, she argues, a set of objects or compositions or paintings. Art, rather, is the behavior that leads to those things. Neither is art handed down only to a select few sensitive souls. Art, she says, is “making special,” an act that gives us belonging and meaning. It is passed from mother to child. Its origins lie deep in the human past. It makes us human.

Ellen Franzen arrived in Pullman in 1953 as a music major. WSC suited her, because it was closer to her Walla Walla home than the University of Washington, but farther than Whitman. She wasn’t clear what she wanted to do. She was a pianist. But she didn’t plan to be a professional pianist, nor a music teacher. Then, unexpectedly, a door opened.

Washington State students at the time were required to take four science classes. She’d avoided science in high school and dreaded the requirement. But she heard that geology was easy. So she tried that. She got a B. The next semester she took biological science, and it changed her life.

The teacher, Winslow Hatch, turned many people on to biology as a process, she says. She remembers his teaching the life history of an apple tree. She loved the class and got an A. She signed up for human physiology, with Donald Farner. And astronomy, with Sidney Hacker.

She stopped taking piano and became a general studies major. Besides science, she took literature and philosophy. Her first aesthetics class was at WSC. And then she found herself in the Potter House.

Philosophy professor Frank Potter and his wife Irene opened their house to students and faculty, for music and conversation. The house was the epitome of a scholar’s house, she says, fabric wallpaper and books all around. She remembers Potter and mathematician Don Bushaw, who would later become vice provost for instruction, playing chess. By the time Franzen wandered into the Potters’ living room, it had become a serious training ground for Rhodes Scholars.

Male Rhodes Scholars, that is. Women scholars were rare in the mid-50s. Mrs. Potter took Franzen under her wing. Not only did she learn how to make bread, but her mind was nourished as well. The intellectual excitement in the house was infectious and intoxicating–“the kind of life I wanted to have.”

At the end of her junior year, Franzen was tapped for Phi Beta Kappa and also received the J. Horace Nunemaker Fellowship, awarded to the student who had the promise of making a contribution to the humanities. It was for $150.

Her senior year, Franzen met a fellow Phi Beta Kappan, John Eisenberg ’57, a zoology major, and they started dating. They married right after graduation and left for Berkeley, where he had a fellowship to pursue ethology, the study of animal behavior.


SO ELLEN FOUND HERSELF an aspiring good wife to an aspiring great man.

It wasn’t a bad life. She typed his papers, read journal articles for him and made notes, entertained his friends. They went to Europe together, visited zoos, studied animal behavior.

And she started putting some ideas together, making connections. Using her one year of German and a dictionary, she translated a paper for Eisenberg by a German ethologist on animal play. It struck a nerve. “I thought that sounds a lot like art.”

Meanwhile, they moved to the Washington D.C. area, where Eisenberg took the newly created position of resident scientist at the National Zoo. In Washington, she started looking at paintings, of which there were few in Pullman and Walla Walla. To occupy herself during Eisenberg’s frequent travels, she studied toward a master’s degree in art history.

Along the way, she says, amidst the zoos and art museums and animal behavior, “I learned to think like a Darwinist. I realized that humans are animals and that we have behaviors that evolved.”

The Eisenbergs went together to Madagascar for a Smithsonian-sponsored project and then Ceylon, which is now Sri Lanka, where Eisenberg and a team studied elephant ecology and behavior.

Back in D.C., for one of her graduate classes, she wrote a paper on the psychobiology of art and play. Through Eisenberg, science writer John Pfeiffer learned of it, leading to the first mention in print of Dissanayake’s thinking, in his book The Emergence of Man, published in 1969.

Dissanayake headed back to Sri Lanka and eventually married S.B. Dissanayake, a professor of dentistry with an interest in public health, whom she’d met while living there earlier. With her husband, Dissanayake started learning about traditional society. He was sophisticated and western-trained, but came from a village. So with him, she attended traditional weddings, funerals, exorcism ceremonies, and other Sri Lankan cultural activities.

