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Remembering Philosopher Denis Dutton – His Art and Evolution Interview

**Read the New York Times obituary for Dutton.

The Art Instinct

Everybody’s talking evolution these days. Way beyond biology and into evolutionary psychology — how human behavior has grown out of prehistoric imperatives.

Philosopher Denis Dutton is taking another step. He’s reaching out to link evolution and art.

Dutton makes the case that art has been elemental to the ascent of humankind — linking cave drawings, natural selection, and Picasso. Mating habits, sexual selection and Pavarotti. Art, he argues, is not just sublime. It’s instinct, from cave to concert hall.

This hour, On Point: Philosopher Denis Dutton on evolution and the art instinct.

You can join the conversation. Does it ring true to you? Art as essential to human evolution? As elemental as our opposable thumb? Would we have been humans without it?


Denis Dutton, professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, and founding editor of the Journal of Philosophy and Literature. He is also the founder and editor of the website Arts & Letters Daily. His new book is “The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.”

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  • JP


  • http://onapril1509awarnessexpansion.com Russell Washington

    In columbia sc listening on wbur streaming

    A very exciting topic. Dutton is Obviously a kindred spirit. I’ll get the book today!

    I developed and teach a system for personal acension called AET.

    A central tenent of AET is that art initialized human style sentience and propells sapience, it gives rise to our self awareness around instinct, intellect AND intuition.

    Thank you for your work I love the show – long time listener.

    Look for awarenessexpansion.com on April 15th ’09

  • Kevin Rhines

    Hello folks -

    Your discussion reminds me that I have long thought that Homo sapiens should be renamed Homo artisticus

  • art bell

    Its not ‘love of art’ that seperates us. Its our ability TO love that makes us unique.
    To feel something is to love. To feel art, another person, music whatver.

  • Joe Immen

    What does Professor Dutton think of Daniel Dennett’s idea that art is an exploration of ‘design space’— a way to explore the nearly infinite possibilities of a particular media?

  • http://www.flyingmarquis.com Ann Cahoon

    As a designer and goldsmith, I am fascinated by the impulse to human adornment, and I consider what I do integrally connected to this history. It seems to me that jewelry is one of the most fundamental expressions of art’s connection to human sexuality and evolution. It was born at the intersection of creativity and sexual display. We continue as a culture to create our “peacock’s tails”.

  • http://www.SergioRoffo.com sergio roffo

    I am a professional landscape artist in Boston, very successful. I want to know why
    my passion is so strong to capture an image on canvas every time I see an exciting interplay of light and shadow. As artists we are in constant turmoil with ourselves
    trying to capture the sublime on canvas. Getting close to the supreme being.

  • Joe Immen

    Also, Daniel Dennett’s phrase regarding religion, that “some nonsense is more attention-grabbing than other nonsense”, seems to explain the intentional “weirdness” of a lot of artworks.

  • Brendan Keough

    Life without art is, at best, bland and boring, at worst, it is brutal and brief.

    Life without fine visual, musical, dramatic and culinary art is a prison that can only be escaped with death.

    Art is an absolute necessity of evolution required by the self-aware mind.

  • JP

    Petroglyphs and cave paintings theoreticaly gave early man power over the animals represented and over different aspects of his environment.

    This perceived “power” may have served as a confidence booster on hunts or when trying to overcome adversity.

    Likewise, decorating or adorning the body as a statement of status or “power” (strength) may also have served as a confidence booster on hunts or when trying to overcome adversity.

    Maybe the “confidence boost” served as a naturally selective mechanism.

  • Mac Collins

    Perhaps the peacock’s tail is “sex for sex’s sake”. I’m sure Oscar Wilde would approve of all this.

  • http://www.parkriver.org mary rickel pelletier

    After five + years of working to clarify the significant relationship of water quality issues to human health and sustainable civilizations for the Park River Watershed Revitalization Initiative, in Hartford, Connecticut – I am beginning to realize that the most people do not respond to “reason” rather cultures operate in flocks swarms that follow beautiful ideas and visionary optimism.

