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The Evolutionary Value of Art
By Richard Handler
The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution
A former college professor of mine liked to say that his job in teaching the arts was to cultivate good taste. He used to joke that the benefit for his students of studying the humanities boiled down to learning how to decorate their homes and offices. He was, of course, satirizing a prevailing view (especially among North Americans) that art—whether it's an appreciation of Shakespeare or Proust; O'Keeffe, Nureyev, or Rachmaninoff—is nothing more than a high-class frill, not something that's really central to life.
This high-bourgeois view of art (and literature or storytelling) is precisely what Denis Dutton is countering in his book, The Art Instinct. Dutton, an American who edits a marvelous website, Arts & Letters Daily (www.aldaily.com), and teaches philosophy (and the philosophy of art) in New Zealand, wants to make a case for the centrality of art in our lives. This is a splendid time for such a project, since art tends to be one of the first things on the chopping block when school budgets are cut. But for Dutton, art isn't just an accouterment that can be dispensed with when things get tough. He feels art has played a key role in human development, and he demonstrates this by tracing art's roots through our evolutionary past. He's picked a good year in which to do it: 2009 is the 200th anniversary of Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his world-altering The Origin of Species.
According to Dutton, art isn't a plaything, it's an "instinct" in the broad sense, meaning it's innate. "Human beings are born image makers and image-enjoyers," he writes. Evidence can be seen in "children's imitative play," and in the making of "pictures, carvings, stories or play-acting," which arise spontaneously, in every culture. Art is part of "universal human psychology." Humans, express themselves with "great virtuosity," in great variety, from the high art of the European Renaissance to the exquisite intricacies of knife-handle carvings in New Guinea, where Dutton has done fieldwork. And art gives us all feelings of immense and "direct pleasure." He even lumps art in with other cravings, like those for sex and those for sweet, fatty foods.
Well, it's all well and good to acknowledge the importance of art, but, you might ask, what's its purpose? Was my old professor right? Did art evolve to make our ancestors' dens appealing and pleasing, to stave off the endless boredom of nights around a Stone Age campfire? Or is it something more profound?
Adapting the work of a new breed of evolutionary psychologists, who focus on the beneficial, survival benefits of group behavior (Dutton owes much to the work of Geoffrey Miller of the University of New Mexico), Dutton argues that art acts as a multipurpose, cultural tool, a sort of evolutionary Swiss Army knife. Art binds people together with its call to pleasure. It promotes communication and solidarity. Art, imitation, image-making, play-acting, dancing, storytelling, and the stunning varieties of artistic expression provide the glue that holds societies together. It bound together the lives of our ancestors who lived in small bands and tribes. Simply put in evolutionary terms, art buttresses survival.