Why certain people become artists is a question that perplexes evolutionary theorists, who see no obvious way that making art helps perpetuate the species. While their attempts to explain this apparent paradox remain controversial, researchers in this field have discovered a tantalizing bit of information: Artists are apparently more likely to emerge from wombs that contain a greater concentration of testosterone.
At least, that’s the conclusion of psychologist Danae Crocchiola of the University of Messina, who discovered this correlation among artists living in a culturally rich New Mexico city. Her findings echo those of a 1999 study, which found a similar pattern among musicians in a British orchestra.
There are intriguing differences between the two studies. While the British researchers found this phenomenon only among male musicians, Crocchiola reports it held true for both male and female visual artists in her study.
Since “high levels of testosterone in men advertise good genes, fitness, fertility”—traits women tend to find attractive—it’s plausible that artistic ability evolved as a way for men to advertise these desirable attributes.
These findings—which need to be duplicated in a larger sample—suggest a prenatal testosterone boost may propel at least some people into creative pursuits.
Crocchiola collected data on 25 male and 25 female visual artists in Las Cruces, New Mexico, measuring the ratio of the length of their second and fourth fingers. There is considerable evidence that this ratio is a marker for prenatal testosterone levels.
After examining their right and left hands, she found both male and female artists had significantly lower second- to fourth-digit ratios than non-artists. “Surprisingly,” she adds, “no significant differences between the mean digit ratios of male and female artists were recorded in our sample.”
“These results support the hypothesis that art may represent a sexually selected, typically masculine behavior that advertises the carrier’s good genes within a courtship context,” Crocchiola concludes.
She argues that, since “high levels of testosterone in men advertise good genes, fitness, fertility”—traits women tend to find attractive—it’s plausible that artistic ability evolved as a way for men to advertise these desirable attributes.
The theory, however, does not explain why the female artists had taken similarly strong testosterone baths before emerging from the womb. That unexpected finding will undoubtedly reinforce the skepticism of those who see the evolutionary explanation as reductive.
Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating finding, one deserving of further research. If nothing else, it helps explain why so many artists feel a sense of calling or mission: Their appetite for art may have been instilled even before they were born.