Sociobiology and Art

Philosophy and Literature 23 (1999): 451-57.

Denis Dutton

Why have no great novels been written about income tax preparation? Will there someday be a lasting novel, play, or film which treats the theme tax preparation? This is a serious question. After all, preparing income tax forms is an important aspect of modern life, involving calculation, risk, and moral choice. Moreover, it provides an experience that is nearly universal. Over the years, we have seen it now and again argued in the pages of this journal that it is a function of literature to provide imaginative practice or exercise for the challenges and experiences of life. If that’s so, why doesn’t fiction treat something as familiar, onerous, and challenging as preparing income tax returns?

I borrow the example from Brett Cooke. Along with Jan Baptist Bedaux, he has edited Sociobiology and the Arts (Editions Rodopi, $25.00), a collection of essays that examine the aesthetic life of our species from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. It has appeared nearly simultaneously with another similar anthology, Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts (ICUS, $16.95), which Cooke has edited with Frederick Turner. The tax remark involves questions of the boundaries of interest in any literary theme. How many people, to borrow another example, are interested in what lies a mile below the surface of Jupiter? Beyond an audience of dedicated astronomer or geologists, it would be hard to generate attention for the topic. Yet raise questions of extraterrestrial life and what it might look like, and most of us are easily fascinated. This differential interest is something that evolutionary psychology would predict. As Cooke puts it, there will be a more tireless interest on the part of the human race in, to cite a couple of random examples, the “politics of the nuclear family than in the nucleus of the atom, more in astrology than in astronomy.”

Aristotle had something like the same insight long ago, claiming, for instance, that conflict within families — cases where people who ought to love each other actually hate each other — will be a more dramatic and appealing subject-matter for tragedy, rather than, say, conflicts between strangers, however violent the latter might be. Considerations of this sort do not limit absolutely what can or cannot be the subject of a work of fiction. One can imagine a play (perhaps by Ionesco) which followed someone in filling out a tax form. In a century in which bottle racks and snow shovels have been presented as works of art, or 4’33” of silence (with the odd bit coughing or shuffling) presented as music, nothing can be ruled out a priori. But such modernist experiments, the Darwinians claim, will never for long capture the attention of the vast public for art, whose abiding concerns involve the same themes they always have from the archaic Greeks to this afternoon’s soap operas: love, death, adventure, and triumph over adversity.

The articles in Cooke’s anthologies include general schematic accounts of the theoretical principles of evolutionary aesthetics, discussions of emotion in art, analysis of specific works, such as Crime and Punishment, in light of adaptive mechanisms, so-called supernormal distortion in art, and expressive and content universals in culture and art. There are essays on the history of theatre and on science fiction. Frederick Turner presents seductive accounts of the sociobiology of beauty and Nancy L. Easterlin argues that there is little about literary values that can be predicted on the basis of general cognitive predispositions. In Biopoetics, Cooke assembles the many scattered discussions of art by E.O. Wilson, who naturally come away sounding a far more dedicated humanist than most of the denizens of English departments.

As Joseph Carroll points out a few pages back in this very issue of Philosophy and Literature, it remains a profound problem for many humanists to accept any kind of a biological or evolutionary basis for the arts. I’m a little abashed to admit that I too for a long time resisted these ideas, although not always without reason. Back in the 1970s, I recall picking up a book which seemed to be on the subject that contained some sublimely naïve analysis of “art” produced by chimpanzees. In the context presented, ape painting was supposed to throw light on the art of tribal cultures. At the time, it seemed an invalid connection to make, but I’ve not understood exactly why till picking up Sociobiology and the Arts. Bedaux and Cooke include a fascinating essay by Thierry Lenain on why we should not be overeager to link our aesthetic behavior with the behaviors, however outwardly similar they may appear, of other animals. This is a mistake Lenain shows many biologists to have made, including Konrad Lorenz, Desmond Morris, and, more recently, David Henley, who argues that animal art takes us back “along a developmental continuum, toward preverbal and presymbolic beginnings,” in order to “illuminate the evolutionary pathways that lead to true expression.” These writers argue that the sense of order apparent in ape-painting is rooted in the same biological identity found in higher animals - it is the very balance, rhythm, and harmony that appeals to us in human art.

Lenain begins his demolition of this view by quoting an incisive essay, written by Meyer Shapiro in 1969, which argues that all art, or anyway all human art, sets up what he calls an “iconic field.” This may be a canvas, the wall of a cave or house, but it presents a set of possibilities and constraints, an imaginative frame, so to speak, which is exploited by the artist and becomes a source of form and meaning. In a larger sense, the iconic field is not just the physical frame or surface, but includes the general cultural background that sets up the limitations (the “style") against which artistic choices are made. In the case of ape painting, the field is determined by the paper that is handed to the chimp, but it is evident from the behavior of the animal that even the paper, with its limits, does not act as pictorial field. There is no consideration, moreover, of possible alternative tools or of using different coloring materials, both of which are intrinsic to human artistic activity. Ape painting is not a two-way transaction between material and agent, but is entirely one-way, determined by material supplied by human handlers.

