Commentary Magazine

The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton

The Hard-Wired Aesthete

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution
By Denis Dutton
Bloomsbury, 288 pages, $25.00

Moviegoers looking for the bathroom in the basement of a rehabilitated theater in Dedham, Massachusetts may stumble across a unique, if perhaps not revered, cultural institution called the Museum of Bad Art (MoBA). MoBA’s mission is to exhibit works that are “too bad to be ignored,” and true to its motto, the collection includes paintings and sculpture that span a range from the amusingly incompetent to the truly grotesque.

Like all successful parody, MoBA serves to highlight several interesting facts about the butt of its joke. One is that societies with sufficient resources tend to devote a significant fraction of them to the creation, collection, and curation of art. It goes without saying that such attention tends to be reserved for “good” art—even if the criteria for good art are neither obvious nor settled.

Still, the sometimes arbitrary distinction between good and bad art is of immense cultural importance. Collectors spend vast sums on works that come with the imprimatur of recognized arbiters of taste; such pieces may be exhibited prominently in public or private spaces, and are widely regarded as objects of beauty and sophistication. By contrast, the paintings on display at MoBA were acquired at little to no cost, and are generally perceived as having little to no worth.

Why should this be so? From a purely utilitarian perspective, the human obsession with art makes very little sense. There is nothing particularly useful about art, and while aestheticians may debate what features define beauty or artistic greatness, certainly there is nothing inherently more useful about a good painting than a bad one. The time that we spend producing and contemplating art—or reading poetry, or watching lyric opera—is time we are not spending on activities more obviously conducive to survival, like exercising or shopping for groceries. For some, of course, art is an investment or a commodity, but the willingness to pay for a painted canvas or a recording of acoustic noise does not explain why they are thought to possess value in the first place.

It may be for these reasons that the study of art has until now remained largely outside the realm of the social sciences, which tend to shy away from subjects that cannot be approached empirically. To be sure, some cognitive psychologists have investigated the processes involved in the perception of forms in visual art or of the tonal and melodic building blocks of music. An emerging cottage industry of neuroimagers has begun to map out some of the brain areas that seem to be especially active during aesthetic experiences. For the most part, however, these efforts have not brought us much closer to understanding why art plays such a significant role in human life, how we can tell good art from bad, and why we care about the distinction at all.


Denis Dutton, a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand and the proprietor of the popular Arts and Letters Daily website, takes on this challenge in The Art Instinct. Dutton’s approach is inspired by evolutionary psychology—that is, by the conception of the human mind not as a random collection of behavioral programs and cognitive faculties, but as the product of evolution by natural selection. (The title is a nod to Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct, which popularized evolutionary psychology in its explanation of human language.) The existence of art in every known society, he argues, suggests that the impulse to create and admire art must have been woven into the fabric of the human psyche during its formative period.

As it happens, evolutionary psychologists make some rather constraining assumptions about the formative period of our species, or what is sometimes called the “environment of evolutionary adaptedness.” This corresponded roughly to the Pleistocene epoch, lasting from about 2 million to about 12,000 years ago, when the ancestors of modern humans emerged and flourished in the savannas of Africa. As Dutton applies it, the evolutionary approach begins with the premise that individual humans are genetically inclined to favor some experiences more than others—one person might have a strong preference for the taste of sugar while his neighbor might prefer bitter-tasting herbs. Since our bodies extract more energy from sugary fruit than from fibrous greens, the proto-human who preferred fruit would have been relatively better nourished. Better health would have enabled him (or her) ultimately to have more children, thus propagating the genetic tendency toward the sweet tooth.

Dutton begins by arguing that our aesthetic predilections might have evolved similarly to favor experiences that led to increased chances for survival and reproduction. People across the globe prefer paintings that depict certain stereotypical scenes—verdant landscapes with water, varied terrain, and perhaps some grazing animals. (As Dutton points out, such images are ubiquitous in mass-produced forms of visual art like the wall calendar.) We might be universally attracted to this kind of scene because it contains many elements conducive to human settlement. One can well imagine that proto-humans who were less inclined to seek out such landscapes may not have fared as well in their wanderings out of the primeval savanna.

Dutton further suggests that some art forms may have developed to aid our ancestors not just in navigating their natural environment but also in confronting the logistical challenges that faced small groups of hunter-gatherers. Narrative fiction, for example, is particularly suited to the exploration of intricate social relationships, the representation of complex chains of events, and the communication of shared morals and cultural beliefs. It may be no coincidence that fictional works—from Greek dramas to tribal epics to modern soap operas—tend to follow certain predictable models: the hero’s quest, the tragedy, the rags-to-riches story, the defeat of the monster, and so on. Such narrative blueprints may represent the most salient preoccupations of ancient man.

