Saturday, February 14, 2009

The Sexual Selection Theory of Art: A Review of Dennis Dutton's "The Art Instinct"

The Sexual Selection Theory of Art: A Review of Dennis Dutton's "The Art Instinct"

Why have human beings always enjoyed making and experiencing art throughout history and in all areas of the world? This book is a bold claim about the nature of human beings. The claim is that the things we enjoy doing and the things we appreciate about each other were shaped largely by our history as a species rather than by what we learn from each other during our own life time.

This may not seem too bold to those unfamiliar with the academic climate of modern social sciences and humanities. In academia, particularly in social sciences and humanities, it is virtually heretical to claim any significant role at all for "nature" in human behavior. Although biologists in general agree that human nature is the result of an interaction of the expression of genes and their environment, the philosophy underlying the arts and social sciences heavily emphasizes the role of learning and enculturation in shaping us.

Still, even among biologists, Dutton's version of the claim is somewhat controversial. Dutton doesn't just say that human beings are the result of an evolutionary history. He doesn't just say that our brain and other organs are shaped by that history. Those claims are uncontroversial in biology. Dutton's particular boldness is that he claims that our nervous system specifically was shaped during the Pleistocene period of our history to favor certain qualities in potential mates, and that this shaping is the reason we have art.

The reason this claim is controversial even within biology has to do with two kinds of problem. The claim is rooted in a relatively recent subfield of biology known as evolutionary psychology. Evolutionary biologists are split about the potential of evolutionary psychology to explain human behavior. Some, proponents of evolutionary psychology, believe that the only way we can fully trace the workings of the human mind is to find what specific sorts of problems it evolved to solve.

Others are skeptical on principle. Some just think the whole endeavor is wrongheaded. The late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould argued that the human mind was more like a collection of byproducts of adaptations than adaptations. The philosopher Jerry Fodor argues that while modularity of the sort assumed by Dutton's chosen form of evolutionary psychology is clearly the rule in lower level neural processes like perception, it is unlikely in principle to play a role in higher mental processes.

Still others agree with the principles behind evolutionary psychology but don't think we can do it practically because the evidence we would need is too elusive and too easily obscured . They often cite the unfortunate tendency to explain everything glibly in terms of hypothetical Pleistocene adaptations. This tendency has been noted about evolutionary biology in general, but in other areas of evolutionary biology the methodological issues are more readily addressed. When we try to explain the roots of human behaviors, the issues become more complex.

Teasing out the evolutionary history of adaptations can be surprisingly tricky even for things with seemingly straightforward functions like feathers and eyes. When we look at mind and complex behaviors, the issues get extremely thorny.

Perhaps the best review of the empirical issues around evolutionary psychology are found in David Buller's book "Adapting Minds." [[ASIN:0262524600 Adapting Minds: Evolutionary Psychology and the Persistent Quest for Human Nature (Bradford Books)]] Buller summarizes the core arguments: (1) EP requires a specific stable environment that we adapted to over time, and the evidence for this is based entirely on time span, rather than having found such an environment, (2) a primary tool of adaptation analysis, the comparison of species which share a common ancestor, is rendered problematic by our lack of knowledge other hominid species any closer than chimps, (3) rapid evolutionary change since the Pleistocene is potentially relevant, and points out the difficulties distinguishing adaptations of the Pleistocene from those far more ancient, and (4) most of the EP experimental programs are open to interpretation regarding how their data relates back to evidence for adaptations.

Dutton's argument is well made but not compelling because it is by nature very speculative. However he does do a good job addressing the major objections in a way that lets you see the potential for his theory. The argument is particularly difficult, and Dutton's efforts particularly admirable, because he not only has to address the scientific issues regarding evolutionary psychology, but also the climate of opinion in the arts and social sciences that opposes the whole notion of explaining human preferences and experience in biological rather than cultural terms. Against this background of broad skepticism, Denis Dutton is particularly well suited to make the case for the bold use of evolutionary psychology because he is more familiar than most people with humanities as well as having a good understanding of biology.

Dutton has to jump through several rather big hoops. Since he is arguing specifically about our universal appreciation of art as something to be explained, he has to first establish that art is indeed a distinct universal domain that can be studied. This is a challenge already because the modernist philosophy underlying art does not view it as a single domain that is universal to human beings. Dutton addresses this in two parts: first arguing that art can be defined usefully in terms of a dozen or so related cluster criteria, and then arguing that these are more likely the result of natural selection than they are byproducts. Next he has to establish that art is not only universal to humankind but also that something universal to our species actually requires an evolutionary explanation.

In the most generally interesting parts of the book, Dutton raises common controversies about art in order to show how he would address them. In the most technically interesting parts of the book, Dutton compares and contrasts the competing theories: (1) it is purely cultural with no relation to natural selection, (2) it helps bind people into groups for collective action, (3) it is the result of byproducts of evolutionary adaptation, (4) it is the result of sexual selection.

Ultimately Dutton settles on a sexual selection explanation, similar to Geoffrey Miller's treatment in "The Mating Mind," [[ASIN:038549517X The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature]] but more focused on art in particular. In this theory, we came to appreciate certain abilities in each other as a way to find better mates, and these various abilities cluster around certain common themes like skill, novelty, specific focus, expressive individuality, intellectual challenge, emotional saturation, and imaginative experience.

If you appreciate Dutton's intriguing cluster criteria for art and you accept at least in principle the concept that we may have evolved preferences shaped through sexual selection, it is easy to find Dutton's argument exciting in spite of its speculative status. This is very good popular science writing: a bold theory, a well made argument, and a lot of interesting examples.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of such a bold theory, but at least one good reason to consider it: it is wonderfully elegant.

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