What then are the chimps doing in producing their highly restricted repertoire of appealingly colorful, balanced designs, often with that characteristic fan-like structure? It seems that it is the intervention into the pictorial field with crayon or paintbrush that counts. It is making the mark that counts, not contemplating it after. The apes, Lanain explains, “never look at their own paintings once they are done with them and do nothing to keep them: to the ape, the pictorial forms exist only insofar as they are the opportunity for an active visual intervention.” They will recognize that the paintings are important to their human handler and use them to reinforce that affective bond, but that is not a matter of specifically valuing art. To think anthropomorphically for a moment, there is a pleasure we can all take in contemplating a world that we have made on a canvas or paper, however rudimentary. But there is also the pleasure simply of applying bright paint to a white surface, changing it, making something happen (I’m reminded here of childhood experiences with finger paints). Ape painting is very much of the latter sort. The chimps do not combine forms, or even alter them in ways we’d expect of a basic art activity, such as tilting the fan shape 90 degrees, or turning it upside down. This is unsurprising once we realize that it isn’t the fan shape that counts to our primate cousins, but the making of it. Lenain’s brilliant essay shows that despite shallow resemblances between human painting and ape painting, the analogies are a detour that leads to a dead end.

“In human art,” Lenain says, “the productive action is always directed toward its result and consequences — it never has this absolute operative self-sufficiency that only animals can experience.” Even human beings producing forms without intending to keep or even observe them can only do so in a context where forms are contemplated and preserved at least for some time in the normal course of events. He then makes a point both telling and deep: “The split between the act as such and its material consequences is precisely what, in the first place, makes the emergence of culture possible. It is the very condition of any symbolical relationship to the environment, implemented by language and other instituted sign systems.” It is also, he adds, the condition of making special, the process identified by Ellen Dissanayake as the most general feature of artistic behavior. In other words, the fashioning and embellishing of objects (including ritualized social patterns) of the sort we call art requires elements of human intentionality as a foundation; artistic activity is not a symbolic imposition over, as Lenain puts it, “a primitive stratum made of a purely aesthetic capacity as we find in apes.”

A refreshing and altogether positive aspect of this essay, implicitly duplicated without exception in the contributions to both volumes, is its strong recognition of the cultural character of art. The Darwinian aestheticians, in the face of a mood of scholarship since the Second World War that has used culture as a concept to explain all things human, are not reverting to an opposite extreme. Art, these writers fully accept, is a vast cultural construction built on the natural capacities and interests of human beings as a species. In this respect, evolutionary aesthetics resembles modern linguistics, which posits innate modular capacities that make language possible and structure it in predictable ways, while at the same time recognizing the immense cultural or local diversity of linguistic forms and uses. There is no forced choice here between false ideologies of all-nature or all-culture.

Lenain is one of a number of contributors to these books who either rely on the work of Ellen Dissanayake or at least allude to it. Her writings on evolutionary aesthetics are proving to be among the most suggestive and illuminating yet produced and it is an asset to both volumes that she is represented by an essay in each. In Biopoetics she summarizes her concept of “making special” as a hitherto undescribed human universal. She begins by bemoaning the generally unsatisfactory treatment of art by general evolutionary theorists, many of whom either ignore art or seem to drop it into a too-hard basket. Those who have discussed it often associate art, narrative, and music with other mental proclivities, or explain art as arising out of them. She lists these as “communication, play, display, exploration and curiosity, amusement and pleasure, creativity and innovation, transformation, the joy of recognition and discovery, the satisfaction of a need for order and unity, the resolution of tension, the emotion of wonder, the urge to explain, and the instinct for workmanship.” Each of these elements can be connected with art, though each is also intrinsic to non-art activities; none of them, she thinks, constitutes a common denominator for all the arts.

In order to find an element common to all the arts, we have to look at a higher level of generality, which Dissanayake finds in the way that human beings “intentionally shape, embellish, and otherwise fashion aspects of their world to make these more than ordinary.” Her thesis is less product- or object-oriented, and more about the manner in which art activity transforms objects and experience: the way that ordinary movements are exaggerated and made rhythmic in dance, the patterned elements are put into play in poetry, or visual experience is stylized or intensified in painting. There are two other aspects of social life which she remarks are closely connected with making special as she described it: play and ritual. Both can be self-rewarding, performed for their own sakes. Play, like art, is characterized by “novelty and unpredictability, surprise, ambiguity, fantasy, and make-believe.” Ritual “provides a form for feelings,” and can be compelling, arousing strong emotions. But art is not in her view reducible to either play or ritual, nor is it merely an epiphenomenon of these activities. Art-as-making-special has to be understood as a more general, persistent impulse in human social life.

