June 30, 2013


The Evolution of Human Nature (Micah Mattix, Winter/Spring 2013, New Atlantis)

The tale of the tail is recounted in one of the more prominent works seeking to explain art through evolution: the late Denis Dutton's 2009 book The Art Instinct. The American-born Dutton, who was perhaps most widely known as the founder of the popular website Arts & Letters Daily, was a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Among the aims of his book is to inject a dose of cold, hard science to fight the fever of cultural relativism that seems to have been clouding the judgment of the humanities and social sciences for much of the twentieth century.

This cultural relativism has been pervasive in the different schools of modernist art and art criticism, which, Dutton says, replaced the traditional artistic values of "beauty, skill, and pleasure" with "a determination to shock or puzzle" that "has sent much recent art down a wrong path." The infamous prototype of this art-world relativism is Marcel Duchamp's 1917 work Fountain, a urinal that the French artist purchased, signed with the name "R. Mutt," and submitted to an avant-garde art exhibition. Dutton notes that in a 2004 survey of five hundred of the art world's most important artists, critics, and curators, 64 percent selected Fountain as the most influential work of art of the twentieth century.

Dutton enumerates a list of twelve universal features of art that he argues are rooted in our evolved human nature, and uses them, among other things, to attempt to make sense of Duchamp's controversial example. These features are: the direct sense of pleasure a work of art provides; the skill and virtuosity involved in its creation; the presence of a recognizable style in which the artwork is made; its novelty and originality; its ability to generate critical judgment and appreciation; its representation or imitation of real or imaginary experiences; the way works of art are set apart from ordinary life and given special attention; its expression of the individual personality of the artist; its "emotional saturation," or the ability of the work to incite emotions in its audience; the intellectual challenge that it can provide for an audience; the significance that the work has in an artistic tradition; and finally, the imaginative experience that the work represents for its producer and evokes in its audience. In the end, Dutton admits that, even though Duchamp's "art-theoretical gesture" lacked "the emotion, the individuality, the skill, [and] the beauty" that through evolution we have come to enjoy in art, its creativity and originality, along with its undeniable influence, make it a work of art in some sense.

While his position on this controversial piece of art is less than decisive, his analysis of the difficult aesthetic problem that a work like Fountain presents is fruitful and clarifying. Equally admirable is his spirited but open-minded defense of aesthetic common sense against art critics and theorists who approach ironic or transgressive modern art, like Fountain, with a paradoxical air of high-minded seriousness.

Perhaps most laudable is that in articulating a "naturalistic" account of aesthetics, Dutton's book, unlike so many others on evolution and art, avoids illustrating "the high-order adaptations involved in the human art instinct" with anecdotes of animal "art." To some extent, Dutton's work follows in the footsteps of anthropologist Ellen Dissanayake, who attempted to explain the development of the arts in the broadest sense by focusing on its cultural functions in pre-modern societies. Dutton too recognizes that while art may be based on instinct, it is based on a uniquely human instinct. He notes that while our closest living relatives, the chimpanzees, do sometimes produce paintings in captivity, this "art" exists "only because trainers remove the paper at the right point; otherwise, the chimp will continue to apply paint till there is nothing to see but a muddy blob." Moreover, chimpanzees show no interest in their own creations, and still less in the creations of other chimps, suggesting that they lack the sense of aesthetic appreciation of art that is so central in human culture.

Even the animal that Dutton argues comes closest to human beings in the deliberate creation of aesthetic harmony -- the male bowerbird, which creates detailed and carefully constructed nests -- fails to have any enduring sense of aesthetic appreciation for its work. Female bowerbirds evaluate the appearance of these nests, but only for the purpose of mate selection, and "are not part of an artistic culture, to be preserved, discussed, and appreciated outside a pattern of animal mating." Moreover, the bowerbird is only very remotely related to human beings, so whatever art-inclining genes it might have are unlikely to be shared by humans.

The bowerbird, in providing a clear example of an art instinct that can be easily explained through sexual selection, shows how inadequate that same process is to explaining the quite different nature of human art. Unlike the bowerbird nest, human art is "complex and diverse" -- no two works are the same, and often they are "among the most gaudy and flamboyant of human creations." And "at the rarefied level of the most profound and enduring masterpieces," Dutton continues, "they can reveal an elevated spirituality unparalleled in human experience." Rather than comparing us to our close evolutionary relatives, or offering analogies between our behavior and that of other relatively intelligent animals like elephants or dolphins, Dutton begins with our "firsthand experience" of art and works backward, adding in ethnographies of "preliterate hunter-gatherer tribes" when appropriate. From such evidence, Dutton seeks to portray his view of the human instinct for art.

