Coe, Kathryn 1942-

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COE, Kathryn 1942-


Born 1942. Education: Arizona State University, Ph.D., 1995.


Office—1295 N. Martin, Campus Mail P.O. Box 245163, University of Arizona, Tucson, AZ85724.


Anthropologist. University of Arizona, assistant professor and director, Special Populations.


The Ancestress Hypothesis: Visual Art As Adaptation, Rutgers University Press (New Brunswick, NJ), 2003.


Anthropologist Kathryn Coe's The Ancestress Hypothesis: Visual Art As Adaptation is a study of the role of art in human evolution. She considers the visual arts of traditional societies as they are passed on from generation to generation, promoting social relationships among relatives and the descendants of a common ancestor. The various forms include body art, funeral ornaments, and paintings.

Coe argues that visual art has been a tradition primarily nurtured by females and has influenced successive generations to be more cooperative with each other. The adoption of visual arts has favored natural selection, and these arts can now be found in all human societies. Coe chronicles the copying of art over thousands of years, around the world and in diverse societies, and argues "that this traditional art is related to kinship, especially ancestors, and that it often serves as a way of identifying the codescendants of those ancestors and encouraging these kin to cooperate," wrote Craig T. Palmer for the Human Nature Review Online. Palmer continued, "Coe contrasts this view of art with the common assumption that art is always creative, and specifically with Geoffrey Miller's hypothesis that art is primarily a male tactic to attract mates that has evolved via sexual selection." Palmer notes that Coe's insistence on the primacy of traditional art is hard to refute.

Coe does acknowledge that it is nearly impossible to know, from archaeological evidence, whether an item was made by a woman or a man, and that some art has been made by males or for males with an end toward creating sociability. "However," noted Palmer, "she presents a persuasive demonstration of the general lack of the type of male-made, creative, competitive, and sexual art in the archaeological record that would support Miller's sexual selection hypothesis."

According to Coe's findings, it is only during certain periods, including ancient Greece and post-Renaissance, that creativity becomes an important aspect of visual art and during which males employed art as a form of competition in attracting partners. Since these are the periods we are most familiar with, we assume that they are typical, when in fact, notes Coe, they are atypical of the creation and use of art by humans.

In the second half of the book, Coe concentrates on the general implications of her ancestress hypothesis, comparing them with current theories. Here she writes of the relationship between traditions and the concepts of altruism, sacrifice, selfishness, and reproduction. Library Journal contributor Anne Marie Lane noted that Coe "has included ample citations … proving that she knows her field well."

Palmer concluded by saying that "most readers of this book, whether artists, art historians, or evolutionary psychologists, will probably find points of disagreement. But they will also almost certainly find arguments and evidence that will provide them with new insights and make them have to seriously rethink some of their currently held positions."



Choice, July-August, 2003, W.B. Holmes, review of The Ancestress Hypothesis: Visual Art As Adaptation, p. 1895.

Library Journal, March 15, 2003, Anne Marie Lane, review of The Ancestress Hypothesis, p. 91.

Quarterly Review of Biology, March, 2004, Chris Knight, review of The Ancestress Hypothesis, p. 115.


Human Nature Review Online, (June 18, 2006), Craig T. Palmer, review of The Ancestress Hypothesis. *