    The Hudson River School paintings, which were first commissioned in by Daniel Wadsworth of Hartford, shaped a deep appreciation of nature through a school of nature inspired imagery that helped to preserve parkland landscapes across the United States, and subsequently around the world.

    Thus imagery of nature – and most famously, the photograph of earth from space – has helped to inspire the environmental movement, which is essential to our survival.

    Thanks for a great program,
    Mary Rickel Pelletier
    Director Park River Watershed Revitalization Initiative (and graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design)

  • http://fairmanstudios.com Jeni

    What about art that TEACHES? Art has a place in society that can teach others (illustrations) about the world we live in. Also sometimes I find that artists sometimes use art to editorialize and communicate with others about different subjects. Examples, medical illustrations, botanical art, graffiti, editorial photography… Art is used to COMMUNICATE an idea, or teach a concept.

  • Mari McAvenia

    There are situations in which humans do dislike fiction.
    When a fiction is deliberately put across as non-fiction, in order to gain trust that is not honestly earned, we are particularly annoyed.
    At that point we identify the fiction as a “lie” and nobody likes a liar.
    I am an artist, honestly, and a non-fiction writer, too. Just can’t help it. I get the point. Thanks for presenting this fascinating segment.

  • http://benlincolnart.com ben lincoln

    As an artist myself I have an obvious bias on this issue, but it seems to me that human beings have always had a desperate need to believe that at some fundamental level we are special. I would say that the arts are among the very few uniquely human enterprises that justify that belief. And further that this belief in our specialness is perhaps the only single belief that we all share, and that it is a crucial element in our ability work cooperatively and reflectively on a scale unmatched elsewhere in the natural world.

  • http://the-bac.edu Pat Loheed, Head of School of Landscape Architecture

    Art enhances natural selection because creative activities can only take place where there are periods of excess resources and leisure. When shear survival is the main task, resources are less available for art and creativity. People don’t have sufficent time, people power or even calories. If you look at the First Nations on the Pacific NW rim, you see the culture of potlatching as a manifestation of this. The European Dark ages were an example of lack of resources, except in islands of richer resources and protective environments such as the Irish isles.

    Periods of leisure and more ample resources provide peaks of innovation and creative invention. There was a wonderful exhibit at the Boston Science Museum on creativity and inventors about 30 years ago and this principle of excess resources was the 8th. ingredient identified as essential for creativity. It was a truly exciting exhibit. Perhaps you could secure a copy of the short film they did that summarized the concepts from their archives.

    As a child of the polio panic of the late 1940′s I paid particular attention to the
    exhibit materials for Jonas Salk. I loved looking at his sketch books, hearing a tape of an interview, and in particular knowing he wrote/dictated a whole chemistry text book while washing dinner dishes.

  • http://kathaseidman.com Katha

    Has Dennis Dutton thought about the role of the trickster in the creation of art? Lewis Hyde, in “How Trickster Makes this World” discusses how artists often stand on the threshold between culture and chaos, making sure that culture doesn’t get too staid, shaking it up periodically. I can imagine that allowing a place for that trickster-generated change would be very important to the evolution of art.

  • Glenn Manino

    If art in important in an evolutionary sense, why are so few people accomplished at it? There are many more “receivers” than there are creators of art. Why the disparity?

  • Rachel

    What about the role of symmetry, which seems to play a pivotal role in both sexual selection and visual beauty?

  • Priscilla

    I have devoted a lot of thought, and life’s work, to understanding WHY ARTS. My conclusion is that we as a species are driven to give meaning to existence and are hard-wired to strive to experience joy.
    peforming and fine arts…spiritual ecstasy…descent into addiction: all aspects of this drive.

    Thanks to Denis Duncan and Tom Ashbrook for today’s discussion.

  • Clayton Spinner

    If he wrote a book dealing with evolution, why would he even mention the idea that it’s slowed down or stopped in the past few thousand years. These biological processes don’t go away because we develop a consciousness and grow a culture :P Smashing segment nonetheless, very enlightening.

  • jeffe

    “I am a professional landscape artist in Boston, very successful.”

