It is hard to imagine what purpose art could have served in a world where every day was largely a struggle to survive until the next day. How did art develop among our ancestors, and what role did it play in their ability to survive and progress? In The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution, Denis Dutton seeks to answer these questions as he explores the characteristics of art in the framework of Darwinian philosophy and human evolution.
Many readers will doubtless reject The Art Instinct out of hand, disagreeing with the premise of evolution as a valid basis for any discussion. Many will argue that Dutton is simply an interesting man, making interesting arguments based on a false premise. But belief and even science aside, it is hard to argue that Dutton’s view is not indeed fascinating.
Dutton, who is also the founder and editor of the highly regarded academic website Arts and Letters Daily, frames his argument within the traditional understanding of Darwinism. “Darwinian adaptations are inherited biological or behavioral characteristics that reliably develop in an organism,” he says. “Your fingernails, the hair on your head—they reliably develop in you, in Homo sapiens, because somewhere in the past it increased your chance of survival and reproduction.”
He takes the argument one step further and one step to the side, however. Dutton explains, “I think it’s time to take Charles Darwin’s views on evolution, on natural selection and sexual selection, and apply them to artistic taste.”
Dutton explains that for many years the answer to the question, “Are artistic values universal,” was, “No.” He aims to disprove this understanding. The Art Instinct discusses the discovery that art is not culturally restrictive and offers examples of the values that are shared by mankind across culture and tradition.
These shared values, in following with Dutton’s argument, are a natural part of the process of evolution. Dutton explains that as man became man, those that developed certain senses and abilities survived, while those that did not develop these abilities died off. These important abilities include the characteristics that make art.
Dutton offers many examples, one of which refers to the human love of storytelling, an art form that is adored across the world. Where did this love of storytelling come from? Why is it part of human nature? How did it help our ancestors survive? “Human beings use storytelling as a way to think about and practice different scenarios in terms of planning,” he says. He goes on to say that this would have been “extremely important both to plan the courses of action of hunting or what to do next week, but also to think against other predator tribes.”
To emphasize this point, Dutton points to the phenomenon of a child’s make-believe tea party. He explains that a child’s understanding of make-believe kicks in far too early to be attributed to experience. Rather, it is an instinct, a trait that has evolved in the human being over a long period of necessity.
Because we have all developed in relatively the same way, it would follow that our understanding and ability to appreciate art would be broadly uniform. Dutton explains, “Look at the arts universally across culture and you’ll find that they have something like eight, ten or twelve characteristics in common. They are worldwide characteristics. Any work you can show me that has all twelve will definitely be a work of art. Any thing you can show me that doesn’t have any of them, will definitely not be a work of art. And in between there will be lots of marginal cases that we can argue about.”
Some of these characteristics include:
• Direct pleasure
• Expressive individuality
• The surrounding atmosphere of criticism
• A sense of intellectual challenge
• Tradition (“This is the least important thing on the list”)
• Emotional saturation
• Representation of real or imaginary experience
• Skill and virtuosity
• Intention to be the object of focus
These characteristics have been shaped over time and have become a part of the human identity, explaining why humans across the world can stop in front of a beautiful landscape painting and appreciate what they are seeing, regardless of whether or not they live in a similar environment. People love the presence of water and animal life, of trees that fork near the ground, of rolling hills and an unimpeded view of the horizon. We also like to see a path, winding through the landscape and disappearing in one direction. As Dutton puts it, our ancestors are those who were brave and curious enough to take that path, not the ones who stayed behind.