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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.




February 12, 2009, 11:48 AM

When I heard about Dutton I emailed him but he has not responded.

It is disappointing to hear that he does not take abstraction seriously, not because I want to defend abstraction but because it means he has the usual simplistic literal view of visual art - that it needs to be "pictures"- that most academic and literary types have.

I have found that this is an almost universal limitation among those who study art scientifically. Art is psychologically deeper than mere depiction; music tells us that, if nothing else. These people are blinkered by their disciplines. Until they "get it" they have no hope of accomplishing much.

Ellen Dissanayake, who is not by training an academic, has a little more "whole" view of art, but she doesn't have much interest in recent art (the last couple thousand years) so she is not too much help figuring out what is going on now.



February 12, 2009, 1:06 PM

Lincoln & Darwin both born on the same day. Two "big picture" brains. Interesting.


Milé Murtanovski

February 12, 2009, 1:32 PM

You beat me to it, Opie: I was going to mention Lincoln, too.
Incidentally, I painted the trains and Abe looking down the tracks in the sunrise for Union Pacific's celebration of his bicentennial (

Off topic: Franklin, I was wondering if you'd heard from Carolina regarding how the Love Cures auction went. I imagine they're settling down after the festivities, but I'm a little curious to know if my painting sold.




February 12, 2009, 2:03 PM

I would think that abstraction would be the most important art to try to tackle with aesthetic Darwinism, because its appeal is most in need of explanation.

The attraction to depictive art seems more obvious—the appeal of verisimilitude itself, cultural precedents, descriptive/practical function, etc. But the appeal of the abstract is less traceable. In some ways, the attraction to pure forms and colors apart from any recognizable image seems more likely to be primal, and therefore more ripe for evolutionary study.


Milé Murtanovski

February 12, 2009, 2:04 PM

Oops(!): I'm a little bleary-eyed at work and I actually misread "preview" and "post" as "preview post" and couldn't undo.

I'm sorry for looking so self-promotional.




February 13, 2009, 7:36 AM

"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."

Hear, hear!


Chris Rywalt

February 13, 2009, 8:53 AM

Funny. On my way to the studio the day before yesterday I was reading James Kochalka's The Cute Manifesto. There's a bit in there where Kochalka writes (and draws -- it's a comic) something like "Anyone who's held their child knows the importance and truth of cute." (I'm paraphrasing because I left the book at my studio.)

This got me thinking, and I wrote this in my drawing pad:

Esthetics is a branch of neurology, not philosophy. Baby bot flies aren't cute. Baby cats are. Baby mosquitoes aren't cute. Baby humans are. Beauty isn't truth; beauty is that which causes structures in the human brain to give off pleasing chemicals. This doesn't mean it isn't real. In fact it's the realest thing we have. Beautiful things are the things that got us this far. Follow them towards life.


Tim McClure

February 14, 2009, 9:12 PM

That which operates in the Mona Lisa is the same as that which operates in a de Kooning, Rothko, etc. or in the murals in the Lascaux caves: an arrangement or association of elements. The Mona Lisa, for all it's depiction, ends up being pure abstraction, the arrangement having the lasting effect rather than the depiction. What could the evolutionists do with that?



February 15, 2009, 1:33 PM

Chris & Tim: you are both right, though I might come up with a third spin on the same theme.

Art gets made by a brain and put out there to be experienced by another brain. We value this activity and these objects extremely highly despite their "uselessness" - they are held up as the measures of a civilization.

Therefore when an artist makes art is must "contain" some structural element (?) that is very valuable for us to perceive. It certainly must be more than a reminder of the grassy plains of Africa.


Kriis Rywaalt

February 15, 2009, 2:32 PM

I don't know that it's valuable, necessarily, for us to perceive it. I think art works on structures which release chemicals which are designed to lead us towards behavior which is evolutionarily advantageous, and away from that which is not. Sex feels good because making it feel good is the easiest way to make sure it happens.

