The There That Wasn’t There

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution, by Denis Dutton. Bloomsbury Press. 278 pages.

At the end of the introduction to The Art Instinct, Dutton sets himself a curious task. Having established that art is a phenomenon arising from a “universal aesthetic” that has been endowed in us by our genes, he then announces that the purpose of his book is to argue that art is actually the force that liberates us from biological imperatives: “The arts set us above the very instincts that make them possible.” He illustrates his stance by recalling the scene from The African Queen where Charlie attempts to justify his drunken fatalism with an invocation of “human nature.” Replies Rose: “Human Nature is what we were put on this earth to rise above, Mr. Allnut.” Comments Dutton: “This book is on the side of Rose’s famous retort.”

This may be the most essential statement Dutton makes in the book, as it acknowledges an intrinsic tension between nature and culture that has occupied moral theorists throughout human history. It is also a signal to the skeptical reader that Dutton does not intend to sidestep some of the thornier problems, both ethical and logical, that might arise from a thesis that Art–the pinnacle of culture–is in fact thoroughly biological.

Strangely, in the ten chapters that follow, Dutton never offers a mechanism through which Art’s cultural bootstrapping would be possible. In fact, having raised the conundrum, he does not so much as allude to it again. When Richard Dawkins was famously presented with a similar problem in The Selfish Gene in 1976, he took the matter seriously enough to develop a Theory of Memes in his final chapter to keep separate the “ought” of nurture from the “is” of nature. As problematic as this theory was and is, it had the virtue of approaching the charge of Social Darwinism head on. The glaring flaw in Dutton’s work is that it cannot do even this. Dutton cannot show how, if culture is instinct, it is so successful at sublimating and otherwise blunting the rest of our instinctual nature. He can barely sustain his recognition of this as the paradox that it is; the reader will not encounter this problem anywhere in the main body of the book.

The tension between is and ought is where most of the interesting questions about human nature have come from–notwithstanding Dutton’s neglect of the issue–and surely a good part of the remainder of our interest comes from the related issue of agency: to what extent are we actors in our own drama, and to what extent puppets? Quite extraordinarily for a professor of philosophy, Dutton doesn’t show much interest in this question either. He pauses, in a late passage, to note that our sense organs can consistently lead us to error, as with the Mueller-Lyer illusion, which cannot seem to teach ourselves to overcome. And yet: we are aware that it is an illusion, even if our eyes are not. As Jerry Fodor puts it,

The moon looks bigger when it’s on the horizon; but I know perfectly well it’s not. My visual perception module gets fooled, but I don’t. The question is: who is this I?

Even if our tastes and inclinations are instinctual, then, including perhaps a preference for blue or for “moderately complex” landscapes, does it follow that our consciously created works are fastened to these same instincts? Dutton is interested in this question to the extent that it seems to rescue the author from Barthes’ (supposed) attempt to kill him off, and the New Critics’ (supposed) interest in marginalizing his role. He champions the I-as-author just long enough to fend off cultural relativism; satisfied that he has done so he returns to his baseline position that the real “author” is the genome.

For example, Dutton argues that if the intention of the author were not relevant, we could easily ascribe an earnestly schlocky book like Jonathan Livingston Seagull the same ironic function as a masterpiece by Swift, since doing so would paint it in a better light. (We might respond that the mission of art criticism is not to burnish the value of the largest possible number of works, but rather to investigate the success of each work on its merits. Richard Bach’s book is not significantly less forgettable even if we read it as satire). Just three pages later, however, we find an examination of the greatness of Pride and Prejudice on the grounds of “innate, spontaneous, Pleistocene values and attitudes.” The author suddenly has very little to do with it. In fact, the words “Jane Austen” appear only in passing, at the end of the segment. Whatever her “intentions” in writing the book, they would seem to be helplessly servile before her stone age-forged genome.