    Why do people need to do this? There use to be a time when it was just not done, telling people how much money make or how successful they are. While this artist is good at what he does, he still needs to inform all that he is, “very successful”. Professional would have been adequate enough.

  • http://www-personal.umich.edu/~elias/ Elias Baumgarten

    I would want to ask Denis Dutton whether we should see sexual selection as one part of natural selection. If hens prefer peacocks with large tails (I first wrote “tales,” so the idea of humans as story-telling beings has taken hold), doesn’t that invite the question why those particular hens, with just those “tastes,” survived rather than some others? Why would there be survival value for the genetic material of those particular hens who chose a trait that would seem not to have survival value?

  • http://www.lit.org/fritzwilliam Fred W. Bracy

    Y’know, you wake up one morning from particularly vivid dream and find that you cannot let it go. Later that morning–after several cups of coffee–you become intent on linking your dream’s inspired observation to a particular physical effect that you think has never been touched on before … except in your dream, of course. Next you begin consciously seeking out other physical effects that might possibly be linked to the same inspired observation. And sure enough, after a day or two of inspired thinking you have a long list of effects that do in fact support it. The problem is that you have no idea how many effects are out there which *do not* support your observation, and unfortunately, since you are looking only for those which *do,* no amount of inspired thinking will uncover the ones that don’t.

    This is known as “effect and cause” thinking as opposed to “cause and effect” which we understand as getting science “the right way ’round.” What you have with the good professor is a classic case of “effect and cause” thinking. The effect that does not fit the professor’s cause is the one that concerns storytelling.

    One of the first questions that would have entered the mind of a species with an evolving intelligence would have been the eternal one–the one we ask to this day … “Who am I? Why am I here and where am I going?” This evolving intelligence (which is now us) saw the physical world–Sun, stars, Moon and planets–and had strong feelings of connection to them. So strong, in fact, that these became the overriding symbols of their lives–ergo, the rise of religion. And what is religion? Religion is nothing less than the earliest form of storytelling.

    Does the good professor think that storytelling evolved as something to titillate the senses? … fictional accounts of events to be shared among like-minded individuals as a form of Pleistocene era artistic entertainment? Maybe the professor thinks that the Christian Bible, the Jewish Torah and others are further examples of literary oral “entertainments” that have been handed down through the generations as well.

    Well that’s not what I believe. Early Man, from all that we could surmise, was obsessed with surviving the wrath of the gods–so much so that I wouldn’t discount the possibility that the advanced “artwork,” (if that’s what it truly is as evidenced on the stone instruments of Homo Erectus) might not have been an effort to please the gods as much as the males’ efforts to please and attract females.

    I’d rethink your “Peacock effect,” professor as it may apply to early Man and leave it instead to the birds, thank you very much.

  • Janessa

    I was very excited to hear Joseph Carroll’s work mentioned. I took a course with him last spring. I don’t always agree with his viewpoints about evolutionary psychology and the impact on literature, but he is a brilliant man and makes a compelling argument.

  • Ju-Pong Lin

    The term, “homo aestheticus” was coined by Ellen Dissanayake who wrote a book by that name as well as one called What is Art For? Fascinating work, especially her cross-cultural perspective. I enjoyed the interview of Dutton, but found his ideas about art limited by a Western perspective. Handknit sweaters demonstrate the human impulse to create art as much as opera does. The “artists” named by Dutton are primarily the relatively small number of folks who call themselves artists; I’m much more interested in looking at ways that everyday people make art of their lives all the time, not just at the operahouse or in the gallery.

  • http://www.starshipnivan.com Athena Andreadis

    Based on what I heard on the program, and from my previous readings on all things EP, I saw a glaring problem in Dutton’s theory. He seems to consider “true” art useless for direct function and hence a sign of sexual selection, like the peacock’s tail. However, this definition ignores the arbitrarily labeled “lower” art, which is functional (lovely fabrics actually used for clothes, lovely pottery and metalwork actually used as utensils, etc).