In her third book, Art and Intimacy, she describes watching Sri Lankan fishermen pull in their nets: “In Sri Lanka, on seaside holidays, we always stopped to watch fishermen on the beach pulling in their long, strong, handmade nets that twice daily were laid several hundred yards out to sea. In two widely spaced rows of perhaps twenty persons each, boys and men would spend an hour or more chanting and rhythmically pulling while moving backward in heavily accented steps, the rows gradually coming together, leaving loops of rope behind them on the sand. Periodically, the person at the end of a row would go to the front, and everyone else would move back to accommodate him. As the net was drawn nearer the shore and the two rows came closer together, the chanting increased in speed and amplitude along with the men’s movements, growing to a climax as the catch–a tight bag of glittering living fish that seemed to pulse like a heart–was dragged onto the sand.”

That rhythm and collaboration, the communal effort and the beauty of the effect are at the heart of Dissanayake’s ideas. It is a rhythm that began in the distant past, with our Pleistocene ancestors. It is a communicative rhythm, ancient and fundamental. It began, she proposes, with the intimate communication between mother and child, the baby talk, the singsong. It is expressed through dancing and lovemaking, through military drill, through ritual, through “making special,” through art.

Her thinking shifted into higher gear. Encouraged that her paper on play and art was favorably reviewed by anthropologist Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape (1967), and published by Leonardo, a journal of art, science, and technology, she wrote to Morris about her developing ideas about ritual, play, and art and their evolutionary origins.

And she asked him a favor. She would come to England and be his secretary in exchange for having access to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, one of the largest and oldest libraries in Europe.

Morris did her one better. He referred her situation to anthropologists Lionel Tiger and Robin Fox at Rutgers, who were directors of the re
cently formed Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation and could give her a grant to study at the Bodleian.

From her study there came her first book, What Is Art For?, which laid out her general hypothesis of how art emerged.

But she had only started. Her husband’s public health work took them to Nigeria and Papua New Guinea, where she found much more ethnographic evidence for her ideas. And then another door opened.

An article she published in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism caught the attention of David Mandel, a retired lawyer with an interest in human evolution and art. He offered to endow a lectureship for her at the New School in New York City.

The lectureship gave Dissanayake enough money to fly from Sri Lanka to New York and to sublet an apartment for four months. She taught two hours a week and spent the rest of her time preparing for the next class. Much of this material went into her new book, Homo Aestheticus.

When her lectureship ended and she returned to Sri Lanka, she realized that she had much yet to do in the U.S. She was excited about academic life and sharing her ideas. She had found she loved teaching. And so she left her adopted country and her husband and returned to the New School.

But the school could not afford to pay her what her patron had. So, while still teaching at the low adjunct salary, she took a job as a transcription typist. She was a pianist, with good hand-eye coordination. She could earn enough money in three days to support herself while she did her research. Also, everyone else in her office was a writer, a dancer, a musician, a Broadway aspirant. She was with kindred spirits, and it beat waiting tables.

One day she transcribed an interview with neuropsychologist Colwyn Trevarthen about his work with mothers and babies. She wrote to him and said she was working on a PBS television series called The Mind. “I didn’t tell him I was typing it.” She sent him a copy of What Is Art For?

He wrote back and said yes, they were on the same wavelength. She went to Scotland to study with him for 14 months, gathering much of the material for her third book, Art and Intimacy.

The precursors to the sorts of abilities and sensitivities that became art, Dissanayake reasoned, are in mother-infant interactions. Two million years ago on the African savannah, she says, early humans showed two major trends–enlarging brains and an upright stature. As human ancestors began to walk upright, a number of physiological and anatomical changes were required in neck, spine, hips, legs, and feet. And, significantly, the pelvis. As female pelvises became narrower and babies’ heads became bigger, childbirth became a problem.

Various adaptations, including the soft spot, which allows the baby’s head to compress, addressed the problem. Also, significant brain growth takes place after birth. Finally, the gestation period in relation to fetus maturity shrunk. It has been estimated that if human babies were as mature at birth as baby chimps, we would have a 25-pound baby following a 21-month gestation period.

