30 January 2012
Denis Dutton, who died just one month ago, was clearly a man of parts.
He was a professor of philosophy, specializing in aesthetics, at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. But he is undoubtedly best known as the founder of Arts & Letters Daily, a sort of high-brow Reader’s Digest for the digital age.
As a philosopher of aesthetics, Dutton is interesting because he bucked the tide of cultural relativsim. Unfortunately, he did so by invoking Darwinian evolutionary psychology, particulary in his book, The Art Instinct (Bloombury Press, 2008).
This is a worrisome trend that we all need to think about carefully. Cultural relativism is highly detrimental, because it undermines all sense of objective right and wrong. But Darwinian reductionism is also very dangerous, because it undercuts, not just morality, but everything that is valuable about us as human beings.
So, there is a great danger that the Darwinian-reductionist cure may turn out to be worse than the relativist disease.
After watching a TED lecture Dutton gave in 2010, entitled “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty” (see below), which summarizes the argument of his book, I have come to the conclusion that Dutton was more sinned against than sinning. It is not so much that he was predisposed to reductionism as that he hated relativism. The trouble is, the intellectual climate he lived in misled him into believing that rejecting relativism meant embracing Darwinism.
So, let’s take a look at Dutton’s TED lecture, to see exactly where he goes wrong. He starts off with a fine discussion of the universality of the human aesthetic sense:
Tastes for both natural beauty and for the arts travel across cultures with great ease. Beethoven is adored in Japan; Peruvians love Japanese woodblock prints; Inca sculptures are regarded as treasures in British museums; while Shakespeare is translated into every major language of the earth.
So far, so good. This is both true and important, not to mention well said.
Then, Dutton asks the crucial question: “How can we explain this universality?” He says:
The best answer lies in trying to reconstruct a Darwinian evolutionary history of our artistic and aesthetic tastes.
This is his first mistake: the idea that history per se is an adequate explanation of the properties of a thing. History per se does not explain how anything works—or, in the case of biological traits, what they are for.
If I want to know why gold is shiny, it does not help me if you tell me that gold is produced by supernovae of a certain kind of star. That may tell me where gold comes from, but it doesn’t tell me why it is shiny. An answer to the latter question must appeal to the molecular structure of gold, not to its history.
Similarly, if I want to know how eyes see, speculation about the evolutionary history of eyes is of no help to me. It is the wrong kind of answer to my question. The right answer will explain the relationship between ocular anatomy and the laws of optics.
In the same way, if I want to know why the aesthetic sense is universal in human beings, I need to inquire into the principles in the human mind that endow all human beings with this faculty. It doesn’t help me if you tell me about human evolution. When Dutton appeals to “Darwinian evolutioary history,” he invokes the wrong kind of answer to the question he is asking.
The right answer to the question about the universality of the human aesthetic sense is: It is part of our standard equipment as human beings. That is, it is an essential element of human nature.
But maybe what Dutton really means is: Why do human beings have an aesthetic sense at all?
Just as one might ask what good the camera eye is, or what good the opposable thumb is, so too one may ask: What good is the aesthetic sense? What is our aesthetic sense for? Why is it a part of our standard human equipment?
Though he has not even posed this question, he does try to answer it—by invoking Darwinian speculation, drawn from the discipline known as “evolutionary psychology.” Here is what he says:
The experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology.
Once again, quite true—and excellently put. But then he immediately spoils it all by saying:
The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. Beauty is an adaptive effect.
Logically, this is simply a non sequitur. Empirically, there is not one shred of evidence in its support.
What does Dutton have in mind, exactly, when he says “beauty is an adpative effect”?
He spends a long time on the supposed fact that everybody likes landscapes that supposedly resemble the African savannah where our ancestors supposedly evolved. As if appreciating the beauty of the landscape could have been “adaptive” for our forebears!
And as if human beings don’t find many other types of landscapes beautiful! If Dutton’s theory were true—if a taste for the African savannah were hardwired in our brains—then we would view Caspar David Friedrich’s Das Eismeer (left) with repugnance rather than transport, and would listen to Robert Frost’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” with disgust rather than enchantment.
In short, Dutton’s claims are preposterous. But never mind. One gets used to that in this line of work. Let us soldier on.