    More importantly, if art was conscious sexual selection, and even if sexual selection in humans operates exactly as it does in birds (which it doesn’t), women would never have produced any art. Furthermore, one of the art forms much discussed by Dutton, storytelling, starts in lullabies and grandmothers’ stories, which are used to soothe and beguile children and continues in love ballads by “anonymous”, who often turned out be a woman.

    The larger, perennial problem with EP (and its predecessor, sociobiology) is that it tends to fall into Tarzanist modes. Women are not passive choosers of talented men; they are active creators of art and culture themselves.

  • Judith P. De Leo

    Friends of mine had a daughter nearing her third birthday who went through a brief phase when if you said her name, which was Larissa, she would insist that her name was not Larissa but Nancy. She thought that was hilariously funny and would giggle hysterically at her own joke. Her father told me that there was a girl at their daycare whose name was in fact Nancy. He theorized that his daughter had just recently become consciously aware of the fact that her own name was Larissa and that names were unique to their owners. That, he thought, was the reason why she invented her little joke and thought it so very funny. That incident suggested to me that artistic creativity is in some way associated with conscious perception of reality. Once a human has become aware of perceiving reality, it then can amuse itself by playing with its perception of that reality. Notice that in every culture art, music, poetry, story-telling, etc. are always bound by rules that are agreed upon by the communtiy. The creative person is allowed by the culture to bend reality with certain defined limits. I think this is true for every culture. My theory, which may or may not be valid, would account for the fact that abstract art did not appear on the scene until the camera was invented and could take on the job of recording what was real.

  • Lynn E. Frederiksen

    The primary advantage we humans have over other animals is that we can learn from metaphorical constructs. Such learning depends on an emotional connection with metaphor, without which the cascade of physiological responses–i.e., “feelings” necessary to the change of state that constitutes learning (related to Antonio Damasio’s somatic markers)–could not happen. We weep at sad songs. The temporal arts, in particular, seem well suited to shaping our emotional understanding of the world through metaphors, with the evolutionary benefit that we don’t necessarily have to endure a real-life lesson. In fact, I believe that we possess a “metaphor tooth” that operates much like a sweet tooth. Just as our sweet tooth developed as a shortcut to the nutrients found in fruits, the metaphor tooth developed as a shortcut to the benefits of second-hand experience. We respond readily and often unconsciously to metaphor of any kind (hence our susceptibility to advertising) because such responsiveness was adaptive. If you can learn from someone’s recounting of an event, or even from more indefinite and abstract–but emotionally resonant–artistic renderings, you are ahead in the survival game. The problem now, of course, is that the arts are seen as peripheral to education, rather than central to how we learn. Engaging deeply with the arts gives us conscious access to the emotional assumptions that guide our every experience, and so enhance our decision-making abilities. I’m glad that Ju-Pong Lin (above) mentioned Ellen Dissanayake, because she gets to a key aspect of human learning in the mother-child dynamic that presages our ability to gain experience through the emotional resonance of the arts.

  • Dan

    I think that interest and talent in art could stem from evolutionary forces, but I’m more familiar with how Ramachandran would characterize it than I am with Dutton and the others mentioned. Certainly the ability to discriminate and recognize significant shapes and designs from amongst random environmental patterns around oneself is a survival trait. Ramachandran takes off from this point.

  • Peggy Selander

    I am also an artist. My work is found at Fine Art America and Red Bubble. I paint mostly figurative subjects. I was listening to NPR on the way to work (my day job) and wished I could’ve listened to the entire piece. What a facinating topic. Every time I sit in front of my easel I think about this subject and why I am so personally compelled to create, and what draws me to my particular subject matter. It’s human kind that interests me. How our inner life affects our outer life. I’m going to ask my husband to give me this book for Mother’s Day. I can’t wait to dig in!
    I will be starting a blog about art in the next few months and I want to write about this and many other subjects that artists and art lovers can relate to. Sounds like a great read.
    Peggy R. Selander

  • Dr Errol Alexander

    There are few books reflecting an well thought out argument on how and why people think about the creation of art as much as Denis Dutton’s book as it relates to human instincts. It is a must read. Dr. Errol D. Alexander, Arrowhead Institute.  

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