The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

by Denis Dutton

Bloomsbury, 288 pages, $25

The human artistic drive is as old as the species itself. The famous Lascaux cave paintings in France show that even at the earliest stages man had an urge for expression beyond utilitarian needs. Objects are made to be useful, but what produces beautiful objects?

This is the question that belongs to the difficult realm of aesthetics, and Denis Dutton’s Art Instinct is an attempt to explain the origin of creativity by applying the Darwinian theory of evolution to art. Art, he thinks, is an expression of an instinct that developed during a long evolutionary process—“by-products of adaptations.”

Dutton’s book is rich in a variety of topics, and it is written with clarity, covering such areas as “landscape and longing,” “art and human nature,” “what is art?” “art and natural selection,” and “art and human self-domestication.” Not all are of equal value, and not all seem to support a Darwinian interpretation. The evolutionary claim, which Dutton makes very forcefully in his introduction, seems to be so watered down by side discussions that the interesting thesis ends up looking somewhat marginal.

According to Dutton, “nothing can be proposed as an adaptive function of fiction unless it explains how the human appetite for fictional narrative acted to increase, however marginally, the chances of our Pleistocene forebears surviving and procreating.” In this context, Dutton provides support for his claim by listing three kinds of “adaptive advantage that might explain the pervasiveness of fiction in life.” Stories, for example, “provide low-cost, low-risk surrogate experience”; they can be “richly instructive sources of factual (or putatively factual) information”; and they “encourage us to explore the points of view, beliefs, motivations, and values of other human minds.” In other words, the world offered by fiction writers is not about facts. Stories are not true, exactly; they explore possible variations of human situations. It is not much different from a chess game (a metaphor Dutton explores at considerable length) that provides us with innumerable possible moves.

One of Dutton’s major claims is that, regardless of its origin, art contains intrinsic aesthetic value. This is not true, Dutton thinks, for religion, and that is why Darwinism is inimical to religion but not to art. Once we discover the idea of God is a by-product of evolutionary process, we find that there is no point in praying to him or seeking solace under a cathedral’s vault, because the rock of moral norms is no firmer than shifting sands. But since works of art “seldom make overt assertions of fact or instruct people on how they must behave,” Darwinism does not ­undermine the foundation of art. In other words, art offers no more than variations on human situations, like a game of chess—although, from an evo­lutionary point of view, Dutton says, the moves that increase our chances of survival should be accepted.

This claim is not as strong as Dutton seems to believe. One can invoke here the fables of Aesop or La Fontaine. They offer moral lessons the same way that some biblical stories do. As a matter of fact, in many cases, the moral instructions are more explicit than in biblical parables. One can, of course, say that they are merely cautionary tales, not moral commandments: “If you do this, this is what is going to happen to you”; “If you do not do this, this is what is going to happen.” Dutton might insist that, despite their didactic tone, Aesop’s fables are no more than possible “literary chess moves.”

But take the example of tragedy. Many of the ancient Greek dramas have a strong moral bent and, if read carefully, are reminiscent of the biblical commandments. Crossing some boundaries for the Greeks meant that punishment follows. The tragedies show that the Greeks, despite their not having the idea of a single God who is the source of moral order, did pretty well in constructing a vision of the cosmos permeated by moral order.

On several occasions Dutton invokes Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina , and he is right that it would be silly to think Tolstoy wrote eight hundred pages for the sole purpose of condemning a woman as immoral because she fell in love with another man. The same goes for Ibsen’s A Doll’s House . Tolstoy and Ibsen created heroines who seek happiness outside marriage. Their popularity and status as major classics of Western literature runs counter to Dutton’s adaptive claims. If Darwin is right, shouldn’t a work of fiction that presents the preservation of marital bonds be more popular than works that show the opposite?

What might come closest to a work that would satisfy Dutton’s Darwinian thesis is a national epic where the fate of a nation is weighed against the happiness of an individual. But even here the individual hero would probably have to be condemned as a traitor. “Adoptive readings of literature” have little hope of success for the simple reason that literature is concerned with the variations in individual life, not the life of the species. Our enjoyment of Tolstoy and Ibsen weakens the claim that the work of fiction “increases, however marginally, the chances of our Pleistocene forebears surviving and procreating.” Neither Tolstoy’s Anna nor Ibsen’s Nora want to procreate. On the contrary, both have a strong desire to live a life that can satisfy their individual feelings and longings. How good a literature could it be if Anna stayed in a loveless and stale marriage? If we enjoy Anna Karenina and A Doll’s House , it is not because we want to reject our moral code but because the two authors show us the complexity and depth of individual human relations.

One can also argue that liberation from moral constraints is suicidal in literature. Kundera’s heroes in The Unbearable Lightness of Being , for example, are motivated neither by love nor loyalty (not even loyalty to their country, after the 1968 Soviet invasion). Because referential moral norms have been done away with in the name of individual self-expression and authenticity, we can neither condemn nor praise them. Kundera’s heroes offer little of the adaptive techniques that Dutton lists to explain the popularity of fiction. On the contrary, if the millions of copies sold of The Unbearable Lightness of Being mirror the state of man’s soul at the end of the twentieth century, fiction has become a tool not of adaptation but of man’s collective extinction.

Dutton is on firmer ground in the chapter on “landscape and longing,” which is probably the most interesting. He invokes here the 1993 incident in which the Nation Institute sponsored a program to discover “artistic preferences of people in ten countries.”

For almost two billion people, the preference turned out to be a blue landscape. Dutton intelligently engages the distinguished philosopher and art critic Arthur Danto, who blames the calendar industry for proliferating images all over the world, which allows the population of Kenya in Africa and millions of Americans to show preference for the same kind of landscape. Dutton points out that, if the preference for the same kind of landscape is universal, much of twentieth-century painting (particularly the abstract form, down at the bottom of the preferential scale) has no appeal to universality. In Dutton’s view, “this fundamental attraction to certain types of landscapes is not socially constructed but present in human nature as an inheritance from the Pleistocene, the 1.6 million years during which modern human beings evolved.”

Dutton may have a point, and Kenyan preferences for watery and blue landscapes could be an atavistic form of longing. But what, then, about such things as Poussin’s popular paintings, particularly the mythological scenes with ruins? Or Piranesi’s visions of temples in Paestum or his most sought-out prints, representing prisons? Each can be said to express a form of longing: physical harmony, for instance, or idylls. And how are these adaptive for the species? Is anyone actually willing to argue that Piranesi’s prints of prisons represent a Pleistocene longing for imprisonment, or a genetically transmitted memory of living in caves?

However intriguing Dutton’s thesis, we need a discussion of many more solid cases before we accept Darwin in the pantheon of the theoreticians of art.

Zbigniew Janowski, a writer living in Baltimore, is author of Cartesian Theodicy, Augustinian“Cartesian Index, and How to Read Descartes’ Meditations.