Art is useless, but it acts on the same structures which are related to more useful behaviors.

(Of course there's a lot of stuff hanging around unrelated to evolution, stuff that just has no effect on survival and therefore just sort of exists.)



February 15, 2009, 2:34 PM

Indeed... as if the sublime beauty in a view of a desert, or an ocean, or the arctic, or some other inhospitable environment, can offer no aesthetic sustenance...

Sorry, such shallow suppositions by supposedly smart scientists simply seems silly.



February 15, 2009, 7:08 PM

"Sex feels good because making it feel good is the easiest way to make sure it happens."

Excellent point, Chris. I think the pleasure of art is dynamically the same, but perhaps culturally rather than biologically derived.

However, that statement seems to me to contradict your initial statement: "I don't know that it's valuable, necessarily, for us to perceive it." How else can it have any effect?

Perhaps you could rephrse?


Herr Doktor Kriis Rywaalt

February 15, 2009, 7:56 PM

What I'm trying to say is maybe art uses channels that were meant for other biologically important things. For example -- this is off the top of my head here -- your voice may be evolutionarily designed for shouting out warnings -- "Here comes the T. rex! RUN!" -- but you can use it to tell a joke. Now, maybe joke-telling does have some use. I don't know. But for the parallel I'm making, let's say joke-telling has no use. But it's fun. So your voice evolved to do one thing, which it does, but you also use it for something else. Joke-telling, or whispering sweet nothings in someone's ear, or singing along with Bing on the radio.

So you've got these structures in your brain. They have some purpose, something that helped humans survive and evolve all the way from the primordial ooze. Let's say they're the circuits that help you determine when fruit is ripe and therefore edible. These circuits evolved to give a pleasurable feeling -- "Hey, look, tasty fruit!" -- to provoke a useful response -- eating tasty fruit.

It so happens that you can get that same pleasurable response from the same structures when looking at paint smeared on the wall.

Now, OP, you say, "art...must 'contain' some structural element (?) that is very valuable for us to perceive...." I'm saying, well, it doesn't have to be valuable from an evolutionary perspective. We may value it because it feels good, but that doesn't necessarily make it valuable evolutionarily.

(I'm not arguing with you so much as refining your points together with mine.)

I think Tim's absolutely right, and I think he hit upon the discovery made by those early Modernists: That the pleasure of art comes not from the subject of the work but from the arrangements which trigger responses from structures in the human brain. (Note well that paintings don't work on dogs. They're not fooled by depiction and aren't interested in abstraction.)


Plain Old Chris

February 15, 2009, 7:58 PM

It occurs to me that smarter people than I am have probably thought about this in much more detail. Maybe that Turner guy. Oh well.



February 15, 2009, 8:12 PM

I think that creatures that experience pleasure simply have more reason to live in general. It's not enough to simply reproduce if there's no incentive to raise children to adulthood, and that becomes a more motivating exercise if life has pleasures to offer, and a fairly complex network of them in great variety. This may be where religion develops as well, as a framework for instilling larger meaning into day-to-day existence. I'm having trouble picturing our ancestors in a state of existentialist ennui - that would have killed them off as surely as pox. Likewise I don't see them looking around and thinking what an enormous pile of shit the whole works was, at least not more often nor to a greater degree than we do.


Tim McClure

February 15, 2009, 11:29 PM

Franklin, re: religion, isn't there a much bigger payoff with other-directedness than with mere procreation or with the squirrel cage of material pleasure? In terms of diminishing returns, material pleasure comes in a distant third in my experience as a sensualist. Now, if I could only Believe...!



February 16, 2009, 7:52 AM

Apparently we agree that anything pleasurable is somehow related to evolutionary advantage, whether causative or not.

My suspicion is that art is a mirror or material expression of the "organization of life". I don't know how this ties into evolution or how to articulate this better verbally, but it is certainly worth working on.



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