Because this is not the case, the result is a very helpless baby that needs a lot of care for a long time. All primates are good mothers and very close to their children. So human mothers would have been predisposed to take care of their babies.

But for two or more years? says Dissanayake. Especially this completely helpless demanding being that can’t cling and needs to be carried everywhere or watched constantly.

“So I suggest that the mother-infant interaction that we now call baby talk, a kind of performance that mothers and infants create together, is a way of creating and reinforcing emotional bonds.

“When you talk to babies, you look straight into their eyes, which is a very unusual thing.“You make these strange faces, you open your eyes really wide [raises voice], ‘hi, ooh, look at you, are you hungry?’ You lean forward like this. You nod your head or bob it back like that. Your eyebrows are lifted. Your smile is wide. You pat rhythmically and reach out to and touch and, of course, hold and rock.

“All of these are exaggerations of what are called affinitive, or affiliative, behavior. Open mouth, smiles, eyebrow flash, nodding, touching–these are all things that we do with each other to show that we’re relaxed and in synch, that we’re friendly.

“So I consider this to be what biologists call a ‘ritualized behavior’ that insured that mothers liked their babies because it reinforced brain circuits for affiliation in their own brains. Babies call that forth from their mothers–they like the exaggerations and repetitions much better than normal conversation and reward such antics with their kicks and coos and smiles. It’s an evolved behavior between the two of them.

“Babies that made their mothers act in that sort of way were taken care of better, and mothers who acted in that sort of way felt more like taking care of their babies. So it evolved over many, many generations.

“The raw material was there, in the affinitive signals. It gradually became this universal behavior. All over the world it’s been shown that mothers and adults talk to infants with a higher pitched voice, and I’ve got photographs of these ritualized facial expressions in adults from Papua New Guinea, Africa, the South American rainforest—all over the world. And you can see babies attracting such behavior from complete strangers in the departure areas of any airport.”

These interactive rhythms of mother and child, argues Dissanayake, translate to the rhythms and modes of communal ritual. In the introduction to Art and Intimacy, she writes, “I explore the bodily origins and interconnections of the felt rhythms of art and love, tracing them to what may appear to be inconsequential or even unlikely psychobiological beginnings in the earliest months of individual infancy.”

Just as the survival of the human infant during the long evolution of humans depended on the relationship it inspired in the mother, so the survival of early hunter-foragers depended on the cohesion of the group. It required “not only resourceful, competitive individuals but also strongly bonded social groups that could work together with confidence and loyalty, convinced of the efficacy of their joint actions.

“In ritual ceremonies, people use alterations to the voice, face, and body in ‘ritualized’ ways–they formalize, regularize, repeat, exaggerate, and elaborate–creating costume, ornament, song, dance, literary language, enhanced surroundings. These attract attention, maintain interest, and create emotion. As people focus, respond, and participate together, they feel bound together. And such collaboration helps to relieve stress and anxiety about the subjects of the ceremonies–finding food, assuring fertility and prosperity, healing, being safe in battle or the hunt.”

Dissanayake draws on work by anthropologists who have pointed out that rituals are always times of transition between one state and another–between childhood and puberty, between unmarried and married, between death and the afterlife, between nonexistence and birth, between want and plenty, between illness and health. People seek good outcomes, to their battles, their hunts, their children’s lives. Rituals, which may or may not make the game come or make the rain fall or make the baby get well “turned out to be adaptive in human societies because they gave people something to do in times of anxiety rather than everyone independently trying to figure out what to do.”


SUDDENLY IT WAS 1995. Dissanayake had been in New York for eight years. But she could no longer afford to live there. Gentrification was rampant, and her $600 a month apartment was now $1,200. She simply couldn’t spend that many days typing and be able to do anything else.

Her parents invited her to come out to Port Townsend and live with them while she wrote her next book. So she did. “It was a good place to write a book,” she says. “In fact it was like receiving a writer’s grant to a beautiful place with delicious home-cooked meals and a view of mountains and bay.”

