Friday, January 30, 2009

Unconvincing ...

... and peculiar: The Descent of Taste. (Hat tip, Dave Lull.)

I find this review perplexing. The reviewer, Anthony Gottlieb, says that "We know so little about the environment of our Pleistocene ancestors, what they were like, and how they lived, that almost any hypothesis about which strategies might have helped them to reproduce, and thus let their characteristics ripple through the gene pool, is bound to be highly speculative."
OK. He continues: "... this [and some other things he mentions] ought to be a problem for Dutton’s book, but I rather think it isn’t." Apparently because "[Dutton's] considered view (though he sometimes strays into more ambitious explorations) is that Darwinian aesthetics sheds light on literature, music and painting not by demonstrating them to be evolutionary adaptations, but by showing how their existence and character are connected to prehistoric preferences, interests and capacities."
But those preferences, interests and capacities are just the things Gottlieb has told us are "highly speculative." Moreover, if Dutton doesn't demonstrate that art is an evolutionary adaptation, in what sense are we talking of a Darwinian aesthetics?
Gottlieb concludes by saying that "What makes a genuine piece of Darwinian science — like the explanation of the development of the eye — so powerful is the way in which a large number of intermediate steps are shown to lead gradually from humble beginnings to a magnificent result. No such progression of intermediate steps seems to be available for inspection in the case of evolutionary explanations of the instinct to make art.
"Still, Dutton’s eloquent account sheds light on the role art plays in our lives ..."
Perhaps it does, but apparently in a way that has nothing to do with its central thesis and without any evidence that we can credit.
I have not read The Art Instinct, and anyone familiar with this blog knows I am skeptical of evolutionary psychology, but I suppose I shall have to get a copy and see for myself.
POSTRCRIPT: As indicated in a comment, I think I failed to make clear in this post that it is the review I found unconvincing. The book is on the way, so I can comment on that later.


  1. I hope you will find that, as I have intended, the book is not a naive or simple-minded application of evolutionary psycholoigy to aesthetic taste. These issues are enormously complex.

    Check info at:

    Best wishes,

    Denis Dutton

  2. Well, Denis, I should have a copy of the book in a couple of days. I just ordered one from Amazon. Looking at my post, I think failed to make it clear that what I found unconvincing was the review.