Can Evolution Explain Aesthetics?

A new book argues that our appreciation of art is innate and universal. It’s clever, controversial stuff, but it may also be a dangerous development for the humanities, argues Nigel Warburton.

Prospect, April 26, 2009


The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, by Denis Dutton, Oxford Univerisity Press, 278 pp., 16.99.

Contrary to what you might have heard from creationists or advocates of so-called intelligent design, evolution isn’t just a theory. It’s something special — something that explains and is corroborated by the world’s fossil evidence, by zoological and botanical research, and by our ever more detailed understanding of natural selection and genetics. Like any scientific account, the theory of evolution could in principle be overturned. But there is no serious competition in the field — no plausible alternative explanation that fits the facts to a fraction of this degree.

So it’s true, too, that art must have a basis in our genes. Everything does. In The Art Instinct, however, Denis Dutton — the philosopher and creator of one of the most popular sites on the internet, Arts and Letters Daily — goes several steps farther.

“In this book,” he explains, “I intend to show why thinking that the arts are beyond the reach of evolution is a mistake overdue for correction.” Art, he argues, is like language — a universal human instinct that can be described via a cluster of twelve features, such as skill, style, novelty and pleasure. And art is properly studied, he argues, “as not only a cultural phenomenon, but a natural one as well.”

As befits a man whose book tour included a slot on the cult US comedy show The Colbert Report, Dutton’s prose is direct, entertaining and stylish. He never pulls his punches. Unlike most works on aesthetics, this book is a great read. The witty asides, however, should not blind us to its controversial thesis. Neo-Darwinism is certainly true. Yet Dutton’s or any other Darwinian account of art’s origins is much more speculative.

The first thing to note is that, given the patchy nature of the evidence surviving from human pre-history, Dutton’s hypotheses are to some extent Just-So stories — that is, they begin with the present and work backwards to what might have produced it. Perhaps the biggest question, as Dutton accepts, is whether art emerged as a by-product of other evolutionary developments or was itself selected for because it adapted us well to living and thriving.

The crucial period of time here is the Pleistocene era, which lasted 1.6m years and finished just 10,000 years ago. That represents about 80,000 generations of human development. Contrast this with the mere 500 generations since the first cities and you can see how insignificant recorded history is in evolutionary terms. Dutton makes a convincing case that the evolutionary origins of our innate predispositions lie in these 80,000 generations.

For example, since habitat choice was a life-and-death matter for early hunter-gatherers, it should not surprise us that human beings became innately sensitive to certain qualities of habitable landscape. Those who lacked this sensitivity were less likely to survive long enough to reproduce and, even if they did, their offspring might not have fared well. Factors such as the presence of water, lush foliage (and perhaps even climbable trees) were not merely aesthetic choices.

Dutton’s thesis is that universal features of our appreciation of landscape — our landscape aesthetic — were formed in this evolutionary theatre. As he puts it, “we are what we are today because our primordial ancestors followed paths and riverbanks over the horizon.” And painters, he suggests, have devised ways of triggering the pleasurable responses that arise from such evolved adaptations. This is controversial stuff. Landscape painting has served different functions in different cultures and ages. We might think, then, that landscape appreciation in art is all a matter of convention. Yet, according to Dutton, this is a mistake — and he backs his thesis with empirical cross-cultural findings that identify features that do indeed seem to be appreciated by almost every human being, such as a moderate degree of undulation.

Here, though, Dutton slips between two meanings of “landscape” — between the actual earth and a pictorial representation of it. Paintings, after all, are not transparent to what they depict, and conventionalists could easily resist his argument by querying the presumed Pleistocene basis for a preference for bits of canvas depicting hilly undulations. Who’s to say that this preference stems from an adaptive aspect of humanity’s pre-history and not from the widespread exchange of such pieces of canvas between different cultures over millennia? Couldn’t the two-way influence of painting traditions have created the effect of apparently universal preferences?

Another major theme in The Art Instinct is the rejection of cultural relativism. To those who would tell us that “art” simply means different things in different cultures, Dutton —who has, among other things, in-depth knowledge of the tribal art of New Guinea and of Indian sitar playing — replies that this is just not true. Like David Hume before him, he believes there are common human qualities that allow all of us to understand other cultures. We can appreciate African Baule carvings, he says, just as we can appreciate Giotto’s frescoes — because both fuse skill, artistic expression and religious tradition.Moreover, even to contrast two concepts of “art” as different is to acknowledge that they share enough fundamental traits to be comparable.

Why have an art instinct at all, though? Dutton’s answer is in part that works of art are captivating because they take us into the minds of the people that made them. Art, he argues, is an aspect of social life that is beneficial to human beings. Surprisingly, too, Dutton believes that his approach can shed light on why we are so reluctant to praise good forgeries. Authentic works reveal genuine skill and originality, and allow actual communion with other minds; forgeries don’t. From an evolutionary perspective, they are not reliable indicators of the qualities that we might seek in a mate.

According to Steven Pinker, author of The Language Instinct — the immediate intellectual ancestor of The Art Instinct —Dutton’s book “marks out the future of the humanities-connecting aesthetics and criticism to an understanding of human nature from the cognitive and biological sciences.” This may be true; but it doesn’t necessarily mean that the future of the humanities is an unclouded one. In fact, in the hands of lesser thinkers (and writers) a general invitation to speculation in this manner might be disastrous.

It is surely right, in general terms, that our psychological predispositions to make, interpret and take pleasure in works of art were largely formed in the Pleistocene period. It is true that an enhanced awareness of this will help to dispel the more extreme myths about art and meaning spread by cultural relativists. And many of Dutton’s particular suggestions are not only imaginative, thought-provoking and entertaining, but quite possibly true. But, in contrast with neo-Darwinism in zoology, Darwinist theories of art don’t lend themselves to testing and prediction at a level which is likely to discriminate between more and less valuable hypotheses. We can’t simply decode art’s DNA to unravel its origins.

Ultimately, the difference between The Art Instinct and most books on philosophical aesthetics is that many of its claims are empirical ones. If the book spawns empirical research that investigates the particular reactions to works of art that people do have, and the physiological mechanisms underlying them, then this could be a fecund development. On the other hand, tracing things reliably back to the Pleistocene requires more evidence than we have, and possibly more than we can ever have. And if the result is instead a hundred lesser philosophers than Dutton concocting Darwinian stories that may or may not be true, then the future of the humanities is bleaker than Pinker suggests.

The Open University