Charles Petzold

Reading Denis Dutton’s “The Art Instinct”

January 26, 2009
New York, N.Y.

If you have a kitten around, you know you can crumple a sheet of paper into a ball, toss it on the floor, and the kitten will go nuts — pouncing on the ball, batting it around, chasing it, tossing it up in the air. Even older cats exhibit similar behavior unless they've grown too fat and lazy and jaded.

The kitten's actions seem like play, but we all know that it's pure instinct. Something about the crumpled sheet of paper triggers the mouse-catching reflexes in the cat's brain. Cats have been eating small rodents for millennia. Their skill at catching mice has been honed through the process of natural selection, and to some degree, artificial selection, as cats have been domesticated by humans to eliminate mice around the home and farm. The instinct for catching mice is part of the neural raw material passed on from cat to kitten through the generations.

Although we humans recognize instinct when we see it in animals, often we're reluctant to see it in ourselves. We prefer to rest assured that we are above all that. We are not slaves to primitive impulses. Our free-willed choices are the result of careful rational deliberation. Yet, the human race has been subjected to the same evolutionary pressures as other animals, so the lack of instinct in humans would truly be odd. It is much more likely that the process of evolution — in both natural selection and sexual selection as described by Charles Darwin — has molded our brains with particular strengths, weakness, and proclivities. Let's call these traits "human nature."

The attempt to analyze the effect of evolution on human nature is known as evolutionary psychology, a field of study sometimes maligned (and even sometimes rightfully so) for the construction of "just so" stories that explain facets of human nature without any real proof. Yet, the existence of universal and cross-cultural patterns in human behavior is just too pervasive to ignore. Rather than providing scientific standards of proof, evolutionary psychology seems more useful as a tool for offering us hints and possibilities that help us understand ourselves.

Let's look at art, for instance, and by art let's include not only painting and sculpture, but spoken and written literature, staged narrative, music, dance, and more modern manifestations such as film, and let's include other cultures of all sorts whenever they create artifacts or performances that are imbued with an open-ended imagination that goes beyond craft or engineering.

To some biologists with a particular interest in evolution — the late Stephen Jay Gould, for example, — art is inconsequential to human survival and procreation, and hence cannot be explained by evolution. Art is one of the inexplicable byproducts of the large human brain, a spandrel of evolution, as Gould called them.

Denis Dutton — founder of the journal Philosophy and Literature, founder of the web site Arts & Letters Daily, and professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury (New Zealand) — thinks differently. His ambitious book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (Bloomsbury Press, 2009) is a wonderful introduction to the field of Darwinian aesthetics, and if the title is reminiscent of Steven Pinker's The Language Instinct (1994), that is very deliberate.

Too often, Dutton says, modern philosophers and critics begin developing a theory of art that must encompass the really hard cases, such as the "ready-mades" of Marcel Duchamp and John Cage's 4'33". The inclusion of these works in their theory tends to lead them far astray, for they arrive at a conclusion that art is socially constructed and culture specific.

In constrast to this approach, Dutton begins with much easier examples. What is the type of painting preferred by most people around the globe? It is, of course, the landscape, and a very particular landscape — one with water, food sources, trees, hiding places, and a path to perhaps another source of food or comfort. It is, in short, the savanna, the home of our Pleistocene ancestors during the period in which we became recognizably human. Our preference for this environment is wired into our brains for "savannas contain more protein per square mile than any other landscape type" (p. 19-20) as well as offering protection from predators (quick — up the tree).

But most of Dutton's argument doesn't focus on painting. Using Steven Pinker's work as a springboard, Dutton is much more interested in how art evolved from language. To humans, the language ability is innate, even if the particular language a child first learns is cultural. Seemingly equally innate is the ability of children for make-believe, to construct worlds that mix fantasy (invisible teapot and teacups) with the real (tea always pours down, not up), and to keep the rules of these worlds separate and distinct. Also innate to most children (beginning at the age of 2 or so) is theory of mind — the ability to recognize that other people have internal lives similar to our own, but at the same times uniquely theirs.

Consequently, perhaps the oldest art form is storytelling: What began undoubtedly with stories told around the campfire led eventually to more elaborate spoken narratives of legends, written narratives (the Iliad and Odyssey), plays, novels, film, and (much more recently) narrative-based videogames.

What's crucial is that these narratives (either historical, or partly historical, or purely fictional) help us survive. Stories give our brains an opportunity to work out contingencies of response to possible future events. (If a kitten jumps at everything that moves, it is better able to pounce on a real mouse when one shows up.) If we come upon a situation similar to one we once heard about in a story, we are much more likely to deal successfully with that situation and survive to pass on the "storytelling genes." Stories also provide examples of many kinds of people and how their minds work, and hence help us deal with others in social situations. Imaginative storytelling is one of the survival instincts that is packaged into human intelligence.

Yet, real-life human languages are much more elaborate than what's needed for these stories or day-to-day communication. People can get by with fewer than a thousand words, so why do human vocabularies commonly encompass tens of thousands of words? Our languages have so many words that we need special books to tell us what they mean, and other books that list words that mean roughly the same. All these words seem as wasteful of natural resources as — well, as wasteful as the colorful tail feathers on a peacock's tail.

And certainly that comparison gives us a clue: The extravagance of language, Dutton contends, is a manifestation of the other half of Darwin's analysis of evolution: sexual selection. Humans choose mates partially based on physical appearance (which is a rough indication of health) but also intelligence, and a good indication of intelligence is a facility with language. Darwin realized in The Descent of Man that the human mind is a sexual ornament, and language is how that mind shows off its colorful feathers.

That poetry and song arose out of courtship is obvious, for the subject of love remains to the present day easily the #1 topic of poems and songs. The result has been "survival not just of the physically strongest but of the cleverest, wittiest, and wisest." (p. 163)

Throughout The Art Instinct, Dutton is careful. He has a very good understanding of Darwinian evolution and well knows the pitfalls of evolutionary psychology.

Only late in the book does Dutton return to tackle the hard cases in the chapter "Intention, Forgery, Dada: Three Aesthetic Problems" and even applies his definition of art (expressed as a set of cluster criteria in Chapter 3) to Marcel Duchamp's notorious sculpture Fountain (1917). He concludes that Fountain is, indeed, a work of art, although he certainly doesn't extrapolate that conclusion into more recent dadaesque works.

To me, however, Dutton's whole argument is crowned with his discussion of the anger we feel upon learning that we've been taken in by art forgeries, whether they be the fake Vermeers of Han van Meegeren, or the doctored recordings of other pianists repackaged as the performances of Joyce Hatto. In a sense, it shouldn't make a difference who created a work and who is credited with it. Yet....

Inauthenticity in art thus becomes an extremely serious transgression to those who were fooled, but amusing to those who were not.

The Art Instinct is well-structured, well-written, and quite persuasive in presenting "one long argument" that art is an inevitably intrinsic part of human nature, human intelligence, and (no one should be surprised) human sexuality.