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People who enter therapy are prisoners of their mental constructs, trapped within dysfunctional patterns of response. The practice of imagination in therapy opens up the client to new possibilities. By this reckoning, you can say that clients are to some degree imaginatively deficient. It's the therapist's job to guide them in the task of assembling a new cognitive landscape.
Reading Dutton, you can easily get the feeling that good therapy can be called art-making in the consulting room. Your clients tell their stories to you and construct better ones for the future; then they adapt their lives to inhabit the new narratives. A certain juggling goes on, with more scenarios and more adjustments. Who knew that therapy was an evolutionary enterprise, along with sex and eating sweets!
It can be argued that evolutionary psychology, upon which Dutton relies for his analysis, is a self-fulfilling game—an exercise in reverse engineering, as physicist Robert C. Richardson, science writer John Horgan, and the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould have said. Evolutionary psychology seems to imply that every trait must have survival value; otherwise, it wouldn't have survived. This is circular thinking, and it amounts to serious criticism. It's especially pertinent in cultural theorizing because, frankly, there's so little physical evidence: cave drawings, statuettes, necklaces, and so on. To fill in the gaps, evolutionary psychologists are forced to speculate. Dutton acknowledges the reverse-engineering problem (not necessarily in his book, but in interviews), but pretty much ducks the issue.
Another serious argument exists among evolutionary theorists about whether cultural traits are adaptations or merely byproducts. Gould considered cultural traits to be byproducts of a single adaptation: the oversized human brain. Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker has his own "cheesecake" theory on the subject of adaptations: "We enjoy strawberry cheesecake," he says, "but not because we evolved a taste for it." With the single exception of storytelling, the arts, says Pinker, are byproducts of evolution: "It is wrong to invent functions for activities that lack adaptive function merely because we want to ennoble them."
Dutton mostly sidesteps these arguments, sweeping them away like a graceful philosopher-bullfighter. So it's fair to ask: is he convincing? Well, as a philosopher he's a darn good speculator, and he seems to have good argument for the ways in which storytelling enhances the likelihood of survival. But what about the high arts, like Botticelli, Beethoven, Balanchine, Balzac? What about watching junk on TV? Sure, these forms of communication may be riveting and enjoyable. But are they actually "necessary," in an evolutionary sense?
In its own way, Dutton's book is a virtuoso performance, offering us thought and speculation as a form of mental dance. With verve and eagerness, it argues for the life-affirming role of art. Its section on storytelling alone is worth the price of admission. Reading it, you begin to imagine that our ancestors practiced primal group therapy while they recited tales to each other around their campfires, and that we, their offspring, are the beneficiaries of these past imaginings. We're all bound across time by a ribbon of art, from ancient savannahs to modern-day consulting rooms.
Richard Handler, M.A., is a radio producer and columnist with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada. Contact: email@example.com. Tell us what you think about this article by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.psychotherapynetworker.org. Log in and you'll find the comment section on every page of the online Magazine section