Art & Evolution; Dennis Dutton’s “The Art Instinct”

By | May 1, 2009

I recently listened to this interview with Denis Dutton on about his new book “The Art Instinct“.

I haven’t read the book, so I can’t comment on it in detail, but I can definitely tell I want to read it. The basic premise is that the art can be explained in evolutionary terms as the emergent result of a series of adaptations supported partly by natural selection, and partly by sexual selection.

Since the borders of art are often fuzzy, he begins by establishing a working ‘cluster definition’ consisting of 12 characteristics, where anything that matches all characteristics is definitely art and anything that has none is definitely not.

Works of art:

  • give us direct pleasure
  • are stylistic
  • have expressive individuality, a mind behind them
  • are creative and novel
  • have a surrounding air of criticism
  • challenge us intellectually
  • tend to exist within institutions and traditions
  • are representative of reality
  • embody skill and virtuousity
  • are a focus of attention
  • are emotionally saturated
  • exist partly in our imagination

The rest of the book applies the two elements of Darwin’s theories, natural selection and sexual selection, to art. Natural selection is what we most commonly understand as evolution, and has to do with adaptations that make us more likely to pass on our genes; an art related example is the ability to construct imaginary situations and communicate them that assists in both planning and survival. One example cited is an art experiment in which people from a wide variety of countries were polled as to their tastes in calendar pictures. These were then painted and compared, with interesting similarities – see the book Painting by numbers for an account of this.

Sexual selection, on the other hand, is poorly understood by most people, if known at all. Where natural selection deals with adaptations that help individuals survive within their environment, sexual selection deals with adaptations that help individuals compete with others of their species for mates, even at the cost of reducing their survivability. It explains peacocks tails, the antlers of reindeer and the combative mating rituals that go with them, and behaviours such as infanticide among lions. In the context of art, sexual selection ties directly into, for example, displays of skill and virtuosity.

I’m fairly certain that this will be contentious with some; it builds on evolutionary psychology, itself controversial, and undermines relativist theories of art. As I’ve mentioned above, I’ve not actually read the book, so I can’t argue it in more detail, but I find this sort of explanation a lot more accessible and plausible than relativist theories, though I’m open to these being a contributing factor layered on top. Of course, I’m an engineer, so I guess the relativist argument would be that I have a pro-science bias and relativism still holds.

Stepping back, though, we humans share a whole range of common physical attributes, all explained by evolutionary processes, and it’s absurd to think that these don’t play some role in our appreciation of art. Furthermore, neurological pathologies reveal that slight variations or damage to the physical structure of our brains results in perceptual and behavioural differences far in excess of those that exist between cultures, which suggests to me that evolutionary processes not only play some role, but play a major role in explaining art and its appreciation.

Either way, this book sounds like a fascinating read and a great starting point for discussion.

Why do I blog this?
Recently, I’ve written about music appreciation and explained taste as a set of priorities for the various attributes by which we judge a given performance. Assuming the book’s arguments hold, music, being just another form of art, can be explained in evolutionary terms. Is it reasonable to expect that music appreciation is also explainable through evolutionary principles? To what extent are our tastes defined by our genes, as opposed to our environments or simple variation?

It’s kinda awesome to see and hear people from Canterbury being interviewed like this – it’s nice to be reminded that despite New Zealand being way down at the bottom of the world, we’ve still got some great minds in our universities.

Edit: I was going to point at this article by Dutton “Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology” from a few years back that fleshes some of these arguments out a bit..