Expanding Darwin: The Evolutionary Value of Art

By Richard Handler

September/October 2009

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…

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