Different aesthetic philosophies, mirroring the complexity of art itself, capture different aspects of the creation and experience of art. This appears to be the case as well with Darwinian aesthetics, where writers also reflect in their ways different strains in art and therefore in traditional philosophical aesthetics. Dissanayake’s take on art clearly belongs to the aesthetic-attitude tradition. Art for her is both a way of looking at something and a way of creating something to be viewed or understood in a special way. She does not deny the relevance and importance of whatever it is that is made special, that is, the content that is made special; she only argues that a general theory of art must step back and take broadest view of the way in which content is presented. She therefore holds that studies of preferences, such as favored colors or rhythms, or preferred musical intervals, are of limited value, however empirical and quantifiable they may be. Any such feature or element will normally count as, for example, aesthetically striking, surprising, or “beautiful” only in an artistic context: “A sociobiological account of the arts must consider when and why people universally have gone to additional trouble to employ such features or elements, including those that are beautiful, in artful ways in the temporal or spatial entities that we today call ’works of art’.” She makes the same point with persistently compelling thematic elements, such as the family-disruption or mate-selection stories which feature as central obsessions of world literature, and as much could be said about pictorial landscape preferences, which statistically include the liking of water, animals, and the combination of trees and open spaces characteristic of savannas of the Pleistocene. The discovery of statistical regularities in such preferences cross-culturally, however fascinating, does not completely explain works where this content does not appear and ipso facto do not explain art in general.

Dissanayake’s hypothesis requires at the very least suggestions as to the adaptive benefits for the groups and individuals who would have engaged in artistic behavior. Her instincts here tend to be Durkheimian: she sees making special as an impulse that built stronger, more cohesive human communities in human prehistory. She summarizes four beneficial elements at play in art practices. (1) Making objects or rituals special creates the psychological illusion of control in the face of uncertainty. This psychological feature has social value, even when it is empirically false, as in much magic and religion. (2) Any activity that is made the subject of special care and attention will likely be more successful. This would include regularized skills that are developed in, say, hunting or warfare. (3) Knowledge is made more compelling and memorable by virtue of being expressed in multimedia group events and ritual ceremonies, making more effective the transmission of information across generations. (4) All of this increases survival value by inculcating cooperation and thus producing group cohesiveness and confidence: “For millennia, the transmission of a society’s moral messages took place by means of artful vehicles and encapsulated the values that sustained and perpetuated it.” For Dissanayake, the genesis of art lies in “the underlying psychobiological motivation of care and concern that leads to the deliberate use of artfulness.”

This general view of art and its place in life appears much better to account for the multilayered meanings of art than the single-aspect theories that make up most of the history of aesthetics. In aesthetics as in much of philosophy, single-aspect theories keep the academic discipline in business. For instance, the so-called problem of forgery (a trough I’ve watered at myself) is only a problem for a one-dimensional formalism that insists that a painting’s aesthetic features are merely what you see with your eyes. An adaptive psychological approach to the arts — indeed, any empirical psychology — could never in the first place accept a theory which prescribes what a work of painted art essentially ought to be (e.g., a visual surface, or a moral lesson); it can only deal with paintings and people’s experiences of them, personal and social, however simple or complex those turn out to be. This does, however, suggest what some people will see as a limitation of Darwinian aesthetics: its difficulty to deal plausibly with the modernist experiments I alluded to at the outset - snow shovels in art galleries and the like. The paradox is that it is not just art theories that can be prescriptive, but also art itself, particularly when it is as imbued with theory as much modern (and postmodern) art in fact is.

Philosophical aesthetics in the last generation or two has tended, quite understandably, to reflect the concerns of modern and postmodern art and artists. But in focusing exclusively on the questions generated by the art of our time, philosophy — or at least some of it — has lost sight of just how old and deeply embedded in human life art actually is. I’ve had colleagues for whom the central question of aesthetics seemed to be how we justify calling Duchamp’s Fountain as a work of art. (Even to raise muted objections of the most abstract sort to the assignment of Fountain to the category of art was to risk being branded a bourgeois philistine.) Biopoetics and Sociobiology and the Arts are so invigorating because the ignore modernist preoccupations in favor of the broadest possible outlook on the arts of the human race. This is an exciting new direction for aesthetics.


Copyright © 1999 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.