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?