The art instinct and other survival traits

Richard Handler on the evolutionary basis for art.

2009 is turning out to be a hurrah year for evolution with two big anniversaries rolled into one.

The year contains a happy 200th birthday to Charles Darwin and also marks the 150 years since his book, On the Origin of Species, published in November 1859, changed the way we humans thought about our animal and spiritual selves.

To mark the occasions, biographies, TV specials, even an upcoming Ideas series on CBC Radio are rapidly procreating from screens, studios and presses.

If evolution teaches us the advantages of group behaviour as a survival mechanism, this is a lesson that we pack animals in the media have taken to heart.

It doesn't matter that the world has changed dramatically since Darwin's day. Or that we live in such a technologically alien landscape from Victorian England. Imagine Darwin, with his bottled beetles, listening to the proceedings of the Royal Academy of Science on his iPod!

Still, evolution remains the ruling natural science paradigm to the point that evolutionary theorists are evolving, too.

Emphasis on "survival of the fittest" has been replaced with a kinder, gentler vision. No longer is evolution seen solely as a scientific way of hammering those unfortunates (social Darwinism) who can't compete.

Just as the so-called positive psychologists today talk in terms of strengths rather than weaknesses, the new evolutionary theorists emphasize the positive attributes of our species, such as altruism and cohesive group behaviour.

Arts & letters

What's more, you don't have to be a scientist to ride evolution's bandwagon. You can be a philosopher like Denis Dutton.

Raised in California, Dutton now teaches in New Zealand where he also edits that marvelously useful website, Arts and Letters Daily (for which I give thanks every day). For me, it is the best essay "aggregator" on the web.

Reading it on a regular basis, you can almost feel yourself evolving into a smarter person, perhaps making your own little contribution to the betterment of the species. (Though it will be for others to judge whether you're deceiving yourself.)

Dutton's first love is art, or I should say, the arts, because he's so supremely aesthetically tuned.

Always a busy man, he has done fieldwork among tribal carvers in New Guinea, can play pretty much entire canon of Western music inside his head, and strums the sitar for pleasure and to earn the odd meal at local Indian restaurants in Canterbury, having learned the instrument when in India working for the Peace Corps.

He's put his thoughts together in his latest book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution.

Aesthetically hard-wired

So, you might ask, what's an art guy doing fooling around with evolution? Has Art really evolved in the way that, say, Science has?

In the Anglo-American tradition, art is often seen as something that conveys status and gussies up your home or office, a pretty little frill. (Just think of all those art programs trashed when school budgets are cut.)

But Dutton's purpose is to show us the utter centrality of the arts to the human experience.

His own passion, he suggests, indicates that art represents something deeper, more intrinsic to our species, which is where evolution comes in.

Using the work of a new breed of evolutionary theorists, such as Geoffrey Miller at the University of New Mexico, Dutton establishes a place for art as a central human activity, not something that is "socially constructed" by individual societies.

Art, in fact, is universally practised by humans beings. It arises spontaneously in our midst, like a glorious garden of wildflowers.

What's more, he makes the case that making art is hard-wired into our brains and is much more than an evolutionary add-on, as other theorists argue.

There is a purpose to our pleasure in art, says Dutton. It underpins a broad human culture that in the final analysis, allows us to survive and flourish.

Why such narrative extravagance?

In Dutton's eye, the art instinct is a multi-purpose tool, a sort of aesthetic Swiss Army knife that entralls with its multifaceted call to pleasure.

An appreciation for art promotes communication and solidarity. It also sharpens our mating calls with its sumptuous theatrical displays, from Shakespeare's tender speeches to the raucous antics of a rock star with his phallic guitar.

Or take storytelling, something all humans practice. To our pre-literate ancestors, telling stories conveyed vital information in dramatic ways so that you wouldn't forget to avoid those poison mushrooms or those Trojan horses with your enemies hiding inside.

If it is only survival information you want, you should be able to tell your stories straight. But humans have this innate capacity to invent and make stuff up. Why this narrative extravagance?

It's not simply for mere entertainment, says Dutton. Imagination conditions humans to see multiple scenarios, the better to anticipate what's around the corner and so to improve survival value, be it in the Pleistocene era or the modern corporate jungle.

When our military planners create scenarios about what might happen to our troops in Afghanistan, they are using imaginative, cognitive skills to develop their plans.

After the attacks of 9/11, the American security establishment was criticized for its "failure of imagination." So they began to interview filmmakers about possible scenarios, the ones the military was blind to, like crashing planes into office towers.

When you think of options, your imagination becomes a survival tool and you make room for alternatives.

This worked for our stone-age ancestors. But here's the question for all you neo-Darwinians out there: if we can use our artful imaginations to construct Hollywood movies and a universe of human possibility, why aren't we safer than we are?

Why have our destructive technology and our greed evolved faster than our foresight?

Maybe we need another bump up the evolutionary ladder. Or more push from our art instinct.