Assemblage by Anchorage artist Don Mohr constructed from an old Dictaphone, from an exhibition, What is Art for?
Assemblage by Anchorage artist Don Mohr constructed from an old Dictaphone, from an exhibition, What is Art for? (Photo Ingrid Barrentine)

She spent three years writing Art and Intimacy and finished it in 1998. She decided to move to Seattle and as far as possible recreate her New York life, which meant no car, and walking or taking the bus wherever she needed to go. There’s a grocery on the corner, and she exercises at the hospital down the street.

By this time she was becoming better known in a number of disciplines and was receiving invitations to talk about her ideas. She got a distinguished professorship for a semester at Ball State in Indiana, which paid well, giving her enough money to make a large down payment on the co-op apartment she lives in on Capitol Hill.

She recently acquired an affiliate professor title with the University of Washington, where she’d earlier been a visiting scholar. It’s a distinction without a difference, she says. No office, no money. But she has faculty privileges at the library (“the crucial thing”) and a business card. She can attach the university’s name to hers whenever she attends a conference or publishes a paper.

But she’s still basically on her own, a scholar outside the walls of academe.

It could be argued that what she has done would not be possible within a university. Her interests are simply too broad to fit neatly in a conventional academic department. So what is she? What does she call herself? “I used to say, as a joke, paleo-anthro-psycho biologist of art. But it sounded like I was showing off. People didn’t get the joke.”

So how is she introduced? “Maybe best is ethologist, or evolutionary psychologist of the arts.”

Regardless of what title applies, her journey from Pullman to the present has been, to say the least, unique. “When I look back it’s hard to believe it turned out so successfully,” she says.

Indeed, a quick survey of her publications and speaking engagements over the past year indicate a scholar who has firmly established her ideas and made an impressive impact on a number of fields. Still, depending on Social Security checks augmented with lecture fees and book sales, Dissanayake says she lives modestly.

But her apartment, in a lovely brick building on a quiet street on Capitol Hill, is rich in the art that reflects her career and travel. In the corner leans a four-foot high wooden carving, a “yam goddess” from Papua New Guinea. It is roughly hewn, but beautiful. It was rescued from a refuse pile after being used in a ceremony. For its maker and the ceremony’s participants, its importance was in the making and using.
In the epilogue to Art and Intimacy, Dissanayake proposes an aesthetic hierarchy based on her work. The most elemental and primary response she calls “accessibility coupled with strikingness.” Within the field of evolutionary psychology, this first level reflects the sorts of features that most people commonly consider “beautiful” because of their association with biologically valuable things. Bright colors and smoothness remind us of fresh fruit and youth and health. Park-like landscapes tend to be people’s favorite, an evolutionary memory of the savannah where humans first became human.

The fourth and highest level of aesthetic response in her naturalistic aesthetics is what she calls “satisfying fullness,” that rare, transcendent response to art in which one feels as if “something has been accomplished by the work or activity, and a sense of completeness or sufficiency is felt–rightness and even perfection.”

And can she offer an example?

“Yes,” she says. “My first experience was in Pullman, Washington, in Bryan Hall, when I was about seventeen years old, listening to the Boccherini Quintet. They played a slow movement that as it unfolded affected me so strongly. It was a complete surprise. I found myself crying, as if I had entered a transcendent realm. This experience is probably the source of my desire to understand the arts and their power. Since that time I’ve been able to understand a lot, but experiences like this cannot be ‘explained’ or ‘analyzed’ in any way that is commensurate with the transformation that I felt.”

Native American petroglyph in central Arizona
Photograph of a Native American petroglyph in central Arizona, approximately 1000–1200 CE. By Ekkehart Malotki, Professor Emeritus of Languages at Northern Arizona University. Ellen Dissanayake is currently collaborating with Malotki and others to investigate the oldest rock art paintings and engravings in the American West.


On the Web

Read a transcript of an interview with Ellen Dissanayake (WSM Spring 2007)