The Art Instinct

Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association 57 (2009): 1259 - 1263.

Reviewed by Aaron H. Esman


The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution. By Denis Dutton. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009, 278 pp., $25.00.

The Art Instinct is Denis Dutton’s ambitious effort to formulate what he calls a “Darwinian aesthetics” — that is, a theory of art and its origins founded on evolutionary principles. Dutton, professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, engages here with the burgeoning discipline of evolutionary psychology, buttressed by a wide-ranging grasp of art history and ethnology and an impressive aesthetic sensibility in his pursuit of a general theory of art in its historical and cultural contexts. Despite his respect for such predecessors as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, he is firm in his view that a lack of evolutionary concepts is a fatal flaw in earlier aesthetic theories.

Dutton’s essential argument rests on the proposition that art — or, perhaps more properly, artistic expression — is ubiquitous, a universal element of human nature and thus to be construed as reflecting an innate drive or “instinct.” Like any such global disposition, artistic expression must be understood in Darwinian terms as having survival value, originating in early hominid adaptation to the conditions of life in the African savannas of the Pleistocene era from which, it seems clear, our species emerged. If, he maintains, polls organized by the artists Komar and Melamid indicate that people in a wide variety of cultures show a generic preference for a particular type of landscape painting, this is “because our primordial ancestors followed paths and riverbanks over the horizon. At such moments we confront remnants of our species’ ancient past” (p. 28).

Other mental universals have similar origins. The incest taboo evolved, says Dutton, as early humans observed that consanguineous unions tend to produce deformed or otherwise defective offspring. (He is disdainful of what he calls Freud’s “dogmas,” and gives little credence to the notion that so powerful and universal a prohibition might, as Freud proposed, suggest an equally powerful and universal inclination.) Similarly, he has no patience with notions of cultural relativism; he explodes, successfully, I think, the notion that other cultures “don’t share our ideal of beauty.”

In essence, then, both the making and the enjoyment of art, like the use of language and other mental functions, are the products of Darwinian natural selection. He takes issue with the views of Stephen Jay Gould, who proposed that the fundamental adaptive development of early man was the evolution of the massive brain, and that the mind and its functions were “spandrels” — i.e., byproducts, “non-adaptive side consequences” of adaptation. The mind and its products, Dutton insists, like the body, have evolved in strict conformity with the process of natural selection. Thus fiction, as we know it, has evolved from the role of the storyteller, who, enchanting his audience around the prehistoric campfire, helped them to a richer understanding of the lives of others and of the wider world around them, fostering their better adaptation to their Pleistocene environment.

But, he wonders, what about notions of beauty? Why the flamboyance of the peacock’s tail? Why the richness of color and the elegance of form in the art of both Western and non-Western cultures? Why standards of quality that obtain even in so-called primitive art? Here Dutton turns to Darwin’s later construct — the phenomenon of sexual selection. Just as the peacock’s tail is designed to attract the peahen, the warbler’s song the female warbler, and the lion’s roar the lioness, so the various beauties of art, music, and dance evolved as means of demonstrating their creators’ superior reproductive fitness. “Behind every act of speaking, descriptive or artistic, looms the idea of a fitness test. . . . our admiration of skill and virtuosity itself is an adaptation derived from sexual selection off the back of natural selection” (pp. 174-75). “The sexual selectionist view is that performance in fitness tests may have begun in courtship contexts, but it eventually came to spread out and saturate the whole of human social life” (p. 190). This seems not too remote from Freud’s metaphor of “sublimation,” but Dutton passes this one by.

In the course of his exposition, Dutton provides some remarkable insights. A chapter titled “Intention, Forgery, Dada: Three Aesthetic Problems” takes the reader beyond Darwin to the examination of controversial issues for which Dutton offers carefully reasoned and highly original solutions. He argues forcefully against the doctrine of the “intentional fallacy,” favored in the New Criticism and in French postmodern circles, maintaining that “artistic creation inescapably involves a specific human voice: the voice of the author” (p. 170). “It is from an evolutionary standpoint psychologically impossible to ignore the potential skill, craft, talent or genius revealed in speech or writing. This in turn cannot be achieved without having some idea of authorial intention” (p. 176). (For some reason he includes “Freudian psychology” among the advocates of the “intentional fallacy”; given psychoanalytic criticism’s propensity for relating works of art to the artist’s biography, this charge is difficult to follow.)

