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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Like most things, games evolve. Modifications arise over time, sometimes by design, sometimes casually – examples include deliberate design, house rules, misinterpretation, and our innate tendency to search for parsimony and avoid unnecessary complexity. Since game designs are socially transmitted between both players and designers, and elements of game design can be recombined to form new games, these modifications accumulate over time, spawning new games that compete with others for attention and favour. Survival of the funnest, so to speak, with design patterns as genes, and boredom as the key factor leading to game species extinction.

The point here isn’t to assert that the evolution of games is the same as biological evolution, but to draw a few interesting parallels:

  • Firstly, games should continually change to suit their environment; that is, the minds and taste of current gamers. Read simplistically, game evolution suggests that games will necessarily become more fun, more accessible, and more addictive over time. However, though this may occur on a localized scale, changes in taste and social context over time will prevent this, particularly with regards a given design’s more flexible qualities. This mistake is similar to that in which a modern biological species is held to be somehow more evolved and thus better in some way than an earlier species or a species that exhibits characteristics similar to earlier species. Later designs are not necessarily improved designs.
  • Secondly, a relationship exists that mirrors that between biology and geography in biological evolution and, furthermore, has similar consequences leading to speciation. For example, in biology, allopatry is the phenomena where a population splits in two by some natural barrier and thus evolves into different species. In games, there is an obvious example in the many flavours of football, or, more recently and more abstractly, in the way that early war games evolved into a vast array of different role-playing games based on divides of geography, player age, taste, and available play time, all of which characterize the different ‘brain ecologies’ in which games live.
  • Thirdly, the arguments used to defeat the blind watchmaker argument used by creationists can be used to conjecture a way in which games and play could arise spontaneously (click here for a good video demonstrating the blind matchmaker version).
    • Assume the existence of creatures capable of making a distinction between those activities worth doing for their own sake and those not, and capable of combining aspects of those activities to produce new potentially worthwhile ones.
    • Over time, the process of living will cause those creatures to engage in many activities. They are thus likely to randomly discover worthwhile activities.
    • Given freedom to act, those activities are likely to be repeated.
    • Two factors now come into play. Firstly, the original activity will vary each time it is produced due to circumstance and memory, and, secondly, activities may be combined.
    • As this process repeats itself over time, new, more complex forms of worthwhile activity will arise. The resulting activity is play.
    • To move from undirected play to games, we need formalisms such as rules, restrictions, and goals. These might evolve on their own or they might arise in response to social pressures, a desire for commonality and consistency, or even just desire for an economy of expression. It’s not clear whether they require higher function and language, however – perhaps animals can play, but only humans can play games.

None of this is really that revolutionary – game designs are just memeplexes, and Dawkins has already argued quite convincingly that memes and memeplexes evolve along similar lines to genes.

Point three, however, has an interesting consequence that I’ve not seen discussed elsewhere. Assuming the general idea holds, it has only minimal assumptions that any life with rudimentary language and intelligence would most likely possess. Therefore, this seems to suggest that games and play are an inevitable feature of all intelligent life. This seems somewhat intuitively obvious, but its nice, I think, to see why it should be.


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Recently, I’ve encountered two ways in which evolutionary principles can be applied to medicine. Rather than using brute force to kill pathogens, these are more subtle, systemic approaches.

Viruses and bacteria evolve, just like all other living creatures. The difference is that they do it really fast. This means we can use evolution as a way of manipulating them. In the first story, we alter the environmental pressures that they live under, forcing them to adapt accordingly. In the second, we apply the rapid evolution of one microbe (viruses) to counter the the rapid evolution of another (superbugs).

Anyway – here’s the two stories:


1. By controlling the environmental conditions in which pathogenic organisms grow, we can, in principle, exert limited control over their evolution.

In order to be transmitted, some pathogens require a live, or even an active host. For these pathogens, there is evolutionary pressure towards non-lethal or lower intensity infections – infections that keep the host mobile and able to spread the pathogen. Others do not rely on host transmission, and in their case, there is evolutionary pressure towards the full exploitation of the host; that is, high intensity infections that take full advantage of the host as an incubator and food source.

Two examples of these pressures exist and have been studied:

  • Cholera can be transmitted through several mechanisms, including water. Of these, water is the only one that doesn’t rely on an active host. Therefore, it is expected that cholera samples taken from a population with high water quality (where disease transmission must occur through active hosts). This effect was demonstrated through the analysis of samples taken from a cholera epidemic in Latin America in the 1990s. Samples of the disease taken from Ecuador (where water quality is low) produced more toxins than those taken from Chile, where water quality is comparatively high.
  • Malaria transmits into humans through mosquito bites. Furthermore, the immature parasite is picked up again by mosquitoes through biting infected humans, where it grows, and is eventually injected, mature, into another human host. By protecting those seriously ill with malaria from being bitten again, more intense variants of the disease can be intercepted, and only less intense variants of the disease are transmitted. This was studied in Tennesee in the 1930s & 1940s, when the construction of hydro lakes led to widespread malaria.

This approach does little to prevent disease, but does a lot to reduce its intensity.

Ref: TED talk 2007, Paul Ewald – ‘Can we domesticate germs?’


2. Use viral evolution to counter bacterial evolution of resistance to antibiotics

A major medical problem facing the world today is increased bacterial resistance to antibiotics. It’s generally accepted that the unnecessary use of antibiotics to counter mild infections, and, more importantly, to promote animal growth in farming has led to the rise of anti-biotic resistant ‘super-bugs’, including MRSA, resistant TB, and more. All sorts of diseases once considered controllable are becoming uncontrollable again, and people are dying from them in their thousands.

The principle behind this is simple – bacteria evolve at a rate many orders of magnitude faster than vertebrates. If we exert pressure on bacterial populations (through, say, a particular form of antibiotic), they’ll tend to evolve resistance. We’re stuck in an evolutionary race – we ‘evolve’ attacks (particular drugs), they evolve resistance. Currently, we’re much worse and much slower than the bacteria are at this, and we’re losing.

However, we’re not the only organisms that want to be able to attack and kill bacteria – there’s a whole class of viruses that prey on bacteria, including the famous T4 virus you’ll all have seen pictures of. These are called bacteriophages, and, like us, they’re in an evolutionary race with bacteria. One difference – they’re a lot better at it than we are.

Bacteriophages have another interesting property – they tend to be very specific in what they attack, most only targeting a small number of bacteria. Human cells are quite different to bacteria in many ways, and are effectively ignored by them. Given this, what is to prevent us from using them to target particular types of bacteria? Infected by medicinally resistant staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)? Try this viral cocktail..

OK – it sounds a bit far-fetched, or at least dangerous. There’s almost certainly drawbacks or risks that need to be addressed, but, as a research direction, it sounds really interesting. Several groups have been working with this therapy for quite some time, and some trials are underway. There’s even a book on the subject – Viruses vs. Superbugs.

Ref: Interview on Science Friday, April 4, 2008


I find the idea of this sort of manipulation extremely elegant – the phrase ‘playing god’ seems, to me to apply to this sort of thing even more so than it does to genetic engineering; I think of that as something more akin to hacking than the exertion of any divine powers..


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