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The Art InstinctReview - The Art Instinct
Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution
by Denis Dutton
Bloomsbury Press, 2010
Review by Joe Saunders
Nov 2nd 2010 (Volume 14, Issue 44)

With The Art Instinct, evolutionary psychology takes a bold step into another open field, the domain of aesthetics. Drawing on Stephen Pinker, Geoffrey Miller, and of course, Charles Darwin, Philosophy Professor Denis Dutton has put together an accessible and entertaining book that offers a Darwinian genesis of the arts.

The result is a witty, engaging, and enjoyable read from cover to cover, that has deservedly received wide readership. There have been numerous reviews of the book in journals, newspapers, magazines, radio, TV -- Dutton appeared as a guest on the wonderful Colbert Report -- and there is even an impressive website dedicated to the book (, where all of this material (and Dutton's responses to it) can be found.

This review will focus on what I take to be the book's two central projects, and the relationship between them. The first project can be found in the title -- Dutton argues that we possess an art instinct. He argues that such a perspective is largely absent from the humanities, and that this is a mistake overdue for correction. He further contends that his Darwinian approach has more power and validity than the current discourse that he sees as deadening much of the humanities (p.1). Here, we encounter the second project, which concerns the (normative) significance of the art instinct. Dutton seeks not only to provide a Darwinian genesis of the arts, but also to deploy this instinct to various debates in art theory. In what follows, I recapitulate both of these projects and question the validity of the latter.

Natural and Sexual Selection

The book begins with landscape paintings. Dutton references recent studies which suggest that across different cultures, certain types of landscapes are preferred. The features of such landscapes -- which resemble African savannas -- and their cross cultural appeal leads Denis to the idea that this aesthetic preference is part of our nature, a remnant from the Pleistocene era (a formative period of about 2.5 million years that lasted up until around 12,000 years ago). In the Pleistocene, our ancestors lived on savannas in Africa, and Dutton argues, a preference for the afore-mentioned landscapes would have been an evolutionary advantage. This preference, he contends, remains with us today; "we still have the souls of those ancient nomads" (p.27).

Dutton then takes the reader on an entertaining tour, beginning with a discussion of human nature and art (chapter 2). He continues to provide a definition of art (chapter 3), argue against aesthetic cultural relativism (chapter 4), and considers whether evolved aesthetic preferences are best considered as adaptations or by-products of adaptations (chapter 5), a kind of cheesecake for the mind. He argues for a middle ground between these two positions (p.94).

In chapter 6, he turns to consider fiction. Again, starting from the universal pleasure that human beings take in fiction -- whether this takes the form of plays, videogames, 19th century Russian novels or soap operas -- he argues that this aesthetic preference finds its basis in the Pleistocene era. Fiction, he contends, would have been adaptively advantageous in that it offers low cost surrogate experiences, can be richly informative, and encourages us to explore other points of view (p.110).

This genesis of the arts considered in terms of natural selection, seems incomplete. As Dutton notes, the arts are often capricious, wasteful, and extravagant. How could such practices -- and the instinct that underlies them -- have enhanced survival in the Pleistocene? Dutton draws our attention to an analogous worry of Darwin's, the peacock's tail. In The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Darwin proposes that the peacock's tail serves as a fitness indicator to potential mates. Drawing heavily on Geoffrey Miller's The Mating Mind (2000), Dutton argues that such sexual selection accounts not only for the ornamental capacity of the peacock's tail, but also much of our art instinct.

Indeed, Dutton contends that the kind of sexual selection that occurs in courtship has done more to create the human personality than any other single evolutionary factor (p.140). (Although he does back down slightly from this claim in the afterword).Our propensity towards skill displays thus serves as a fitness indicator. Language also fulfils such a role, serving as a marker of intelligence and health (p. 146). Following Miller, he suggests a new metaphor for the mind as a "gaudy, overpowered Pleistocene home-entertainment system, devised in order that our Stone Age ancestors could attract, amuse, and bed each other" (p.151). Dutton concludes that the conjunction of natural and sexual selection offers us the possibility to provide a complete theory of the origin of the arts (p.152).

The Normative Significance of the Art Instinct.

As noted at the outset, there are two central projects in The Art Instinct. The first, which we have considered hitherto, concerns an attempt to provide a Darwinian genesis of the arts, the establishment of an art instinct. The second concerns the significance of this. Dutton not only seeks to establish that we possess an art instinct, but also wants to bring this instinct to bear upon issues in aesthetics.

An obvious worry with any such project concerns a variant of the naturalistic fallacy. Simply put, that a practice, belief or action finds its basis in human nature, does not legitimate it per se. Dutton is of course aware of this fallacy, offering the charming example of Bogart's character's appeal to nature to excuse his drinking in The African Queen, to side with Rose Slayer's retort: "Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above" (p.9).

Unfortunately, awareness that a particular terrain is hazardous does not guarantee that one will successfully navigate through it. Thus, whilst Dutton manages to avoid some of the larger holes associated with evolutionary psychology -- hyper-adaptationism and reductionism -- throughout the book he slips between the afore-mentioned Darwinian genesis of our art instinct and the normative deployment of this instinct.

