The Art Instinct by Dennis Dutton

I finished reading The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution by the late Dennis Dutton a while back and it’s about time I write a short review. Actually, I read it aloud to Susan. In addition to our own personal reading lists, we usually have a shared book that I read aloud when we’re on long drives or working on some project around the house. We alternate between fiction and non-fiction. Susan selected the Art Instinct because it covered topics we’re both interested in: art, evolution, aesthetics, anthropology, the human brain, to name a few.

The title is most likely having a bit of fun with Steven Pinker’s 1994 book, The Language Instinct, which examines how the brain evolved an innate capacity for language (also a great book by the way, did I ever write a review of that one? Hmmmm). Dutton’s book uses a similar model. He argues that our sense of aesthetics is not just an arbitrary social construct as presumed by many art critics and academics.

He leads into his arguments by attempting to answer the question of why landscapes depicted in calendar art are so uniform – in every country, in every climate, everywhere in the world. A well-known 1992 study sought to explain why humans find one particular type of landscape more beautiful and appealing than all others. We favor this type of landscape whether it occurs in calendar art, golf courses, public parks, or classic paintings. Americans favor it, as do Europeans, Inuits, Russians, even members of the most remote and primitive tribes who may never have seen this type of landscape before.

The landscape we favor happens to be identical to the Pleistocene savanna of the type that occurs in Africa. Evolving hominid hunter-gathers who favored this type of savanna had much higher chances of survival. It’s a landscape with direct evidence of game animals, variegated cloud patterns, evidence of water, low forking fruit-bearing trees (food sources and easily climbable to escape predators), alternating open and wooded spaces. If you’ve never read it, the original study is: Evolved Responses to Landscapes by Gordon H. Orians and Judith H. Heerwagen.


Frederic Church landscape with elements we’ve evolved to find attractive.

After going over the various non-evolutionary explanations and why they were found wanting, he moves on to similar cases of direct evidence of evolution shaping our aesthetic tastes. Can evolution explain, for example, why blue, the color of the sky and water is the most common favorite color? Green, the color of plant life, is our second most commonly expressed favorite color. Our desire to see blue and green came to mind as I was writing because I’d just returned from an exhibit of paintings by Cathey Miller. She paints residents of the mythical Cathedonia in luminescent shades of blue or green. Somehow, I find a sort of perverse pleasure in knowing that the part of my brain which finds Cathedonia paintings appealing evolved to help my Pleistocene ancestors survive.


Watching by Cathey Miller, from the Cathedonia Blue Morpho Series

The tricky part is getting from the easy cases like agreement on colors and landscape to a more general description of beauty and aesthetic taste. It’s hard to look for the origin of a thing until you can agree on what the thing is. So, a large part of the book is involved in trying to precisely define art. Much time is spent on edge cases that are controversial – is Duchamp’s Fountain art? Are other readymades art? Why are expertly made forgeries not respected as much as expertly made originals? What about people who insist this or that category of art isn’t really art (e.g. abstract art, rap music, photography, etc).

Once he’s established a working definition or art, he goes after the problem of understanding how an innate sense of beauty could have evolved. He examines what we know about our evolutionary history to see if we can discover ways in which an innate art instinct would have direct survival value or if it could be an adaptive effect of some other survival characteristic that natural selection would have favored. Alternately, he looks at whether the art instinct is a result or adaptation of the other major evolutionary mechanism, sexual selection; like the Peacock’s tail – a case where sexual selection trumps natural selection. A bright tail actually has a negative survival value but serves as a fitness signal to the females (“hey, look, I’m so awesome at this survival game, even this flashy tail isn’t a problem. Mate with me!”).

Contrary to what art academics have argued for years, that art is culture-specific, Dutton presents world and history ranging emprical evidence that human appreciation for beautify is innate and occurs everywhere and at every time humans exist. To put it another way, Dutton’s revolutionary argument is that beauty is not “in the eye of the beholder” as folk wisdom claims but is rather part of the core workings of every human brain that evolved over millions of years.

What makes Dutton’s effort interesting (to me at least) is that it’s not just some random guy’s opinion, it’s an attempt to find an empirical, objective way to think about beauty and art; something that is not easily done. His efforts stop short of providing definitive proof that the evolution of our aesthetic sense followed the path he describes but he makes a convincing case.

Whether you’re a cognitive scientist or an artist, you’ll find this an interesting read. Who would have thought that it was Darwin and not some philosopher who finally figured out how beauty works! If you’d like to find out more about the book, visit The Art Instinct website. And you can read more about Dennis Dutton on his personal website, DennisDutton.com

In February of 2010, Dennis Dutton summarized the book in a 15 minute TED talk. The book offers enormously more detail, fascinating anecdotes, and mountains of evidence collected around the world and throughout history. But if you’d like a quick overview of what his book is all about, you can’t beat this TED talk.

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