The Art Instinct

Reviewed by John Onians

The Wilson Quarterly, Summer 2009


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


This is a book about art that celebrates human nature. The triumphs of culture are the product not of fashion, but of deeply rooted instincts. In a tour-de-force both of analysis and synthesis he shows that the most compelling works of art in all media, and in all societies, from the most urban to the most scattered, share common attributes. Indeed, these attributes are so universal that they are best understood not as having been built up by a process of “social construction” in the last millenia, but as forged by the powerful selective pressures to which our ancestors were exposed during the Pleistocene period, “the evolutionary theatre in which we acquired the tastes, intellectual features, emotional dispositions, and personality traits that distinguish us from our hominid ancestors” (pp. 23-44). It is the consequences of this exposure that are then explored in a series of forensic investigations which develop into major reconsiderations of some of the central problems of aesthetics.

Sometimes discussion is partisan and focuses on a particular artistic manifestation, as in the initial reflection on the common preference of populations all over the world, from Kenya to Iceland, for bluish landscapes containing grass, a few trees and some water. This taste results, Dutton argues, not from contemporary exposure to such images on calendars, as philosopher Arthur Danto has claimed, but from an inborn taste for a landscape resembling the African savannah environment in which our ancestors thrived during the Pleistocene, as argued by the biologist Gordon H. Orians. Sometimes reflection is more abstract, as in his rejection of the claim by supporters of the “institutional theory” of art that it is only what different people at different times put into galleries, in favor of the view art is a category universally recognized from New Guinea to New York. Sometimes his viewpoint is truly Olympian, as in his identification of the cluster criteria that define art: direct pleasure, skill and virtuosity, style, novelty and creativity, and so on. As he says, these are qualities that can be found throughout all the arts and throughout the world, being manifest to different degrees in Sepik shields, Schubert songs, and Shakespeare’s sonnets, and can be treated as providing a “neutral basis for theoretical speculation” (p.51).

Dutton involves many leading thinkers in such speculation, philosophers and biologists, sociologists and evolutionary psychologists. Some he challenges, others he co-opts. Always he is incisive, as in the chapter “But They Don’t Have Our Concept of Art,” in which he analyzes and robustly responds to the claims of some anthropologists that the artefacts of the communities they study escape Western conventions. Usually, and in spite of his evident impatience, he is respectful, allowing his opponents to have their say before disposing of them.

He is less convincing when advancing his own core idea, that all the activities he groups together as artistic are the product of a rich but unitary mental inclination shaped by sexual selection. Darwin had proposed this mechanism to explain such excesses as the peacock’s tail, which were apparently incompatible with the economy of “natural selection,” and Dutton invokes it to explain the richness and elaboration of art. It was the persistence of the selective pressures associated with the choice of a mate that led to the development of a single “art instinct.” Although he works hard to defend this suggestion against the notion that the many different forms of artistic activity are simply spin-offs from a myriad of abilities shaped by the broader mechanism of natural selection, he is unable to explain the advantage of his reductive view.

The very complexity of artistic expression would suggest that it had deeper roots than the need to impress and attract a mate. His position is also undermined by his own brilliant last chapter. There he weakens his own claim for the unity of the arts by showing that smell and hearing, although equally important as senses, are each associated with quite different potentials as vehicles of expression. Had he brought in the sense of sight as well, the range would have been even greater. In the light of these observations, his own earlier argument sounds less compelling, and he himself voices doubts about it with the blunt admission that “annexing music wholly to the procreative interests in the way that sexual selection suggests misses a great deal of the art as we understand it today.” As he goes on to point out, “much music-making is communal on a large scale (chorus or orchestra before a large audience), whereas love-making remains cross-culturally a private transaction” (p.218). If he had brought in verbal and visual art he would only have reinforced the point. At the end of his chase the single explanation eludes him.

Still, the odd bent feather does nothing to diminish the overall achievement of this peacock’s tail of a book. Taking us on a world tour of creative masterpieces and exploiting a rich spectrum of the mind’s resources, logic, thought experiments, and concepts such as reverse engineering, to explore the mysteries of their origin in the human mind, Dutton succeeds in his broader goal, to persuades us that we will never understand human culture unless we understand human nature. His emphasis on sexual selection may be excessive and his prejudice against Duchamp’s Fountain obsessive, but overall the courageous examination of art in the light of philosophy and science is exceptionally fruitful. Violin sonatas, poems and paintings all move us because they resonate not with the rest of culture but with neural resources selected for by the pressures of evolution.

University of East Anglia