In The Art Instinct, Denis Dutton, a professor of philosophy and founder and editor of Arts & Letters Daily, sets out to write an evolutionary account for why humans create and appreciate art. He argues that art-making is an evolutionary adaptation that came about through sexual selection, indicating intelligence and desirability in a potential mate.
One of the best things about this book is how clear and comprehensive its discussion of evolutionary adaptation is, making it appropriate for someone unfamiliar with the literature on the subject, while at the same time being interesting and in-depth enough to remain engaging for a reader better-versed in evolution, evolutionary psychology, and sexual selection. (And how much I agreed with the author: group selection does seem so attractive, and yet inadequate!) The same goes for the portions of the book more focused on art itself. Dutton follows a clear path from early humans on the savanna, partial to landscapes with greenery, water, and high ground, through the artistic practices of early and contemporary hunter-gatherer societies and more familiar Western society, right through to Marcel Duchamp’s provocative Fountain.
The danger of all evolutionary psychology accounts is that of falling into the just-so story. But Dutton’s explanation for art stays safely away from that territory. As a component of sexual selection that broadly indicates intelligence and general fitness, and would be very useful for assortative mating, the art-making function doesn’t need that kind of story any more than does a peacock’s tail. And Dutton confronts many of his potential critics head-on, whether they are evolutionary biologists who reject adaptation as any explanation for human psychology or art theorists who insist that “art” cannot be considered a cross-cultural category at all. (His response to Lynn M. Hart’s claims about jyonti painting seems pretty devastating, and his twelve points on categorizing art are thought-provoking.)
And of course, the danger of describing art and aesthetics in terms of evolutionary adaptation is that of denuding art of enjoyment and meaning. This is something I worried about when I picked the book up, but Dutton’s deep love of art and sophisticated appreciation of aesthetics comes through on almost every page. Too many people think love and other emotions lose meaning when explained in terms of our evolved brain chemistry, and of course we don’t have to see it that way. Dutton doesn’t see art that way at all, and he’s just as impressed and elevated by Beethoven, Mahler, Proust and Vermeer as—or probably more than—someone less concerned with explaining the reasons for art-making in the first place. Evolutionary explanations for our feelings about artistic intention, forgery, and Dada don’t take away from our understanding of those problems, but contribute to it. And, another thing I was curious about, an evolutionary explanation doesn’t do anything to preclude the contingency of aesthetics, a point argued successfully.
Dutton’s final chapter, on great art and kitsch, was very interesting but, as he admits, these qualities are not (yet) tightly tied to evolutionary adaptation. That is entirely fitting, though. An ev psych explanation for why people create artworks does not mean there is a formula for making them, or that we can look at Les Demoiselles d’Avignon and give a direct, logically entailed connection between early human bands roaming Africa and the aesthetic vision of Picasso. But that in turn does not mean that the basic reason behind artistic enterprise wasn’t a product of natural selection—like almost everything else our evolved brains make us do.