Survival of the artsiest

In the same issue of Newsweek that I cited in my last post, there’s a review of a recent book by one Denis Dutton called The Art Instinct. It’s a book about creativity and evolution, and it’s one of a number of recent works that tries to define the way we think and behave in modern society to the traits that helped our prehistoric ancestors survive.

This school of thought is called evolutionary psychology, and Dutton’s apparently not the first to apply it to art. Reviewer Jeremy McCarter says the book is “the latest in a long, long line of attempts to bring art and science together in a way that doesn’t leave one – or both – with a black eye.” The foundation of the argument is the fact that the arts have appeared in every human society, and have traditionally caused a great deal of pleasure – and as McCarter explains, “intense pleasure is often how our genes encourage some advantageous behaviour.” But what’s so advantageous about the arts from a survival point of view?

Dutton puts an interesting two-part answer on the table. First of all, the arts enhance the creative capacities that would have helped our ancestors to survive in the wild. The ability to invent and share stories goes hand in hand with the ability to understand others, work out “what if?” scenarios and pass along survival tips. “The best storytellers and the best listeners would have had slightly greater odds of survival,” McCarter summarizes, “giving future generations a higher percentage of good storytellers and listeners, and so on.”

Second of all, a knack for creativity would have increased a man’s chances of attracting a mate and passing on his genes. Not only that, but a creative woman would have been more likely to keep a man interested enough to stick around afterwards, thereby increasing the child’s odds of survival. It’s not exactly the “chicks dig sensitive artists” argument, but from an animal perspective, it makes a lot of sense.

As a result, after thousands of generations of natural and sexual selection, the capacity to create and enjoy art supposedly emerged as a hardwired human trait. Dutton calls it the survival “not just of the physically strongest but of the cleverest, wittiest and wisest.”

“All in all, it’s a lovely vision,” McCarter says. “I just wish somebody could convince me that it’s true.” The issue he takes with Dutton’s book is supposedly a common criticism of evolutionary psychology as a whole – it doesn’t hold up very well when you switch from theory to practice. “Much of evolutionary psychology deals with universals,” McCarter says. “It works backward from some shared trait to puzzle out an underlying cause and help us to understand ourselves better. But when a human activity doesn’t lend itself to universals, evolutionary psychology begins to sound dubious. And no field of human endeavour has less to do with universals than the arts.”

Still, it makes for an interesting theory, and I wouldn’t want to judge a book I haven’t read. For more information, feel free to check out the review and the book’s official website via the links above.

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