Denis Dutton Goes On About Art

There’s a mini media blitz underway promoting Denis Dutton’s new book The Art Instinct. He was on the Colbert Report last week, he’s reviewed in the Times, and he’s featured in this week’s Bloggingheads Science Saturday:

While it’s kind of entertaining to listen to John Horgan struggling to get a word in edgewise, I’m kind of skeptical about the book. Dutton’s argument is that human aesthetics are, contrary to the claims of the academic art establishment, more universal than socially constructed, and can best be understood through evolution. Or, to be more precise, through evolutionary psychology.

Dutton’s an erudite guy– a philosopher by trade, and founder of Arts & Letters Daily– and he cites lots of examples to attempt to prove his point. I’d be more impressed with the whole business, though, had I not recently read a Scientific American article on fallacies of pop evolutionary psychology.

The problem with Dutton’s arguments (on tv and the web– I haven’t read the book) is that, like most other evolutionary psychology arguments, they’re not so much scientific arguments as Just So Stories. They sound very good, but they’re all premised on some ideas about what things were like in the Pleistocene when our distant forebears were evolving, and we just don’t know that much about those conditions. It’s hard to shake the idea that, presented with some study showing a radically different result, you could construct an equally convincing story about how human evolution shows things must be that way.

The Times review nods briefly in the direction of this problem, but then shakes it off, and agrees wholeheartedly with everything Dutton says. That review was by another philosopher, though. I’d be interested to see how somebody with a more relevant science background (preferably somebody skeptical about evolutionary psychology) would review it.

I’m not curious enough to read it myself, of course…

Comments

  1. #1 Laelaps
    February 2, 2009

    Spot on, Chad. I still have to read the book, but the impression that I got from the interviews is that it’s just more evolutionary psychology just-so storytelling. I guess we should be thankful it wasn’t called “The Art Gene”?

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    February 2, 2009

    Karst topography cave paintings under France exploring the Ising model were scrubbed clean then blasted. Official Truth cushions toothless soft organic jaws of humanity from the hard cutting edge denture plastic of reality.

  3. #3 Kevin H
    February 2, 2009

    Even if he’s right about the evolutionary basis of aesthetics, that tells you very little about what makes “good” art. I’m sure there are people out there who would argue that “good” art is one that challenges preconceptions and assumptions, and therefore should violate these evolutionarily derived rules.

  4. #4 milkshake
    February 2, 2009

    Even if the book is not exactly hard science, it is a tremendous progress that some people in the philosophy departments try to study human culture from the evolutionary perspective, and write up their thoughts in understandable, coherent language. Denis Dutton is a brave man and has interesting things to say.

  5. #5 Todd I. Stark
    February 2, 2009

    I’ve read it, and I suspect that I found the book much more interesting than did the folks here who didn’t read it. (grin)

    I think It can be dismissed out of hand as a “just so story” in this manner only if you assume that cognitive evolutionary psychology is impossible in principle. Dutton early on addresses several of the arguments against the whole project of EP and I think he does a good enough job to at least susped disbelief to enjoy the remainder of the book.

    Dutton does not look for a single adaptation for art by any means, his argument is an extended variation of Geoff Miller’s (The Mating Mind) idea that sexual selection promotes an aesthetic for appreciation of cleverness (among other things).

    Obviously it would be difficult to make an open and shut case for such a thing, as with most evolutionary psychology, but I think Dutton does an excellent job by arguing each of the main points from both research data and examples: (1) art is loosely but usefully definable in species-universal terms using multiple criteria in the rough manner of a prototype concept, and is not purely culture-local, (2) art and appreciation of art is a human universal, (3) that appreciation is consistent with qualities we would expect to arise from sexual selection. He addresses in detail a number of difficult boundary cases along with the data that supports his thesis.

    In Dutton’s hands, sexual selection makes such an elegant explanation for our appreciation of such a diverse range of creative abilities that I think it would be a shame to reject this thesis out of hand. If it is possible at all to unify the results in various fields of psychology and social science, this sort of theory will surely have to be part of the framework.

    Thanks for this blog post, I was hoping someone knowledgeable in biology would want to discuss the book.

  6. #6 Chad Orzel
    February 2, 2009

    I think It can be dismissed out of hand as a “just so story” in this manner only if you assume that cognitive evolutionary psychology is impossible in principle. Dutton early on addresses several of the arguments against the whole project of EP and I think he does a good enough job to at least susped disbelief to enjoy the remainder of the book.

    The problem is that I lack the background to really evaluate such claims. I’ve read stuff by Pinker that makes the EP project sound pretty plausible and convincing, but people who follow the field much more closely than I do have told me that he’s full of it.

    As a result, my default posture to EP is fairly skeptical. It may be that Dutton says something in the book that would be enough to overcome that skepticism, but nothing he’s said in this week’s media appearances does the job.

  7. #7 milkshake
    February 2, 2009

    Anthropologists can make educated guesses, and these guesses can be supported or discounted by new finds.

    An early school of thought held that humans lost their body hair because this improved their health. (Reduced flea and lice problem). Then it became clear that human body is adapted to endurance running – with big buttock muscles, nearly bare skin and huge number of sweat glands. Most animals cannot sweat and on a hot day and in open terrain it is possible to run them into heat exhaustion. And this hunting technique has been documented on plains of East Africa. In this respect it is curious that people find pleasant views of rolling hills and grassy meadows and lakes and sea shores – as opposed say, thickets of woods. In the same sense it is interesting that people like to tell stories, sing and draw. It is possible to draw connections to human evolution, and some of these may be even correct.
    Most importantly, we can re-tell these just-so stories to impress our potential mates.

  8. #8 Matt
    February 5, 2009

    I had Denis for Phil. of Art, some years ago now, and he did spend some time on the subject of evolutionary psychology. It was interesting, and plausible, but it definitely did come off in the lecture theatre as a lot of just-so stories, often with some suggestion of a political agenda. Now that was just an undergrad course, and half the class were Fine Arts majors, so he may have been dumbing things down a bit, but there was definitely a contrast with the discussions of EP in the undergrad Cog. Sci. course I took afterwards. That was the only paper of his that I took, so it’s a limited impression, but I would be sceptical of the idea.

    That said, I’ll probably pick the book up if I see it, he was an entertaining lecturer.

  9. #9 Phil Goetz
    February 12, 2009

    If art has no component that is universal, or at least universal to humans, then Sid Vicious is as good as Beethoven. In fact, any arbitrary recording of noise would then be as good as Beethoven.