In chapter 7, we find Dutton noting that, "while evolutionary psychology and prehistoric economics nicely explain why someone would stroll through a museum crassly remarking on how much the paintings are worth, they do not justify such behaviour" (p.160). He continues to claim that: "Once we understand and know an impulse, we can choose to go along with it or we can resist it" (p.161), and shortly afterwards, notes that: "Like our innate moral sentiments, these [aesthetic] tastes ought to be open to endless rational reconsideration and judgment" (p.162). This perspective displays sensitivity to the fallacy involved in appealing to nature, and suggests modesty concerning the normative significance of evolutionary psychology. I am inclined to agree with such a perspective, but find that it renders a Darwinian genesis of the arts unable to do much of the work that Dutton thinks it could.

Consider chapter 8, 'Intention, Forgery, Dada: Three Aesthetic Problems'. Here, Dutton brings evolutionary psychology to bear upon three issues in aesthetic theory, intentionalism, forgery and modernism. Beginning with intentions in art, he critiques the view that an artist's intentions have little (or nothing) to do with understanding a work of art. Dutton has previously criticised anti-intentionalism in other works, and repeats these criticisms here, before invoking the role of language as a fitness indicator: The "fitness indicator function [of language] is an ever-present voice whispering to us that one kind of truth always matters: the truth about the ... fact-teller or the fiction maker" (p.175). He then moves to claim that: "Seeking authorial intentions is no fallacy: it is from an evolutionary standpoint psychologically impossible to ignore the potential skill, craft, talent, or genius revealed in speech of writing" (p.176). Discussing the specific example of Chekhov, he notes that "as evolution demands, my feelings are about a certain doctor who ..." (p.176).

Evolutionary psychology -- and in particular, the role of language as a fitness indicator -- is doing normative work here. This seems both unnecessary, and misguided. It is unnecessary as Dutton's previous criticisms of anti-intentionalism still stand independently. It is misguided in that it asks too much of evolutionary psychology and seems to fly in the face of his earlier cautioning against the normative deployment of human nature. Here, it is now "psychologically impossible" to ignore the artists intentions; indeed "evolution demands" that we take them into account.

His discussion of modernism begins in a similar vein. One of the major claims of the book is that "modernist provocations" lead us down the wrong path. Consider the following quotation from the introduction:  "bringing an understanding of evolution to bear on art can enhance our enjoyment of it. A determination to shock or puzzle has sent much recent art down a wrong path. Darwinian aesthetics can restore the vital place of beauty, skill, and pleasure as high artistic values" (pp. 11-12). 

Again, it is unclear how evolutionary psychology is to perform this normative work. As we have just seen, once we understand an impulse, we can choose to go along with it or resist it; our tastes ought to be open to endless rational reconsideration and judgment (p. 161; 162)

Furthermore, modern (and post-modern) art often fulfils precisely this role, challenging our aesthetic tastes and sensible impulses.  Dutton criticises the modernist for supposedly believing that there are no limits to what the human being can enjoy. Evolutionary psychology, he contends, tells a lie to this 'blank slate' view of humanity. This is perhaps the most plausible of Dutton's attempts to deploy the art instinct in aesthetics, in that the genesis of the arts that Dutton proposes stands as a simple rejoinder to a supposedly empirical claim that underlies the modernist project. However, the previously mentioned function of art calls into question Dutton's characterisation of modernism. The modernist project is less a matter of biological ignorance and more of a statement concerning the power and role of art. Of course, one might still take issue with such a project, but one will need to do more than just appeal to a Darwinian genesis of the arts.

There is too much slippage of this sort in The Art Instinct. Moreover, this is not a series of incidental mistakes, but rather a consistent error that runs throughout the book and undermines one of its central projects -- the normative significance of the art instinct. Consider the following two passages -- the very first and last passages of the introduction:

In the very first sentence of the book, Dutton makes the claim that: "These pages offer a way of looking at the arts that flies in the face of most writing and criticism today -- a way that I believe has more validity, more power, and more possibilities than the hermetic discourse that deadens so much of the humanities" (p.1). Further, as we have just seen, in the concluding paragraph of the introduction, he contends that Darwinian aesthetics can restore the vital place of beauty, skill, and pleasure as high artistic values (pp. 11-12).

These ambitions are echoed by Stephen Pinker -- an inspiration to both the book and its title -- who on the back of the book, boldly claims that: "This 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 is certainly one of the central projects of The Art Instinct, but it is never explicitly argued for that a (Darwinian) genetic account can do such work. Indeed, the afore-mentioned fallacy involved in appealing to nature suggests that it cannot. Appeals to human nature concerning alcohol don't hold water as human nature is what we are meant to rise above of. Why should art be any different?

Dutton seems unsure of the exact normative significance of evolutionary psychology. For this, he is not to be harshly judged. As noted earlier, it is hazardous terrain. What it does mean is that the grander ambitions of the book -- marking out the "future of the humanities", restoring the place of beauty, skill and pleasure, and offering a discussion that has "more validity" and "more power" than the present discourse that supposedly deadens the humanities -- are not fulfilled.  

This should not detract from what otherwise is a charming and engaging read. Whilst the book is confused and underdeveloped in its second project, in its first it presents an entertaining speculative read that is well worth the price of admission.


© 2010 Joe Saunders


Joe Saunders, completed his Master's thesis in Philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand.


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