I recently listened to this interview with Denis Dutton on Bloggingheads.tv 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..

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In my last post, I talked about the meaningless of taste as a way of describing our preferences. In this post, I’m going to sketch out a scheme that I tend to use in describing preferences.

There are many ways in which a given piece of music might be appreciated. Examples include virtuosity, technical characteristics, emotional reaction, nostalgia, or even lyrics. Some of our appreciation is based on the objective properties of the music; other times on our subjective interpretation, and still others on partially objective criteria; that is, criteria that are objective within a group or other frame of reference such as a particular aesthetic.

I like to think of these as distinct modes of appreciation and, for the purposes of this discussion, will call them facets. Thinking about appreciation in terms of facets brings out the following observations:

  • A particular person doesn’t necessarily employ the same facets appreciating the time. Instead, different pieces of music might stimulate them through different facets, as might, perhaps, the same piece of music, depending on mood.
  • Just because two people like a song doesn’t mean they like it for the same reasons; they might employ completely different facets in appreciating it and there may be no other correlation between their overall preferences. This implies that merely knowing which songs someone likes is less useful than understanding their reasons for liking them, particularly if we want to assess whether two people share similar taste or predict how someone will react to new music.
  • Not everyone has access to all facets as some facets require particular skills, knowledge, or experience. This implies that we can learn to improve our powers of appreciation, and that some people have more diverse means of appreciation at their disposal than others; in this sense, they could be said to have more sophisticated taste.
  • Though some facets rely on objective properties, appreciation always involves some degree of subjectivity. For example, though we can objectively identify the technical characteristics of a piece, our appreciation becomes subjective when we interpret and judge the piece using those characteristics. One objection to this might be the argument that we react viscerally to certain stimuli in particular ways. This is objective in a sense, but only inasmuch as all humans share similarly structured meat-brains – an alien wouldn’t necessarily agree that these facets are objective. The key point here is that the nature of the audience always plays a role in appreciation.
  • Some facets are extremely specific, relating to particular experiences or contexts. For example, there are certain pieces of music that appeal to me because they remind me of particular times during my childhood and no one else shares that exact same appreciation, though if the music was part of a particular zeitgeist, they may share similar appreciations. Nostalgic facets make it virtually impossible for two people share exactly the same taste
  • To those who do not know which facets we employ, our preferences appear arbitrary and entirely personal. My sense is that this is the origin of the idea of taste as criticized in my last post. Certainly, we all recognize a certain amount of consistency and reason in our own preferences even if we are not necessarily able to articulate it, so why can’t we assume this of others?

That’s all for now – in my next post on this topic, I’ll build a rough taxonomy of different facet types.

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