Painting and the Pleistocene

Bibliolog / by Elizabeth Cline /

The Art Instinct author Denis Dutton on the arts as evolutionary adaptations.

Arts & Letters Daily editor and founder Denis Dutton has combined aesthetic theory, philosophy, psychology, and Darwinian reasoning in his new book, The Art Instinct, which argues that the arts are not mere by-products of evolution, but rather adaptations that helped us survive the Pleistocene, going on to become instinctual, crucial traits of human nature. Dutton spoke with’s Elizabeth Cline about how his book could change science and the humanities, the relationship between human imagination and species survival, the role of sex in skill display, and what the next 100 years hold for evolutionary theory.

The Arts Instinct By Dennis Dutton; Bloomsbury Press | Buy

Seed: In your book, you distance yourself from Steven Pinker’s theory that art is “mental cheesecake” and from Stephen Jay Gould’s “spandrel” theory. In your opinion, how does evolution explain art?
Denis Dutton: The arts, in my view, are largely extensions and intensifications of Pleistocene adaptations. I think that we evolved as natural storytellers in the Pleistocene, and that the survival value that accrued as a result of our fluent imaginative capacities was immense. That’s why storytelling is so pleasurable. It’s a way to think hypothetically about the world and its problems. It’s a low-risk way to solve survival problems in the imagination. It’s also a source of information. It grew along with the size of the human brain and accounts for our domination of other species.

Seed: What prompted you to make a connection between evolution and the arts?
DD: The arts have a central place in human experience across the globe. They take place in all cultures in a spontaneously understood, pleasurable, make-believe world. The universality of the arts is crying out for some general explanation. In my view, only Darwin can supply it. We have to acknowledge first that these commonalities exist and then ask how we can explain them. That’s what my book is about.

Seed: The Art Instinct accounts for works that defy commonly held notions of art, like Duchamp’s “Fountain.” Can you talk about this?
DD: Many fine works of art may not have one or more of the features I describe in the book. Duchamp’s readymades are notable in this respect. They are directed against the very idea of skill display or imaginative experience. This is part of what makes them so intellectually challenging and interesting.

Seed: What ideological roadblocks stand in the way of widespread acceptance of a Darwinian aesthetic theory?
DD: The problem that we face is 40 years of an ideology that the arts are cultural constructions. It’s the kind of thinking that claims that you can’t compare arts from one culture to another, and that artistic forms are not universal. We know this isn’t true. Japanese prints are loved in Brazil. Beethoven is adored in Japan. People from all kinds of cultures can appreciate the music of other cultures. Goodness, the Chinese and the Koreans, between them, have practically saved the Vienna Conservatory. Hollywood movies have swept the world.

Seed: You suggest that language is a product of sexual selection.
DD: It has to do with skill display. One of the interesting things about language use is that we are hardwired to judge each other in terms of our linguistic competence. The vocabulary that most adults use is in the neighborhood of 60,000 words, maybe made up of 20,000 word families. This vocabulary far exceeds what would have been required for survival in the Pleistocene. And by the way, it’s interesting to note that the no. 1 topic of poetry worldwide is love. I think that these type of skill displays that impress us may be centered in a courtship context, but they extend far beyond that to how we generally assess other human beings. We love skill, and we love to see skill exercised. It’s an intrinsic part of the arts, and it probably arose in the context of sexual selection.

Seed: Then why do women and men participate in the arts equally and in such strikingly similar ways?
DD: Well, there are marginal differences between the aesthetic tastes of men and women. Typically, men like adventure novels, and women are interested in the exploration of human relationships. But it’s easy to overrate the difference from our human point of view. Much clearer are the commonalities of the two sexes. It’s a sheer biological fact that the human sexes evolved — compared with other animals — to be quite similar. Men did not become giant elephant seals to lord over female cows. The equality of the sexes, their nimbleness in dealing with each other, their notions of charm, skill, are rather matched. The tastes of neither sex dominate artistic creativity.

Seed: Darwin Day is coming up. What do the next hundred years hold for evolutionary theory?
DD: I hope that the next hundred years will see the application of Darwinian explanation to more than just the evolution of the pancreas, the opposable thumb, and the eye. Darwin explains the deepest human passions and emotions. Darwin explains kindness, Darwin explains love, and Darwin explains our deep aesthetic feelings. We need him more than ever.

Originally published January 14, 2009

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