Dutton’s consideration of the problem of artistic forgery (e.g., van Meegeren’s “Vermeers”) is long and convincingly reasoned. It concludes with the statement that “authenticity, which in the arts means at the most profound level communion with another human soul, is something we are predestined by evolution to want from music, literature, painting and the other arts” (p. 193).

As for Dada, Dutton considers the perpetually controversial case of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, the ceramic urinal he proposed, unsuccessfully, to display at the 1917 show of the Society of Independent Artists at the New York Armory. Captivated by its status as a philosophic gesture, its ironic commentary on established tradition, and its evocation of generations of intellectual ferment, he proclaims it, along with Duchamp’s other “readymades,” a work of “transcendent genius” (p. 201).

Dutton’s erudition, wit, encyclopedic grasp of the arts, and formidable rhetorical skills all serve to fortify his case for the foundation of the arts in Darwinian sexual selection. It is, however, a highly reductive case, one that omits consideration of at least one other profound universal human need, one shared with no other animal species. That is the need to confront and in some way master the knowledge and the threat of ultimate mortality. It is in the service of this need that the multifarious and universal manifestations of religion have evolved,1 and it seems clear that the arts have been intimately associated with them. Virtually everything we know of the arts of past civilizations — Egyptian, Mesopotamian, Etruscan, pre-Columbian — we have learned from grave goods, objects buried with the dead to accompany them on their journeys to the world beyond. Indeed, much of the corpus of Classical art that has come down to us consists of funerary stelae, richly ornamented sarcophagi, and elegantly carved portrait busts clearly intended to immortalize their subjects (and, no doubt, the sculptors who created them).

Dutton acknowledges that religion has made use of the arts. But he surely knows that even in Western culture many of the works we most venerate, from the Lindisfarne Gospels to Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, his Pietas, and Piero’s Resurrection, from Gregorian chant to Bach’s B Minor Mass (and many of his cantatas) and Mozart’s Requiem, from Beowulf to King Lear, all are addressed to concerns of death and its transcendence. Much, if not most of so-called tribal art takes the form of ancestor or reliquary figures, memorializing and propitiating the spirits of dead ancestors. As the history of iconoclasm shows, religion without the arts tends toward sterility. And it is also true that, in our culture as well as others, for many if not most artists their work serves them, in fantasy at least, as a talisman against death and, particularly the painted portrait, as a ticket to immortality (see, e.g., Picasso).

At the same time, Dutton acknowledges that “most great artists . . . demonstrate a rare and often obsessional commitment to solving artistic problems in themselves. . . . the art itself is the transcendent good and not a reflection of something else” (p. 240). Their spiritual commitment, if it can be called that, is to their art itself; given this motivational autonomy, it is not clear where sexual selection comes into play. Independent ego interests and narcissistic aims might, were Dutton so disposed, come into consideration here.

There is a certain hubris in Dutton’s claims. He acknowledges that his evolutionary theory of the arts is dependent on an “unrecoverable prehistory” (p. 217) — though he often writes as though he has indeed recovered it. Still, The Art Instinct is an important book. It undertakes to raise philosophic reflections on art and aesthetics from the realm of metaphysics to that of contemporary cognitive and biological science, and does so with clarity and literary skill. Over time, contributions to our understanding of the psychology of the arts have come from many directions, each from a different perspective; in the modern era names like Dewey, Gombrich, Arnheim, Kris, and Freud come readily to mind. The house of aesthetics has many mansions; Dutton’s, the newest, will doubtless stand for a long time, though it will require and receive many additions and alterations. As it stands, it merits many visitors.

New York City


1. Freud (1927) considered this connection in The Future of an Illusion, but Dutton, scornful of Freud’s “dogmas” and “many errors,” does not choose to address it.


Freud, S. (1927). The Future of an Illusion. Standard Edition 21:5-56.