Review: The Art Instinct, by Denis Dutton

by Martin Kemp

The New Scientist, January 28, 2009

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, by Denis Dutton, Bloomsbury, 278 pp., $25.00.


DOES art evolve? Clearly the arts, specifically visual arts, undergo progressive changes. Skills develop — whether in the technical sense, as with the progressive mastery of the oil medium in painting from the early Renaissance to the masterpieces of Titian, or in the more perceptually oriented achievements of naturalistic painting from Giotto to Constable.

Particular works, such as the Mona Lisa or Auld Lang Syne, seem to have some built-in survival mechanism that renders them “fittest” to transcend cultural environments and stand the test of time. Are these cultural icons, or “memes,” as Richard Dawkins calls them, somehow operating in an evolutionary manner?

Denis Dutton thinks so. He believes that the “art instinct” — our natural tendency to create and appreciate art — is a genetic characteristic that endows its possessors with an adaptive advantage in a process of natural-cum-cultural selection. It is as if art-making abilities benefit from the same kind of sexually selective advantages that make sense of the male peacock’s unwieldy tail.

At present, though, we are not even within touching distance of a “biology of art.” Artists and scientists still have to define mutually relevant problems in aesthetics, the history of the arts, biology and the brain sciences. Progress is hindered on one hand by the failure of most scholars of art to address the scientific issues at a high level, and on the other by the typically schematic and dated view that scientists seem to harbour about art.

We have to define mutually relevant problems in aesthetics, art history, biology and neuroscience.

We are witnessing a dialogue of the deaf. Art historians, for example, tend for the most part to concentrate on artefacts in their social context. If theories of beauty are involved, it is as beliefs specific to a particular societal group rather than as absolute, enduring standards. On the other hand, neurologists are often hooked on a monolithic concept of art as beauty, one based broadly on Kant’s idea that art is devoid of any purposeful function.

Where does Dutton, a philosopher of art, stand in this fragmented picture? In his new book, he has bravely proposed a coherent notion of the “art instinct” as a product of evolution in the strictly biological sense. It is a substantial contribution to the debate we ought to be having.

However, nowhere in The Art Instinct does Dutton mention Dawkins’s concept of the selective survival of persistent cultural motifs, not even to dismiss it. The spate of writings on “neuro-aesthetics” does not feature at all. His main resources instead come from anthropology, philosophical aesthetics, art history and the cultural linguistics of Steven Pinker. This range, he might fairly claim, is enough to get on with at present.

In those issues he does address, which are indeed important, he depends on an idea of art that prevailed from Kant, through the institutionalising of art, to the end of modernism. Dutton’s list of criteria that define art includes novelty, critical dialogue and expressive individuality, emphasising communication between one human soul and another. In other words, he wants to rescue an idea of art specific to a certain notion of aesthetic value in western thought and apply it universally to artefacts from all image-making societies.

We should not, Dutton rightly argues, deny our category of art to societies that have not formulated the concept. While we can fairly talk, for instance, about ritual in societies that have not developed that collective concept, we cannot ride roughshod over functions for images from other cultures which are not at all in line with our conventional aesthetic criteria. Rather, let us consider that the conventional definition of art is dealing with a set of characteristics in which separate subsets might be operative in any given society — without all subsets necessarily sharing any given, essential elements. This will allow us to loosen the shackles on how we analyse the role of visual images. There will be shared elements, but not a rigid set of core criteria.

On the biology side, Dutton’s argument depends on a simplistic idea of evolution that does not take on board recent demonstrations of the extreme complexity of gene-to-function correspondence, the role of gene regulatory networks and the levels of functional redundancy in the system, not to mention the thorny issue of group selection. Instead, he characterises art in a simple genetic framework as a central adaptive and selective factor in recent human evolution, diverting Pinker’s idea that art-making is a by-product of other adaptive traits.

There are huge problems with this. The first is that cultural characteristics are learned. Cultures and cultural expressions may be inherited and evolve in the sense that they develop progressively over generations, but it is far better to categorise art as resulting from the development of socially acquired characteristics than from biological evolution. Art is made by intentional agents, from artists to patrons, in social settings, and received by viewers who play purposeful roles not only in what is seen, but also with how it is seen. Intentional agents have no role in Darwinian mechanisms of natural selection.

The second difficulty is one of timescale. To posit significant, large-scale genetic selection in favour of art-makers over the relatively short time span that humans have been documented to create art seems to run against what we know of the mechanisms of change in protein-coding genes. And if art-making conveys significant evolutionary advantages, it is strange that the proportion of skilled art-makers does not seem to have increased over time. There is no sign that we are all becoming artists, thank goodness.

This is not to say that “art and evolution” is a non-topic, but neither of the terms as they stand serve us well. What we need is a programme to understand how image-making capacity, including art in Dutton’s sense, serves a range of functions, including pleasure in the aesthetic sense, and how these relate to those intellectual, intuitive, inventive, imaginative and memetic capacities that we have indeed evolved. We are only at the beginning.

Martin Kemp is emeritus professor of the history of art at the University of Oxford