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We are a Post-Darwin Culture

May 22, 2009

by keito

Can evolutionary psychology and sociobiology account for everything?  50 years after the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, the idea that natural selection naturally lead to the human inclination to create and enjoy art is causing a stir.

“Where an upright gait and a varied diet had obvious survival advantages for our nomad forebears, it’s far from clear that the same went for something as energy-consuming and apparently useless as the arts,” wrote Jeremy McCarter in the April 6th issue of Newsweek.  He was writing about Denis Dutton’s book The Art Instinct, giving a dissenting review which prompted Dutton to write “Jeremy McCarter follows a good short summary of the book with a litany of reasons why I just have to be wrong. I’ll have more to say about this piece in due course…”

Touchy, touchy.  But who wouldn’t be when it comes to this subject?  The Art Instinct aside, the entire field of evolutionary psychology and sociobiology is all about explaining psychology and behavior as traits brought out through natural selection, and that includes humanity’s general love of art.  The concept can be a little abhorrent to the average person, and especially the average artist, musician, writer, singer—you name it.

Art as a result of natural selection seems like sort of an anti-humanist notion: human talents, from which many receive an almost spiritual level of pleasure, aren’t the product of an indescribable essence and creative drive that is special to humans; they are the mere result of survival of the fittest.  Art became an instinct because it was adaptive, helping our ancestors to survive.  Our resulting “art instinct” would tell us what to do (make or enjoy art), and our culture would dictate how to do it (paint, draw, go to a museum).

This idea stems from Darwin’s work, the “essence” of which was once divided into four summarized ideas by famous paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould.  According to Gould’s description of Darwin’s theory, one of these ideas, known as efficacy, “holds that natural selection explains the origin of all major evolutionary novelties.”  It’s this basic thesis of Darwin’s that inspires evolutionary psychology and biology’s outreach into fields such as art.

It’s not that simple, however.  According to “Constraints and Spandrels in Gould’s Structure of Evolutionary Theory,” published in Biology and Philosophy in 2004 and written by Todd A. Grantham (and from which the previous quote was taken),  Gould also maintained that, in Grantham’s words, “we must reject stronger versions of efficacy (e.g. that selection alone is sufficient to explain the origin of all major novelties).”  When it comes to explaining why humanity does what it does, sometimes evolution just doesn’t cut it.

There is, however, a lot of evidence supporting artistic inclinations as “instinct,” and a lot that does not support it.  If it there really is an “art instinct,” then, according to Darwin’s theories, the need to create art is driven by a need for adaptability and survival, two things which, if successfully accomplished, attract mates and promote the ability to reproduce, passing all those good artistic traits on to future generations.

Art, created for the purpose of sex?  Outrageous!

Of course, we need look no further than the phenomenon beginning in the late 20th century known as “rockstars” and “groupies” for a little support for that claim.  Writer Chris Lavalle, interviewed by Chris Lehmann in an NPR special called “You Must Read This,” remarked that, after reading Japanese Nobel Prize-winning author Oe Kenzaburo’s Prize Stock, he realized he writes “because I want bookish women to fall in love with me.”  Attracting mates or sex partners is a pretty strong motivation for a lot of artists, it would seem.

But here’s the catch.  Lavalle also says that “In “Prize Stock,” Oe refused to flatter himself, his village, his country…”  With a story about racism in the World War II era, Oe is certainly not trying to win himself any groupies, nor with his other writings, which generally treat sex as a weapon or means of control.  Which leads me to a refutation of the “art-for-reproduction” idea: art is not necessarily attractive to others, and is not usually intended to be.

Just look at literature.  In the 1800s, the reading public, including the author’s own sister, were appalled by Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights because of its villain.  Rather than willfully trying to attract others, art often points out human flaws that cause a negative reaction in viewers and readers, to the potential detriment of the work’s creator.

It is true that evolutionary psychology does make room for cultural input when it comes to behavioral traits.  It is also true, however, that many artistic works come about from learned, cultural input, but often go against cultural input by creating them.  Thomas Hardy, though he claimed he wrote only of popular, tacit opinion, created outrage, moral and in general, among the English public (much, much bigger than any controversy inspired by The Art Instinct) when he published Tess of the d’Urbervilles.  In a note to the first edition, he wrote that “I would ask any too genteel reader, who cannot endure to have said what everybody nowadays thinks and feels, to remember a well-worn sentence of St. Jerome’s: If an offense come out of the truth, better is it that the offense come than that the truth be concealed.”

When Hardy wrote in prefaces of later editions that he wished he could shake the hands of all the people who had accepted his work despite the controversy, it wasn’t to flatter his admirers, or from any other supposedly underlying instinct that would be encouraging him to find some willing mates.  He just wished to congratulate people who accepted his work even though it was telling a very unpleasant truth of that society.

Hardy’s quote about truth also points out that art is sometimes created for that purpose; in fact, it’s for a multitude of purposes.  Which leads me to my ultimate conclusion: we are a Post-Darwin culture, and have been for some time.

Supposing natural selection once did have something to do with a widespread propensity for art, it is no longer a universal or a driving-force behind it.  Sure, natural selection still plays a huge roll (ever met somebody who never developed wisdom teeth?).  It just doesn’t play a roll in culture.

Perhaps, once upon a time, the guy who spent his days painting on the walls of caves looked like a great prospect for a mate, but today artistic inclinations are often a sort of reproductive liability—many creators of art struggle to provide for themselves, nevermind a family, and a lot of their works are going to be broadly unattractive, at least at first.

Let me back up this “Post-Darwin Culture” theory with a quote from my high school biology teacher: “Humans are unique in that we have the ability to change our environments.”  We’ve built up society and civilization to encourage and protect our perpetuation and our progeny for us—there’s no longer any potential need for the cultural sphere created by the pressures of natural selection.  We’ve moved on to art for art’s sake, or at least we now have the ability to create it under such circumstances.

It’s sort of like the wheel.  Way back when, the wheel helped us adapt to our environment.  Being able to create a wheel and put it to good use helped early humans carry food, plow fields, harvest and transport food and survive, and therefore gave them a chance to reproduce.  Today, we make four of them and slap them on a sexy little car, and go for drives just for the fun of it.

Sometimes it’s just better (and more accurate) to leave art to the artists.

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