Happy birthday Charles Darwin
Post #1294 • February 12, 2009, 11:25 AM • 17 Comments
Today is Darwin's 200th birthday, which affords me an excuse to link to the recent International Herald Tribune review of The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution by Denis Dutton, who attempts to make a case for Darwinian aesthetics:
His considered view is that Darwinian aesthetics sheds light on literature, music and painting not by demonstrating them to be evolutionary adaptations, but by showing how their existence and character are connected to prehistoric preferences, interests and capacities. This is a reasonable aim, and it is certainly intriguing to hear that the sorts of landscape pictures preferred by 8-year-olds around the world seem to mirror the types of flat, savannah-like vistas in which their distant ancestors may have thrived. Similarly, when reading of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein's admission that "what he really liked in a recital was to fix his eye on some lovely sitting near the stage and imagine he was playing just for her," it's interesting to consider Dutton's theory that the desire to impress potential mates played a role in spreading artistic skills among our forebears.
Another aesthetic Darwinian, Frederick Turner, apparently has a website as of eleven days ago. In Beauty: The Value of Values, Turner goes as far to say that flowers reflect the aesthetic preferences of bees.
I feel a lot of sympathy for the arguments and thus note with some regret that neither author has a terribly friendly take on abstraction. Turner coined the name for the Radical Center movement that basically argues for the supremacy of contemporary neoclassicism. According to an Amazon review, "Dutton dismisses 'dadaism' and abstract art as not really art..." So we clearly have some work to do. Still, if we're going to account for art having appeal across cultures and times, our best option so far is shared biology, and Darwinian aesthetics may yet provide us with valuable material to prove it.