The first feature of our inclination toward art is that we seem to have a universal love of landscape paintings -- and not just any landscape, but landscapes similar to those our ancestors would have encountered on the African savanna. A central pillar of evidence for his argument is a 1993 study commissioned by Russian painters Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid that surveyed people from ten diverse countries and found a surprising number of consistent aesthetic preferences. Dutton writes:

People in almost all nations disliked abstract designs, especially jagged shapes created with a thick impasto in the commonly despised colors of gold, orange, yellow, and teal. This cross-cultural similarity of negative opinion was matched on the positive side by another remarkable uniformity of sentiment: almost without exception, the most-wanted painting was a landscape with water, people, and animals.

Dutton suggests that this seemingly universal preference for paintings depicting open spaces, trees, water, and animals is related to our ancestors' search for food and safety. Such landscapes would have presented opportunities for cultivation; and the presence of water and climbable clusters of trees -- which could have served as lodgings for game and provided safety from predators -- would have been preferred by hunter-gatherers to either a dark forest or desolate plains. The emotional response to landscapes, the sense of peace, Dutton suggests, developed from the habitat choice of "people (and proto-people) in the Pleistocene."

Of course, not all artistic preferences are as universally held as our love of landscapes. Yet the appreciation of art is itself a human universal, and while "we might not receive a pleasurable, or even immediately intelligible, experience from art of other cultures," Dutton writes, the similarities are far greater than the differences. Moreover, the similarities might help explain why some of the differences -- like Dadaism and Duchamp -- are of little interest to the great unironic masses. After exploring the reasons within art history why Duchamp's work fulfilled some of the features of art, and so deserves some respect (grudging or otherwise) for its innovative audacity, Dutton ultimately seems to side with a more conventional view of what makes for good art, and argues that this tradition is more enduring and universal because art is natural and not merely cultural. What the book's title calls an "instinct" for art is literally in our genes.

Some scientists, such as the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, have criticized the attempt to explain through the principles of natural selection the uniquely human aspects of the human mind, including our inclinations toward creating and appreciating art. In a 1997 essay in the New York Review of Books, Gould argued that most of the specific features of human psychology -- such as our aesthetic preferences -- are byproducts of our oversized brains, rather than specific adaptations shaped by our evolutionary history. But Dutton claims, on the contrary, that something as deeply seated in human nature as art is best understood as an adaptation -- "an inherited physiological, affective, or behavioral characteristic that reliably develops in an organism, increasing its chances of survival and reproduction" -- in other words, as a product of natural and sexual selection in our human ancestors.  [...]

The accounts offered by both Dutton and Boyd center on offering evolutionary explanations for observed traits. But while evolutionary biology in other species relies heavily on the study of the fossil record along with comparisons of extinct and living organisms, there is a relative dearth of evidence in the fossil record of recent human evolution, especially when it comes to detailed structures of the brain, making it difficult to produce explanations for highly specific human behaviors. And while human artifacts might be thought of as fossils of the mind -- enduring traces of our ancestors' artistic practices -- the archaeological record of such artifacts is similarly incomplete. The oldest of human artifacts, like the Venus of Hohle Fels, are only some forty thousand years old, making it difficult to draw conclusions about the role of art in the evolution of modern humans hundreds of thousands of years ago.

The ultimate problem, however, is more categorical than evidential. The reductive form of inquiry in the natural sciences will always have a limited ability to account for the symbolic, moral, and religious significance of art. Brain scans and other cognitive experiments on human beings alive today can tell us something about the neurological correlates of aesthetic experience, but they cannot tell us how, when, why, or whether our aesthetic preferences evolved.

Every time evolutionary explanations attempt to cross from the antecedent causes of art to an understanding of its highest expressions and deepest nature, they stumble. In this, Dutton's arguments about the instinctive basis for aesthetic preferences and artistic creativity are more plausible than Boyd's attempts to account for the specific features of great works like the Odyssey in terms of a set of evolved capacities -- although Dutton does veer into this territory too. While evolutionary biology can offer some tantalizing if not provable hints and theories as to the origins of art, and can even provide some understanding of the universal features of artistic behavior, it is ill suited to asking the more important questions of the meaning and significance of art now that it is here.

As others have pointed out, stories about how art might have helped our ancestors to survive and reproduce are most successful when they are merely repeating common sense. Certainly, sexual selection is a reason for many efforts at inventiveness -- a fact that we have known since time immemorial. As Shakespeare wrote, "that man that hath a tongue, I say is no man / If with his tongue he cannot win a woman." But focusing on these apparent evolutionary origins of art may cause us to miss what matters most. Homer, the blind poet, surely had more and other motivation than a simple desire to gain the attention of his audience and teach them the theme of "reciprocal altruism." The same can be said of his artistic successors. The sense of the sublime in Caspar David Friedrich; the losing of oneself in the ecstasy of Byrd's Masses; the humanity yet transcendence in Dostoevsky -- to attempt to explain such things solely in terms of the bare forces of evolutionary survival risks altogether explaining them away.

...wouldn't fewer artists be gay?  Indeed, what then was the point of Jeffrey Smart's landscapes?

Posted by at June 30, 2013 9:09 AM

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