Open Book

Expanding Darwin

The Evolutionary Value of Art

Magazine Issue
September/October 2009
Expanding Darwin

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, & Human Evolution
Denis Dutton
Bloomsbury Press. 278 pp. ISBN: 9781596914018

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 (, 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.

Art also has a competitive side: to be used as an instrument of sexual selection, another of its adaptive functions. You don’t need to be Sigmund Freud to realize that art is pulsing with sex and self-display—from the rock star who galvanizes a screaming audience to dreamy readings by a silky poet and prancing parades of runway fashion models. Art draws us together, but it distinguishes us when we’re competing for mates or for attention from the other sex. Sexy starlets and rugged leading men, American Idols, even newly empowered, brainy nerds, all gloriously display distinguishing behavior in the service of sexual and reproductive fulfillment.

Dutton is at his best when he writes about storytelling as an evolutionary adaptation: “Stories provide low-cost surrogate experience,” he says. They were essential for our preliterate ancestors because they conveyed information. They served up knowledge in neat packages and helped solve problems by dramatizing potentially difficult situations. They helped our ancestors recall what was dangerous and what was beneficial. But storytellers did more than just relate basic details about what foods to eat and what animals to avoid: they loaded their tales with emotion to hammer their points home. They did this because, as Dutton tells us, using the jargon of psychology, “imagination is a cognitive asset.”

Still, you can convey information in vividly emotional documentary style, so where does the proclivity to make things up—to fictionalize—come from? Why the premium on imaginative thinking and activity?

The answer, argues Dutton in a chapter called “The Uses of Fiction,” is that imagination enlarges the range of human possibility. First, fictional stories “satisfy a need to experiment with answers to “what if?” questions which focus on problems, threats and opportunities.” The adaptive function of conducting thought experiments, of conjecture, of discovering what might happen, is that imaginative narratives allow us to construct unlikely scenarios and play with them—in effect, to think outside the box. That’s why military planners, criticized for a “failure of imagination” after the attacks of 9/11, went to Hollywood to interview moviemakers. They wanted to nail down possible terror scenarios that had escaped their mind-sets. Such scenario-making is called “brainstorming” in business and educational settings, and is routinely promoted by hordes of consultants.

The second reason for the usefulness of imagination is “mind reading.” “Stories encourage us to explore points of view, beliefs, motivations and values of other human minds,” writes Dutton. Stories create the grounds for empathy and social networking. They provide “regulation for social behavior.” The imagination is an arena in which the solution to life’s problems can be explored. In that way, Dutton suggests, art doesn’t imitate life; it’s the other way around: life imitates art.

It occurred to me while reading this book that there’s a lesson here for therapists and others who practice in the mental health field. After all, perhaps the main tool of therapy is the telling of stories, the conveying of personal information in narrative. When a client sees a therapist, the session is more than just an information dump: clients “perform” their stories in front of therapists, even if they’re shy, reticent, or reluctant. They fill their tales with simmering (or repressed) emotion. Therapists conduct thought experiments with their clients and discuss possible scenarios with them. They help clients imagine fresh ways of thinking, acting, and being.

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

Richard Handler is a radio producer with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in Toronto, Canada.