Denis Dutton is getting the kind of exposure for which
his fellow academics would wrestle sabre-toothed tigers.
The New Zealand-based philosophy professor and author of
The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human
Evolution launched his book tour conventionally enough
last month at various California libraries, bookstores and
He then zipped through Washington to deliver a speech at the
American Enterprise Institute.
That was all very nice, but nothing to write home to
Ah, but by the time he got to New York, Dutton had landed an
appearance on The Colbert Report.
A philosopher! Getting his book flogged by Stephen Colbert!
What is this man's secret?
Surely it's not that, according to Harvard psychologist
Steven Pinker, Dutton's opus on Darwinism and art "marks out
the future of the humanities - connecting aesthetics and
criticism to an understanding of human nature from the
cognitive and biological sciences".
Deep thoughts about the future of the humanities don't
usually get the attention of TV bookers or, for that matter,
newspaper feature writers.
When it comes to the Darwinian competition that is book
marketing, Dutton actually has two secrets: sex and the
On the one hand, he's picked a topic that easily lends itself
to crude Colbertian humour.
On the other, well, he happens to be the founding editor of
Arts & Letters Daily, a website beloved of
academics and media types around the world, where an ad for
The Art Instinct flashed prominently on-screen for
"You'll never read Jane Austen - or look at a landscape - the
same way again," it said.
Stephen Colbert to Denis Dutton, January 28: "Is everybody
doing art just to get laid?"
Dutton is a round-faced, silver-haired man of 64 who looks a
bit like Newt Gingrich.
American-born, he moved his family to New Zealand a couple of
decades ago for a job at the University of Canterbury and
never looked back.
At his American Enterprise Institute (AEI) talk, he tossed
out ideas in rapid bursts, as if constantly worried he would
have to leave something out - which, given the range of his
interests and enthusiasms, he inevitably does.
For the whole of his career as a philosopher of art, he told
his lunchtime audience, "the hand of a certain view of the
arts has had its clammy grip on all thinking".
That view is the "blank slate" concept of human nature, in
which the art we humans produce is seen as being entirely
shaped or "constructed" by culture, not genes.
Dutton rejects this notion.
Culture is part of the equation, he believes, but far from
the whole enchilada.
In an interview after his presentation, he explained how, as
a philosopher, he came to reach out to evolutionary
psychologists in his thinking about art.
"A lot of what counts as philosophy," he said, "is explaining
and justifying fundamental human intuitions," including
"intuitions about the beautiful and the ugly."
The problem has been that philosophy "doesn't ask where the
intuitions come from ... Human nature is a traditional
philosophic topic, but let's face it, a lot of it is
uninformed armchair speculation by people who just happen to
be geniuses: Hobbes, Mill, Kant.
"It's time to go over to the psychology department and see
what they're up to."
The Art Instinct is nothing if not ambitious.
Along with the evolutionary psychologists and like-minded
scholars on whom he relies, Dutton wants to explain "how we
became a species obsessed with creating artistic experiences
with which to amuse, shock, titillate, and enrapture
ourselves, from children's games to the quartets of
Beethoven, from firelit caves to the continuous worldwide
glow of television screens".
To take just a couple of examples - Why did people worldwide,
when polled about their artistic preferences, seem drawn to
realist paintings of a certain kind?
"What everybody wanted was the Pleistocene savanna
landscape," Dutton explained at the AEI.
The preference was ingrained in us during the Pleistocene
era, some 80,000 generations long, during which our ancestors
evolved into human beings.
And why is creative storytelling something humans everywhere
value and understand?Well, for one thing, stories offer
"low-cost surrogate experiences" that help us play out
different possible scenarios.
The ability to imagine "states of affairs not present in
direct consciousness" must have had "a huge adaptive power in
Then there's the sex part.
Dutton spends considerable time reminding both readers and
listeners Charles Darwin developed two complementary
principles of evolution.