Wired for Art

Can genetics explain the human appetite for beauty?

by Maureen Mullarkey

The Weekly Standard, February 3, 2009

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


Until now, no one needed a gene map to find where beauty was located. It stayed where we left it: in the eye of the beholder. Enter a gatherum of beholders, and we had a reassuring consensus that distinguished cultivated tastes — yours and mine, certainly — from the rest. It was not much of a system. Still, it had the merit of dignifying value judgments as acts of intuition rooted in individual sensibility. And it left intact the ineffable dimension of beauty.

It is time to stiffen the spine of contemporary art talk with injections of “Darwinian truth.” Denis Dutton, professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, proposes a biology of art. Taste in the arts is shaped by natural selection, he argues. It has been suggested before, this linking of culture and genetics. Last time it ended in tragedy; this is farce.

Dutton takes his cue from Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (1994), a chatty survey of a cognitive scientist’s approach to linguistics. He attempts a parallel excursion through aesthetic appreciation: “Darwinian aesthetics can restore the vital place of beauty, skill, and pleasure as high artistic values.” This book manages the semblance of a thesis while skirting the substance of one. The logical niceties of grounding aesthetics — the work of philosophers and psychologists — in the molecular depths of evolutionary biology are left in a tangle. It is assumed that somewhere in our DNA there is at least one nucleotide permutation that does more than determine the “human art instinct.” It also ratifies aesthetic preferences that align with Denis Dutton’s.

Maybe such a mechanism exists; but Dutton, a nonscientist and off-the-rack Darwinist, knows enough not to hunt for it. Better to hedge with appeals to natural and sexual selection. He bets his ambitions on one horse: The art instinct is a byproduct of biological adaptation, like male nipples and female orgasm (a subject that absorbs a baffling amount of Dutton’s attention). An artful dodger, he seizes opportunities to forgo Darwinian imperatives where it suits. The individual artist’s sacred intention is, of necessity, exempt from the tyranny of blind causality. (Tracey Emin’s unmade bed might be a random variable, but not Dürer’s etchings or a Bach cantata.)

Scrupulous inattention to contradictions in his position spares Dutton from having to clarify standards for artistic merit under a Darwinian dispensation. A messy business, taste; it invites obvious questions. How does biology account for the apparent devolution of taste that the author laments? Is bad taste an acquired characteristic or a hereditary predisposition? If artistic taste is a Darwinian fitness indicator, are the curators of the Whitney Biennial a genetic underclass? Can a yen for kitsch be identified, like the Epstein-Barr virus, and eliminated in utero? Are you wearing that ugly suit because your genes made you do it?

By the time we reach reflection on Jane Austen, Dutton’s “Darwinian Genesis for the arts” looks like one more opiate of the professoriate:

[O]ur intense interest in artistic skill, as well as the pleasure that it gives us, will not be denied: it is an extension of innate, spontaneous Pleistocene values, feelings, and attitudes. ... Our admiration of skill and virtuosity itself is an adaptation derived from sexual selection off the back of natural selection.

Pleistocene values? He knows what they were? He’s read their stuff? The paragraph says more about faculty room culture than it does about literature. With the Western philosophical canon shriveled to a bookend for The Origin of Species, Dutton has little basis for engaging what it is about Jane Austen’s fiction that ultimately matters: its moral dimension. Grace of mind — a signal to the old Scholastics of the beauty of moral harmony — is not explicable in physical terms. And moral purpose is not admissible.

Charles Darwin himself, in The Origin of Species, was less dogmatic than his acolyte:

How it comes that certain colors, sounds, and forms should give pleasure to man and the lower animals — that is, how the sense of beauty in its simplest form was first acquired — we do not know any more than how certain odors and favors were first rendered agreeable.

In 1985, Max Delbrück, a Nobel Laureate and one of the world’s most eminent biologists, published his lectures on evolutionary epistemology. His Mind from Matter? opens this way:

So far as I can tell, our science simply has no handle whatever on the most conspicuous and immediate reality of our lives: that we are aware.

Dutton knows better. He recognizes the correspondence between our consciousness of beauty and the engines of mating criteria, incest avoidance, and whatever is flashing a thigh in popularizations of evolutionary biology. References galore stand bail for supportable inferences. To refer to something (e.g., “the ways in which costliness and waste impinge on beauty”) is as good as arriving at a justified conclusion. It takes chutzpah to ride the coattails of a discipline of which one has only a superficial grasp.

Denis Dutton moonlights as the editorial entrepreneur behind Arts & Letters Daily. Bookmarked on browsers across the anglophone world as www.aldaily.com, it is a lively grab bag of articles vacuumed from a miscellany of sources. In a mouse click, readers can swing from anti-intellectualism in presidential speeches to the ancient connection between bathhouses and sex. How about something on Yiddish, cat cloning, botox, or behavioral economics?

The site is required skimming for the same reason Joseph Epstein confessed fondness for the Times Literary Supplement: It is indispensable for intellectual dilettantes. A little dilettantism makes conversation, but it drags on the interdisciplinary splash Dutton wants to make. The Art Instinct follows the format of ALDaily: It is a magpie succession of opinions, snippets of anthropology, bouquets to Steven Pinker, and leaps from Pleistocene rain forests to calendar art and Kant. Names drop; the desiderata pile up. Dutton chats about art forgery, sniffs at “bourgeois high seriousness,” curtsies to irony, jabs at “theists,” and draws analogies between clitoral stimulation and ... well, it is hard to say.

The Art Instinct seems partly calculated to establish the author’s bona fides as a correct-thinking multicultural feminist and enlightened opponent of “masculinist agendas” and creationism. He is pleased to let on that religious convictions and patriotic feelings are byproducts of Pleistocene adaptations. (Count how many times the word Pleistocene appears.) Neanderthal man is the measure of all things.

Yet to say that man has an instinct for artmaking is to state the obvious. The human animal is a cauldron of instincts. Like other species, homo ludens loves to play. Homo faber craves to build and make things; so do beavers and bower birds. But our shared creatureliness tells us nothing useful about Western man’s historic ache to identify the beautiful and the good. Aristotle (“The beautiful is that which ... being good, is pleasurable because it is good”) would have had no difficulty grasping St. Augustine’s prayer: “O Beauty, late have I loved Thee.”

One instinct specific to man is the quest for transcendent meaning, an enduring subtext of the study of beauty. Dutton’s armchair panty raid on evolutionary biology forfeits philosophy’s crucial witness to questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of science.

Maureen Mullarkey writes about art for the New Criterion and other publications.