Art, sex and Darwin in the spotlight

Dennis Dutton
Dennis Dutton
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 campuses.

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 Christchurch about.

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 Internet.

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 weeks.

"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 human prehistory".

Then there's the sex part.

Dutton spends considerable time reminding both readers and listeners Charles Darwin developed two complementary principles of evolution.

The first, natural selection, is the familiar "survival of the fittest" notion in which creatures with the most advantageous adaptations get to pass on their genes while the evolutionary equivalents of 40kg weaklings die without reproducing.

The second, sexual selection, was Darwin's attempt to explain dysfunctional-seeming adaptations - such as the peacock's oversize, colourful tail - that aren't useful in direct competition for survival but help in "attracting and seducing members of the opposite sex".

Storytelling skill and other forms of artistic accomplishment, for Dutton, made our ancestors more attractive to potential mates, thus helping engrave the art instinct into our genes.

Reviewers have varied in their reaction to such theorising.

"Why do we create art and beauty? Dutton may be the best-equipped thinker in the world to explain," wrote Philadelphia Inquirer critic Carlin Romano, who called The Art Instinct the "most shrewd, precisely written and provocative study you'll find on its topic's place in human nature".

Bookforum reviewer Rochelle Gurstein, by contrast, questioned both Dutton's methods and his relevance.

Much of The Art Instinct is "necessarily the product of speculation", Gurstein wrote.

"How does Dutton know such things happened? What is the evidence? Even more vexing, what would evidence look like?" And even if you granted his premises, "What difference would it make?" Dutton's "Darwinian conundrums" offer no insight into the eternal preoccupations of artists and art scholars: "questions about beauty, sublimity, taste, genius, invention, originality, aesthetic autonomy, form and composition".

Stanford English professor Blakey Vermeule, like Dutton, is deeply interested in "the question of whether fiction is adaptive, whether narrative is adaptive".

She introduced Dutton when he spoke at Stanford recently and admires the man and his work.

But that doesn't mean it proves anything.

"The modesty of the experimental results" in environmental psychology, Prof Vermeule said, "so far doesn't match the ambitions".

What Dutton has done "is put a big conversational marker down. He's saying: 'Here's a starting point'."

And a good thing, too, because there's too much going on in other disciplines for humanists to ignore.

"If you're going to be an educated humanist," Vermeule said, "you can't just circle the wagons and say knowledge hasn't changed". 

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