Why evolution?


Evolution, as it should be, is a growth industry.   We should be pleased with this.   And yet I find myself  wary of some recent books and articles that are beginning to look at cultural production, and art more specifically, through the lens of evolutionary theory.   Here I’m thinking in particular of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct (Bloomsbury, 2009).   Dutton’s aim in this text is to demonstrate how our preferences for arts of all kinds can be traced back to selection pressures–essentially, for Dutton, finding a mate–that have shaped our sensory-cognitive faculties over thousands of years.

Dutton’s appeal to evolutionary pscyhology in itself is not problematic, but I’m  concerned, not because I think that this appeal will somehow strip the arts of their purchase on meaning and significance, but because such arguments offer up the realities of evolution as an ontology for art–i.e. what ‘art’ is, is nothing more than an evironmental adaptation designed to proliferate the species.

It’s not that I’m at odds with this notion; in fact, I find it quite obvious.   Insofar as our cultural products become a manifest part of what the evolutionary psychologists would call our “fitness landscape,” it stands to reason that our adaptations to that lansdscape necessarily take into account that cultural production.   But, as Joseph Carroll, one of the leading proponents of what has been called “Literary Darwinism,” has stated:

Research in the next few years will determine whether we can generate a cumulative body of explanatory principles rooted in Darwinian theory, that are in themselves simple and general but nonetheless encompass the particularities and complexities of literature and the other arts.

The question is: What exactly needs explaining?   If we are hardwired for certain things (as I’m sure we are), if art, or the creative spirit, or the kunstwollen, is innate, then so what?   This doesn’t explain art; it simply means that artistic creation is being taken seriously by evolution-based psychologies and sociologies.   We’re still left with the hard work of understanding–and more importantly, arguing for–why certain works of art (more than others) demand our attention, aren’t we?

2 thoughts on “Why evolution?”

  1. Hah! I haven’t read the book – and won’t – but Church’s “Heart of the Andes” is on the cover, a painting of the railroad era in which South America was a foreseeable commercial frontier and Humboldt’s synthesizing geology made it legible. You can stand in front of this painting at the Met, a painting framed as though continuous with the room, and pretend you are looking through a tube with your hand to find a variety of picturesque “viewing spots” in that landscape. It’s a lovely example of manifest destiny and visual culture. Good for them for noticing.

    I do think that there is something very interesting about the fact that by the time evolutionary ideas began to circulate with acceptance, there was a lot of concern about art and adornment. Riegl’s whole treatise on the origins of art begins with tattoos. But also think of Huysman’s jewel-encrusted turtle, owned by a man trapped in his own home by his “decadent” taste for adornments, or Post-Impressionist concerns about the frame and the color of exhibition walls as potentially an intrusion upon the painting itself. Even at that time, the notion that art was a vehicle by which one finds a procreative mate was being turned on its head in one way or another – anxieties about male “effeminacy” (Sarah Burns is great on this) or contested notions of the public and the private sphere (and Martha Ward here) anxiously circulated around the value of art as adornment in the late nineteenth century.

    Art history and art criticism started at the same time that evolutionary thought did. Curious that artifice won over nature, and that at the same time “mere decoration” was held at bay, if not even considered dangerous.

  2. I likewise haven’t read the book (not that I am opposed to reading it) and therefore I am reluctant to offer an opinion. Dennis Dutton is a thoughtful man. There is always something to be gained from applying new frames of thought and interpretation to art–as long as you don’t get carried away.

    My worry echoes Jonathan’s last paragraph. The proposition that art is linked to anthropology is unassailable. Searching for links between art and our dominant anthropological paradigm would therefore seem like an honest intellectual exercise. But how do you jump from the macro plane of anthropology to the highly specific and nuanced meanings and systems of art? The problem seems analogous in some ways to applications of grand evolutionary social theories to the interpretation of everyday events. At some point the connection between the abstraction of evolution and the specifics of life as it is actually lived becomes too tenuous.

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