Why Art Exceeds Evolution

By Sutcliffe, Tom | The Independent (London, England), December 18, 2009 | Go to article overview
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Why Art Exceeds Evolution

Sutcliffe, Tom, The Independent (London, England)


The evolutionary theory of art and literature continues to simmer nicely, the latest bubble to reach the lip of the pan being Brian Boyd's book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. And if you haven't been following this development at all, here's a very crude synopsis of the backstory. Dismayed by the grip of Post-Modernist theory on the academy - a discipline of almost medieval scholasticism - some students of literature cast around for something that might replace its sophisticated relativism with a different kind of approach. And they didn't want to restore the wine- sipping connoisseurship that it had replaced. They wanted a fresh territory of their own.

Evolutionary theory looked promising. It was a growth area in other fields of study, such as psychology and social sciences, and it promised a way of restoring a sense of the inherent and universal to the pleasures of art. Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct was an early attempt to build the discipline, alluding to Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct and suggesting that it might be promising to speculate about the evolutionary origins of our passion for painting, music and literature.

Pinker himself famously dodged sideways from the issue, suggesting in a much-quoted phrase that music (and by extension other expressions of creative imagination) was "auditory cheesecake" - a luxury not likely to be directly explained by evolutionary forces in our pre-history but piggybacking on other instincts that had helped us to survive. Those hoping to elaborate an evolutionary theory of art go a little more directly to first principles. And that's often where they run into trouble. Dutton, for example, argued that fictions - saying the thing that isn't, to use Ricky Gervais's construction in the film The Invention of Lying - proved useful because they offer a preparation for life and its surprises, an argument that sees the adaptive advantage as lying in the story itself. Others have argued that the ability to come up with a gripping yarn in the cave conferred a sexual advantage on the teller, thus ensuring that the storytelling gene would spread into the next generation.

Hardly surprising, really, that these approaches are dismissed as reductive by sceptics, or that they sit a little unhappily with works of any literary sophistication. Crudely speaking (again), any evolutionary theory of aesthetics is going to have to start with primitive hominids who respond to sex and a good supply of nuts. And it's somehow going to have to link that with works that are about a lot more. Even the "rehearsal of dilemmas" theory doesn't get us far. Do we read Madame Bovary because we think, "I might find myself torn between duty and pleasure one day and this might help me avoid ending up on a mortuary slab"? Or do we read it for Flaubert's prose style, a subject on which "evocriticism", to use Boyd's coinage, has much less to say?

There's a bigger catch-22 as well. Among the theories that do seem more promising is the idea that imaginative invention or mental play is both a marker of fitness and something that hones it.

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