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The Art Instinct

Denis Dutton

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Denis Dutton is a thinker who likes The Simpsons as well as Brahms. Last week he was on an American chat show with Paul McCartney, trying to explain how art helped us survive when we lived in caves. He told US nerds that nerds and poets were hot in prehistory: women admired their enormous ... vocabulary.

He is our foremost media don, a contrarian who welcomes a stoush, especially with other dons. The Art Instinct, his new book, will certainly provoke trouble in the academy.

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His book collides head-on with the popular academic theory that the arts are not instinctual but cultural: varied creations of different societies that may not even be comprehensible to other cultures. And ordinary folks might also wonder. Can the paintings on cave walls really explain where the Mona Lisa came from? Do tales told around ancient campfires provide a key to Ulysses?

Dutton has been talking his way across the United States and after another exhausting day he's back at his daughter's house in New York. But he's soon back on form, fiery and occasionally furious.

Take story-telling, perhaps the oldest of the arts, and one found in all cultures. How do we explain our fascination with fiction, the literary love shared by two-year-olds listening to Maurice Sendak, adolescent watchers of Shortland Street, and high-brow readers of Proust? Dutton suggests that story-telling played a role in human evolution, increasing our ancestors' chances of surviving and reproducing during the 1.6 million years of the Pleistocene era.

"Fictions are preparations for life and its surprises," he says. They allowed a safe way for the cave-dwellers to think about threats and problems and how they might meet them. They allowed them to pose the vital question: What if? They also provided hard information in a vivid and memorable form: about hunting techniques, say, or dangerous animals. And they allowed them to enter the minds of others and learn skills to understand the endlessly complicated world of human society.

Fiction, in short, helped build the human imagination, and imagination was an evolutionary advantage. Over the 80,000 generations of human prehistory, those with such skills had a better chance of surviving. They fared better in the Darwinian struggle.

Ha, say the critics. Does this account of life in the cave really gel? That the talky, witty raconteurs of the Pleistocene had the best chance of surviving and handing on their genes? "One can almost picture Noel Coward dropping by the cave for cocktails," says American art theorist Rochelle Gurstein, a biting critic of the book.

Says Dutton: "How do we know there weren't Noel Cowards in the caves? We have no records of the jokes or songs or the poetry that people told in the upper Paleolithic. A few fragments remain in caves and a few carvings.

"These people had hairstyles. These people danced. These people decorated themselves. They sewed clothing. What little evidence we have of their jewellery would indicate that some of it is so close to modern that you could imagine buying it at the craft fair on a Saturday morning in Lower Hutt.

"I think for too long we've formed our image of Pleistocene humans in terms of The Flintstones." We are wrong to think of them as merely clods with big clubs, he says.

This is an important point to remember when considering the role of the arts in the other wing of Darwinian evolution, which is about sex. Women selected sexual partners for procreation not only on the basis of the male's physical qualities. "Women not only need a mate who is healthy, they need one who will stick around, provide and protect," says Dutton.

This meant that a man's intelligence, generosity and kindness were as important as physical strength to the would-be mother. And artistic and verbal skills were a sign of intelligence. Today as in the past, Dutton suggests, vocabulary size and verbal skill are taken that way. In evolutionary terms, he says, vocabulary size is like the male peacock's colourful tail: a signal to the female that the male has superior genes.

"A large, colourful, symmetrical tail functions as an advertisement to peahens, proclaiming, `See what a strong, healthy peacock I am'," says Dutton.

"The difficulty of growing and getting by with such a splendid monstrosity proves that the peacock who sports one is fit; weak or diseased peacocks cannot grow adequate tails and will not, therefore, readily find mates." And indeed, he says, peacocks with the finest tails do possess relatively better genes.

The arts, he notes, include the most extravagant creations, whether in literature, music or painting. Gifted artistic show-offs won sexual favours, rather as modern rock stars attract groupies.

Creationist Jonathan Wells objects that this "reduces art to lust". Handel didn't write the "Messiah" for sex. "In fact, however, Handel composed the "Messiah" as a benefit concert, and he personally conducted scores of performances that raised substantial funds for a London hospital and for people in debtors' prisons," Wells writes on the website of the anti-Darwinian Discovery Institute. "Far from trying to satisfy his sexual desire, Handel used his creative abilities for deeply altruistic purposes, and the `Messiah' stands as a legacy to his Christian faith."

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Dutton says this objection is absurd. Sexual selection helps explain how the art instinct came to be hard-wired into our brains. "That's very different from claiming that Handel was actually on the make with some young thing." The origins of art are one thing; the particular motivation of the individual artist is another.

Dutton admits that mysteries remain. We cannot know much about what happened in pre-history, and so we can't be sure that we know just how art gained its evolutionary importance.

The arts, according to Steven Pinker, the American theorist of evolutionary psychology, are a kind of cheesecake for the mind: nice, but not a necessary part of evolution.

Dutton, whose work echoes some of Pinker's, rejects this idea. But still, he is not quite sure about the place of music in evolution. "There must be somewhere an explanation of these intense human pleasures [of music] but I cannot guess where it will be found."

Evolution explains why art is universal and comprehensible to other cultures. It also means that standards of art are objective: the best art will be that which appeals most profoundly to our instincts over the longest period of time. Beethoven will last and be loved for centuries; Madonna, maybe not.

This puts Dutton offside with the main current of thought in the humanities in the past several decades. Central to this thought is the notion that art is merely a political or social construct, with much of the Western canon done by dead white males to glorify the dominant power structure. Our art needed to be politically deconstructed. "Academic criticism has become a kind of one-note symphony, finding little beauty and a lot of politics in art," says Dutton..

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