July 22, 2012


Art Over Biology (Adam Kirsch, July 12, 2012, New Republic) 

IT IS NO COINCIDENCE that the same era should have given birth to Darwinism and to the aesthetic cult of decadence. The iron law of Darwinian evolution is that everything that exists strives with all its power to reproduce, to extend life into the future, and that every feature of every creature can be explained as an adaptation toward this end. For the artist to deny any connection with the enterprise of life, then, is to assert his freedom from this universal imperative; to reclaim negatively the autonomy that evolution seems to deny to human beings. It is only because we can freely choose our own ends that we can decide not to live for life, but for some other value that we posit. The artist's decision to produce spiritual offspring rather than physical ones is thus allied to the monk's celibacy and the warrior's death for his country, as gestures that deny the empire of mere life.

Darwin himself recognized that the human instinct to produce and admire art posed a challenge to the law of the survival of the fittest. He addressed the subject obliquely in 1871 in The Descent of Man, the work in which he advanced the idea of sexual selection as a complement to natural selection. Sexual selection was Darwin's ingenious way of explaining features of the natural world that seemed gratuitously wasteful, in a fashion that the parsimony of evolution ought not to have permitted. The classic example is the peacock's tail: why should the bird devote so much of its energy to producing a totally nonfunctional but amazingly decorative tail? It is the kind of natural splendor that, to earlier generations, might have spoken of the generosity of a Creator. The problem plagued Darwin: "The sight of a feather in the peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick."

The discovery of sexual selection solved the problem with brilliant economy. Such displays, Darwin realized, were male animals' ways of competing for the favor of the female. By this logic, the tiniest initial preference of the female for a conspicuous male--a peacock with a patterned tail, an elk with enlarged antlers--sparked a continual competition among males to become even more conspicuous. In every generation, a more beautiful peacock would leave more offspring than a homelier one, thus passing on the genes for beauty to his offspring, who would undergo the same kind of selection.

Animals produce beauty on their bodies; humans can also produce it in their artifacts. The natural inference, then, would be that art is a human form of sexual display, a way for males to impress females with spectacularly redundant creations. There is even an animal precedent for this: the Australian bowerbird, which attracts females by building an incredibly elaborate bower out of grass and twigs, and decorating it with colorful bits and the juice of crushed berries. The bower is a perfect example of an artwork whose explicit purpose is to promote reproduction.

For Darwin, the human sense of beauty was not different in kind from the bird's. "This sense," he remarked in The Descent of Man, "has been declared to be peculiar to man," but "when we behold a male bird elaborately displaying his graceful plumes or splendid colors before the female ... it is impossible to doubt that she admires the beauty of her male partner." Still, Darwin recognized that the human sense of beauty was mediated by "complex ideas and trains of thought," which make it impossible to explain in terms as straightforward as a bird's: "When ... it is said that the lower animals have a sense of beauty, it must not be supposed that such sense is comparable with that of a cultivated man, with his multiform and complex associated ideas."

In particular, Darwin suggests that it is impossible to explain the history or the conventions of any art by the general imperatives of evolution: "Many of the faculties, which have been of inestimable service to man for his progressive advancement, such as the powers of the imagination, wonder, curiosity, an undefined sense of beauty, a tendency to imitation, and the love of excitement or novelty, could hardly fail to lead to capricious changes of customs and fashions." Such changes are "capricious" in the sense that they are unpredictable from first principles. Put more positively, one might say that any given work of art can be discussed critically and historically, but not deduced from the laws of evolution.

This sensible reticence served both art and science well enough for more than a century after Darwin's death. But with the rise of evolutionary psychology, it was only a matter of time before the attempt was made to explain art in Darwinian terms. After all, if ethics and politics can be explained by game theory and reciprocal altruism, there is no reason why aesthetics should be different: in each case, what appears to be a realm of human autonomy can be reduced to the covert expression of biological imperatives. The first popular effort in this direction was the late Denis Dutton's much-discussed book The Art Instinct, which appeared in 2009.

For Dutton, the exposure of the Darwinian origins of art was meant to build a case against the excesses of postmodernism. If human aesthetic preferences--for representation in visual art, tonality in music, and narrative in literature--are the product of hundreds of generations of evolutionary selection, then it follows that art which rejects those preferences is doomed to irrelevance. In this sense, Dutton's Darwinism was aesthetically conservative: "Darwinian aesthetics," he wrote, "can restore the vital place of beauty, skill, and pleasure as high artistic values." Dutton's argument has recently been reiterated and refined by a number of new books, which do not necessarily share his aesthetic agenda or his artistic cultivation. But their appearance suggests that Darwinian aesthetics--and its more empirical cousin, neuroaesthetics--is growing quickly in confidence and appeal.

ON ITS FACE, the notion that the human instinct to make and appreciate art can be explained by evolution seems true, even a truism. 

Mr. Kirsch has given too much of the game away. Once you acknowledge that sexual selection was just invented as a way around the refusal of Nature to obey Darwinism you're left with nothing but truisms.
Posted by at July 22, 2012 9:50 AM

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