Next, Dutton talks a lot about Acheulian handaxes. Granted they are graceful to look at—perhaps more than strict utility would warrant. So, granted, too, that they demonstrate a nascent aesthetic sense already in Homo erectus.
Sure, why not? But it simply does not follow from this observation that Acheulian handaxes were “fitness signals,” as Dutton claims.
What does that mean? Here’s how he fleshes this Darwinian idea out in his lecture:
Competently made handaxes indicated desirable personal qualities . . . Over tens of thousands of generations, such skills increased the status of those who displayed them and gained a reproductive advantage over the less capable.
You know, it’s an old line, but it has been shown to work: “Why don’t you come up to my cave, so I can show you my handaxes.”
This is all very amusing, but not in the way Dutton intends.
There are two big problems with Dutton’s argument. First, it is reductive. It transmogrifies aesthetic pleasure into something else—fitness signals.
Like all reductive reasoning, Darwinian explanations do not so much explain as attempt to debunk and unmask the phenomena under consideration. In this sense, Darwinism is part and parcel of the postmodern, paranoid style of academic thought.
In this particular case, Dutton’s explanation leaves us scratching our heads, wondering why we find works of art beautiful. Why don’t we simply see them as fitness signals?
The other problem with Dutton’s argument is that he has committed the logical blunder at the heart of all Darwinian reasoning.
Notice: First came the handaxes; then came the supposed reproductive advantage.
But if one caveman had the wit to conceive and make a handaxe—and liked what he made—then why suppose any reproductive advanatage was required for it to spread through the population?
Surely, it makes more sense to suppose that other cavemen liked what they saw and simply imitated the first caveman—all without the need for any sexual selection.
Think about it: Something has to exist, before it can be selected.
This little point of elementary logic is the iceberg upon which the Titanic of Darwinism always founders, if it is ever examined closely.
For physiological traits, Darwinists gloss over this difficulty by airily invoking “random variation.” But if traits truly varied randomly, and organisms had no inherent power of adapation to insults and other changed conditions, then living systems would be horribly brittle machines and evolution would be physically impossible. Evolution only makes sense on the assumption that organisms possess a preexisting power of compensatory adjustment to circumstances.(1)
But once we’ve introdued inherent purpose into the equation, then we no longer need the principle of natural selection, because the purpose is doing all the explanatory work.
All of this is even more obvious when a human mental faculty is at issue. If Dutton followed the Darwinian formula more faithfully, and claimed that the first Acheulian handaxe—in all of its excellence of concept and execution—was manufactured “by accident,” then the absurdity of the whole enterprise would be instantly evident to everyone.
To be sure, at some point in evolutionary history, the human aesthetic sense came into being. But there is no good reason to believe it happened the way Dutton describes.
A far more plausible account is that language arrived first, and brought with it a whole suite of cognitive faculties—reasoning, morality, aesthetic sense, contemplation of first and last things. These faculties are sui generis features of the human form of cognition. Their explanation is to be sought in the fact that we human beings live in an ideal world of the imagination, alongside the physical world.
This means there is a general and a specific reason why beauty exists. The general reason is that the human aesthetic sense is one cognitive faculty among many, and all are best understood as dynamically constructed, emergent features of universal human nature.(2)
The specific reason why beauty exists is that the human spririt is essentially involved with the ideal. We are emotionally responsive to virtues and excellences of all sorts, and finds their contemplation pleasing.
Thus, beauty is the hedonic side of the participation of spirit in the ideal.
As such, it is neither reducible to some set of genes, nor explicable by means of the theory of natural selection.
* * *
The fact that someone with Dutton’s sensitivities and gifts felt he had to climb on board the Darwinian bandwagon in order to avoid cultural relativism is very depressing.
If I thought I really had to choose between “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “beauty is a fitness signal,” I don’t know what I’d do. You’d have to take my belt and my shoelaces away from me.
Luckily, there is a third option—the dynamical constructivist view of life and mind—that makes it possible to be an essentialist and a realist about beauty, without falling into the intellectual mire of Darwinian reductionism.
* * *
Here’s the video of Dutton’s 2010 TED lecture:
* * *
Next time: “A Cure Worse Than the Disease—Darwinism vs. Relativism II: Roger Scruton”
(1) For further discussion, see “What Is Life? Part II: The Poverty of Darwinism.”
(2) See “What Is Life? Part III: What Might an Organism Be, If Not a Machine?“