It is something of a leap from observing that landscape paintings and fictional sagas are popular to arguing that the variegated forms of artistic expression have common evolutionary origins—especially when one considers that many works of art do not represent anything in nature at all. Indeed, modern art flourishes in a milieu that is far removed from the environment of evolutionary adaptedness; even if one could perhaps envision Pleistocene man gazing appreciatively at the canvases of the 19th-century Hudson River School, it is hard to imagine ancestral man paying similar regard to the porcelain urinal that the avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp christened Fountain.

In an attempt to bridge this seemingly large conceptual gap, Dutton proposes a set of cross-cultural “cluster criteria” to help us identify what qualifies as art. Some of these criteria relate to the viewer or listener’s reaction to art (aesthetic pleasure, emotional or imaginative experience), some to the attributes of the artist (skill, creativity, virtuosity, expressive individuality), and some to the context in which art is created (criticism and culturally defined style). Any work of art, on his theory, must meet at least some of his criteria, but need not meet all of them. Even if it was not particularly pleasurable to behold, Fountain qualifies because it was creative and intellectually challenging.

Although Dutton’s cluster criteria are quite broad, they overlap to some extent with notions that are relevant to evolutionary psychology. Artistic skill might be seen as a proxy for fitness; imaginative experience might be related to cognitive dexterity. The fact that artworks have cultural and material value suggests a means for establishing social dominance—a signal to the opposite sex that the creator or possessor of art has status and resources. This kind of evolutionary investment in various facets of artistic expression might explain why we place such a premium on differentiating good art from bad.


Dutton seems to be engaged in a dialogue on two fronts. On the one hand, he would like very much to discredit the modernist position that so-called art forms can only be understood in the particular cultural context in which they originated—and thereby to validate the concept of art as a human universal. On the other hand, he challenges the assumption that art is universal merely because it is the natural outgrowth of other, more fundamental cognitive faculties, like language and visual imagery. Although he allows that the “art instinct” may be more like a pastiche of innate impulses than a more well-defined entity like language, the premise of Dutton’s evolutionary claim is that art appreciation must have been directly beneficial to our human ancestors.

All in all, the first line of reasoning is much more successful than the second. It seems relatively clear that the concept of art, or at least of artistry, has cross-cultural significance. With respect to this point, Dutton’s cluster criteria are innovative and useful in that they allow a meaningful comparison of works of art independently of their material form and cultural milieu.

The Art Instinct offers a pointed critique of anthropologists and academicians who exoticize the “material culture” of non-Western societies. For example, the Baule people of Africa produce sculptures that are thought to be imbued with terrible powers, so much so that the very sight of a sacred mask by the wrong person is thought to be fatal. Although this belief seems bizarre, it is not without parallel in our own cultural tradition (think of the Ark of the Covenant); nor does it mean that the mask itself, quite apart from its purported powers, is not “art” to the Baule in the way that religious icons are “art” in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions.


What is less clear is that the concept of art has biological significance. It is not implausible to argue that the taste for a certain type of landscape painting is somehow grounded in our innate preference to live in a particular kind of environment. But even this merely purports to explain why we enjoy looking at certain kinds of scenes, not why we bother to re-create them in two-dimensional form. The farther one gets from landscape painting, the more tenuous the link with evolution becomes. None of the cluster criteria describes features that are obviously relevant to human survival, and Dutton provides no substantive reason to believe that art contributes to differential reproductive success, which is the sine qua non of a biological adaptation.

In tackling this problem, perhaps it would be better to start not by trying to define art but by asking whether, from an evolutionary perspective, it is meaningful to speak about “art” at all. Dutton makes clear that he understands the term to include not just the so-called fine arts, like classical opera and painting, but also less refined popular products (those soap operas and wall calendars). Notably, he excludes anything intended primarily for practical use. This essentially makes art a label for almost the entire category of human endeavors that have no obvious evolutionary utility (to which one might add fashion and floriculture). It need not be the case that all of these endeavors fulfill the same purpose. Some may indeed have a hidden adaptive significance, while others may not.

The Art Instinct is an ambitious first step in trying to bring art, and art criticism, into communication with the emerging science of human nature. At this point, the effort involves more theorizing than evidence. But if the aim of evolutionary psychology is to arrive at an understanding of the biological origins of human nature, it remains true that the role of art is too important to be ignored.

About the Author

Kevin Shapiro is a research fellow in neuroscience and a student at Harvard Medical School.

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