Neither does Dutton distinguish between the aesthetic forms that come upon us in the shape of reveries, fantasies, tastes, and passions, and the forms we consciously and painstakingly sculpt and fashion–often to try to make some sense of the former. But how can any serious discussion of art avoid this distinction? All definitions of art are probably destined to fail, but surely one mark of true art (unremarked by Dutton) is that it transcends the personal needs of the artist. This is not to say that none of the artist’s needs are met in the work’s creation and reception; it is merely to say that they are not primary, and this throws a very large and well-tempered wrench into Darwinian logic. This is is the element that divides art from fantasy. We are driven by the latter, but truly moved only by the former. Whatever else it contains, good art must be a vehicle for love, and for sacrifice, in the truest sense (that is, not in the sense of a mask for some more ontologically real “selfishness.”) Real art cannot be uncoupled from its social function as a gift. In the words of David Foster Wallace[1], good art requires “the discipline to talk out of the part of yourself that can love instead of the part that just wants to be loved.”

Concerns such as these should have given any thoughtful writer pause before speculating on the role of “sexual selection” in art, where the “skill display” and ornamentation of a work communicate the (generally male) artist’s genetic fitness to potential (generally female) mates. I don’t mean to impugn Dutton’s intelligence here. Rather I think the explanation lies in the incredible seductive power of pseudo-Darwinian myth. Seductive, largely, because it seems to grant permission to turn away from the very difficult problems of ethics and agency, diverting our focus from what we can and may do, to what has been, and what is being done to us.


There is, to be fair, a way in which Dutton’s thesis of an “art instinct” is uncontroversially, and unparadoxically true: art-making is a universally and exclusively human endeavor. No other species has engaged in it, and no known human culture has ever gotten by without it. To court a tautology, we would probably say, if we encountered such a society, that it was not actually human, just as we would say this about a hominid culture that was without language, or ontology.

As Dutton would have it, this simple fact is the great anathema of the dreaded “social constructionists” who have dominated scholarship on culture and aesthetics for the last half-century, “preaching pessimism” about one culture’s ability to understand another. He invokes (but does not quote) Ludwig Wittgenstein, Benjamin Whorf, Thomas Kuhn, and Margaret Mead, to depict a philosophy of intractable cultural incommensurability. Into this breach, now, finally, march Dutton and the Evolutionary Psychologists, sinews stiffened, to show that art is everywhere the same, because its makers are everywhere the same, in genetic lock-step.

But Dutton’s depiction is greatly overstated. It would be an odd anthropology that admitted no access to understanding other cultures, as the “constructivists are supposed to have done, since that lack of access would deny the discovery of whatever difference it based its theory of “otherness” on. It would be an odd philosophy of language or science that presented relational differences between “forms” and “paradigms” as obstacles to communication among them, since that would doom our ability to even describe such differences in the first place.

Kuhn, in particular, was very explicit that his work should not be interpreted as advocating a hopeless or unresolvable incommensurability of competing paradigms. Dutton’s error here does not stand alone. Kuhn notes in the Second Edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions that many readers (in particular the philosopher Steven Toulmin)

have reported that I believe the following: the proponents of incommensurable theories cannot communicate with each other at all; as a result … theory must be chosen for reasons that are ultimately personal and subjective; some sort of mystical apperception is responsible for the decision actually reached.

He goes on to emphasize, however, that there are decidedly non-mystical, impersonal ways to negotiate fissures in scientific understanding, based on, among other things, a shared “neural apparatus” among all parties to a debate, and a shared history and experience (in a general sense). The same process may be engaged between isolate cultural groups– though the distance may be, at first, much wider than that between scientific paradigms within a single culture. None of the work of Mead or Whorf seriously opposes this possibility. (Whether or not Margaret Mead’s “cultural determinism” was as absolute as claimed by her detractors, she never argued that this determinism prevented cross cultural understanding. In fact her chief aim in studying adolescents in Samoa was to gain insight on the phenomenon of Western adolescence, in the hope that some of the “disturbances that vex” Western teenagers–that is, sexual anxiety and repression–might be alleviated.)

