Art Redefined by Darwin

by Todd Shy

Raleigh News & Observer, February 1, 2009

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

Denis Dutton’s ranging new book, The Art Instinct, extends the insights of Darwinian evolution to the realm of art. “Given their evident universality,” Dutton writes, “the pleasures of the arts should be as easy to explain as the pleasures of sex and food; that they are not is a central problem for anyone wanting to broaden the relevance of evolution to the whole of human experience.”

A philosophy professor and founder of the Website Arts & Letters Daily, Dutton advances his “Darwinian aesthetic” with eclectic gusto. Analyses of Aristotle, Hume, and Kant follow a long discussion of calendar art and the seemingly universal appeal of a certain style of painting (bluish landscapes with people and some water). Dutton relentlessly offers connections between modern artistic preferences and the adaptations of our ancestors in the Pleistocene era, over a million years ago. He explains how an expansive vocabulary is a robust sexual trait (rare good news), how a chimpanzee with a paint brush is having fun but not making art, and why a perfectly executed forgery still leaves us cold. We read about Duchamp and Hopi pottery, Dickens and sports, the aesthetics of sound and smell, and major debates within evolutionary psychology. All books nourished by Darwin should be so fertile.

Dutton’s purpose, however, is not to celebrate the sheer fecundity of art but to demonstrate that art is an extension of evolutionary adaptations, and not, as the late Stephen Jay Gould and others have maintained, a by-product of adaptation, the gratuitous activity of our oversized brains. The issue at stake is larger than terminology. If Dutton is right and an art instinct is part of an “innate human nature,” then at least some standards of art can be recognized across cultures — biology can drive aesthetics. The lingering strangeness of The Art Instinct, in fact, is that Darwinism, which has so decisively upended traditional notions of human nature, is used here to buttress traditional notions of art: the universality of preferences and criteria, and “the vital place of beauty, skill, and pleasure as high artistic values.” The book’s argument at one level is an interesting imaginative exercise: If art is a universal phenomenon, why and how did it emerge? But it also poses a critique throughout of cultural relativism, as in the words of one of the chapter titles: “But They Don’t Have Our Concept of Art.”

To make his case, Dutton argues that the arts, like any other adaptation, offered our ancestors advantages for survival and reproduction. As an example of a survival advantage, he notes how storytelling both transmits information and expands our sense of human behavior. Fiction, Dutton writes, in a nice summary phrase, provides us with “mental maps for emotional life.” Reading is sometimes seen as a private escape or withdrawal from the real world, but the best books expand our understanding of the world with greater variety and concentration than lived experience.

But art is always more than a reservoir of wisdom. Survival is an inadequate explanation because, like a cumbersome peacock tail, art is always too inefficient and wasteful: “The arts squander brain power, physical effort, time, and precious resources. Natural selection, on the other hand, is economical and abstemious.” With Darwin as with Freud, sex must be given center stage to explain why we do what we do.

Since most of us were taught to think of Darwinism as utterly random and without purpose — “brute physical survival” — Dutton’s introduction of what he calls our “self-domestication” is striking: “Other animals aside, it is absolutely clear that with the human race, sexual selection describes a revived evolutionary teleology — the reintroduction of intentional, intelligent design into the evolutionary process. The designer, however, is not a deity but human individuals themselves.” Art is an adaptation related to this process because art can demonstrate our fitness, our desirability to a mate. While it’s not hard to think of artistic qualities that might signal a good catch (capacity to understand complexity, creativity, originality, unusual skill, eloquence), it’s also not hard to see why artists are often relational disasters. As the rock star knows better than the screenwriter-waitress, art can attract potential partners through a display of impressive talent: Pollock’s big drip canvases as wags of a very mighty peacock tail.

But the connection between the mysteries of love and attraction with the equally mysterious drive to produce and appreciate art is, here, too easily made, especially as Dutton grounds the argument in prehistory: “Every Pleistocene man who chose to bed, protect, and provision a woman because she struck him as, say, witty and healthy, and because her eyes lit up in the presence of children, along with every woman who chose a man because of his extraordinary hunting skills, delightful sense of humor, and generosity, was making a rational, intentional choice that in the end built much of the human personality as we now know it.”

This scenario from a time period a hundred thousand years or so before Christ is both too good to be true and too rational to be love. Dutton’s overall argument is vigorous and wonderfully provocative, but it stakes so much on the deep roots of the art instinct that this overreaching connection to a kind of rational Eros is problematic to say the least.

Todd Shy, who teaches at Cary Academy, is a frequent contributor to these pages.