The idea that we may have a genetic memory for the Eden of our phylogenetic youth is in itself not particularly troubling. But the significance of this fact remains, after all Dutton’s unpacking of it, somewhat cloudy. You don’t need a Darwinian theory of evolution to imagine that if we were magnesium-based life forms from the planet Xkwyffgestigoppdt we would have very different aesthetic preferences. More importantly, what is pleasing to us is known to include not just game-rich hilly landscapes, but also stark lunar scenes, globs of mercury, and the smell of gasoline, not to mention Judith’s beheading of Holofernes, so it is an odd rhetorical strategy to try to anchor true aesthetics only to the former. By doing so, and concluding that “the whole idea that art worlds are monadically sealed off from one another is daft,” Dutton successfully refutes an argument no influential scholar has yet offered, though the moderately credulous reader would have no way of knowing this.


For all of his reverence for the Santa Barbara school evolutionary psychologists, Dutton does not seem to grasp the primary dilemma raised by their hypotheses. As philosopher John Dupre observes, the corollary to the proposition that our minds and brains are adapted to life in the Stone Age, is that they are maladapted to our lives today. There’s a paradox in this, to the extent that under a pan-adaptationist program, there is no possible mechanism that would have allowed human culture to evolve away from its (putatively) optimal fitness landscape. Put another way, if modern cultural forms such as art are Pleistocene genetic adaptations, then how did we arrive at our contemporary present, so out of tune with these adaptations? We would need to invoke a whole second category of non-adaptive cultural and artistic forms to explain this passage. (Or worse–dread!–we’d have to invoke Gouldian spandrels). Not only is this not a very parsimonious story, it would seem to take some of the rhetorical force out of the argument that all human behavior must, a priori, be biologically adaptive. The aphorism issued by evolutionary psychology godparents Toomey and Cosmides that “our modern skulls house a stone age mind,” is, like so many sociobiological pronouncements, either a logical impossibility, or a vague banality.

It has been remarked, by Mary Midgley, among others, that the Behaviorists and epiphenomenalists of the 20th century could not really have believed that consciousness did not exist, regardless of what they put forth in their work. They could not have believed that they themselves were not conscious. Similarly, the evolutionary psychologists of today (and their advocates) cannot really believe that empathy and altruism are really selfishness in disguise, at the gene level, and that our moral agency actually serves biological imperatives directly invisible to us. The idea makes for provocative popular science, but in doing so it sucks all the oxygen out of the prospect of a meaningful life. It’s a recipe for mass stupor, or mass suicide.

We have to also doubt that Dutton believes, when pressed, that the existence of King Lear (his example) is explained by the Darwinian principle of “skill display.” Nothing of any interest in Lear is so explained. Nor are the collected poems of Emily Dickinson (his example) in any way illuminated by a genetic propensity to sit around a fire and listen to stories. Every time an English lit undergrad attempts to inject Darwinian logic into a conversation of the meaning of Shakespeare of Dickinson, our culture–our species–gets measurably dumber and shallower, and from here forward Dutton has to share some responsibility for that.


“It is time,” Dutton announces early on in The Art Instinct, “to look at the arts in light of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.” If that is true, then we find ourselves under a very lax regime of timeliness: The French positivist historian Hippolyte Taine first explored a Darwinian science of literature in the late 19th century. Some of the puzzles that bedevil us in Dutton’s work are also presented by Taine’s determinist science of culture: what can the laws of art we are uncovering really tell us about ourselves–or about what comes next?

Many reviewers have seized upon Dutton’s claim that 12-tone music will not stand the test of time, because it does not have a Darwinian aesthetic foundation. That is, humans innately treasure tonality, and cannot really grok musical forms which abandon it. But it is a dicey thing try to constrain the role of contingency on aesthetics in advance. What might we have made of the fact, in the 10th century, that musical polyphony had not yet been developed? Or, in the 1940s, that theatrical improvisation had not? Would we not have been tempted to assert that the failure of these forms to evolve in the millions of years leading up to a then-present moment was an argument for the unnaturalness of these forms? We might even be led to suggest biological laws that had preemptively winnowed polyphony and improv from the gene pool, just as Dutton suggests, late in the book, that the historical absence of any olfactory-based art forms (“symphonies of smell”) is evidence for their impossibility on Darwinian grounds. But cultural laws have no such predictive power, for which we should be supremely thankful, for if they did, it would be grounds for enormous despair.



[1] This quote is taken from Zadie Smith’s remarks at DFW’s memorial service, excerpted in the January 2009 issue of Harpers.


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