Denis Dutton [2.22.09]
Introduction by:
Denis Dutton


Darwinian aesthetics is not some kind of ironclad doctrine that is supposed to replace a heavy postructuralism with something just as oppressive. What surprises me about the resistance to the application of Darwin to psychology, is the vociferous way in which people want to dismiss it, not even to consider it. Is this a holdover from Marxism or religious doctrines? I don't know. Stephen Jay Gould was one of those people who had the idea that evolution was allowed to explain everything about me, my fingernails, my pancreas, the way my body is designed—except that it could have nothing to say about anything above the neck. About human psychology, nothing could be explained in evolutionary terms: we just somehow developed a big brain with its spandrels and all, and that's it.


By Steven Pinker

Denis Dutton is a visionary. He was among the first (together with our own John Brockman) to realize that a website could be a forum for cutting-edge ideas, not just a way to sell things or entertain the bored. Today Arts and Letters Daily is the web site that I try the hardest not to visit, because it is more addictive than crack cocaine. He started one of the first print-on-demand services for out-of-print scholarly books. He saw that philosophy and literature had much to say to each other, and started a deep and lively scholarly journal to move that dialogue along. He saw that pompous and empty prose in the humanities had become an impediment to thinking, and initiated the Bad Academic Writing contest to expose it.

And now he is changing the direction of aesthetics. Many people believe that this consilience between the arts, humanities, and sciences represents the future of the humanities, revitalizing them with a progressive research agenda after the disillusionments of postmodernism. Dutton has written the first draft of this agenda. He has defended a universal definition of art—something that many theorists assumed was simply impossible. And he has advanced a theory that aesthetics have a universal basis in human psychology, ultimately to be illuminated by the processes of evolution. His ideas in this area are not meant to be the last word, but they lay out testable hypotheses, and point to many fields that can be brought to bear on our understanding of art.

I see this as part of a larger movement of consilience, in which (to take a few examples), ideas from auditory cognition will provide insight into music, phonology will help illuminate poetics, semantics and pragmatics will advance our understanding of fiction, and moral psychology will be brought to bear on jurisprudence and philosophy. And in his various roles, Denis Dutton will be there when it happens.

—Steven Pinker, Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology, Harvard University; Author, The Stuff of Thought.

DENIS DUTTON, a philosopher, is founder and editor of the highly regarded Web publication, Arts & Letters Daily ( He teaches the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, writes widely on aesthetics. and is editor of the journal Philosophy and Literature, and the author of the recently published The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution.

Denis Dutton's Edge Bio Page


[DENIS DUTTON:] What we regard as the modern human personality evolved during the Pleistocene, between 1.6 million and 10,000 years ago. If you encountered one of your direct ancestors from the beginning of the Pleistocene moseying down the street today, you would probably call the SPCA and ask for a crew with tranquilizer darts and nets to cart the beast off to the zoo. If you saw somebody from the end of the Pleistocene, 10,000 years ago, you'd call the Immigration & Naturalization Service—by that time our ancestors wouldn't have appeared much different from any of us today. It is that crucial period, those 80,000 generations of the Pleistocene before the modern period, which is the key to understanding the evolution of human psychology. Features of life that makes us most human—language, religion, charm, seduction, social status-seeking, and the arts—came to be in this period, no doubt especially in the last 100,000 years.

The human personality—including those aspects of it that are imaginative, expressive, and creative—cries out for a Darwinian explanation. If we're going to treat aspects of the personality, including the aesthetic expression, as adaptations, we've got to do it in terms of three factors.

The first is pleasure: the arts give us direct pleasure. A British study a few years ago showed that six percent of all waking life of the average British adult is spent enjoying fictions, in movies, plays, and on television. And that didn't even include fictional books—bodice-rippers, airport novels, high literature, and so forth. That kind of devotion of time and its pleasure-payoff demands some kind of explanation.

As a second comes universality. What we've had over the last forty years is an ideology in academic life that regards the arts as socially constructed and therefore unique to local cultures. I call it an ideology because it is not argued for, it is just presupposed in most aesthetic discourse. Allied with this position is the idea that we can seldom or perhaps never really understand the arts of other cultures; other cultures likewise can't understand our arts. Everybody's living in his or her own socially constructed, hermetically sealed, special cultural world.

But of course, a moment’s though reveals that this can’t possible be true. We know people in Brazil love Japanese prints, that Italian opera is enjoyed in China. Both Beethoven and Hollywood movies have swept the world. Think of it—the Vienna Conservatory has been saved by a combination of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese pianists. The universality of the arts is a fact, again a fact that requires explanation. We simply can't keep going on forever making this false claim that the arts are unique to cultures.

And third, we have to consider the spontaneity of the arts—the way they spontaneously arise, beginning in childhood experience, across the globe. Think of the ways in which children, by the time they're three years old, can engage in make-believe and keep imaginary worlds separate from one another. A small child playing with its teddy bears at a tea party. If you knock over a cup and spill the pretend tea in it, the child will not be in the least confused as to which of the three empty cups to refill. In fact, if you refill the wrong empty cup, and insist it was the one that spilled, the child may well break out in tears. The child then goes from the tea party over to the television, and watches a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or "Sesame Street." From there, it’s on to reading a book, entering into its make-believe world, and then to have dinner with mommy and daddy. Even a three year old can keep all of these real and fictional worlds coherently separate from each other. Such spontaneous intellectual sophistication—try to imagine teaching it from scratch to a three year old—is a mark of an evolved adaptation.

Pleasure, universality, spontaneous development. We see them in the cross-cultural realities of music, the universality of storytelling, as well as things like food tastes, erotic interests, pet-keeping, sports interests, our fascination with puzzle solving, gossip—the list is indefinitely long. Charles Darwin has a lot more to say about how we evolved as inventive and expressive social animals with our remarkable personalities than has been given credit for. These aspects of evolution have deep implications for the origins and evolution of the arts.


You ask why I have such a long-standing interest in the genesis of artistic experience. I don’t really know. I grew up in Southern California; my parents had met at Paramount Pictures, where they worked in the 1930s. They later founded bookstores, the Dutton Books of Southern California. I think that among my earliest memories must be sitting on the living room floor playing over and over again a recording of Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. To my child’s mind, this music was magical, its pleasure intense.

I took violin and piano lessons as a child, but was never very good with anything I could not memorize. I seem to have some mildly dyslexic inability to read music fluently, though my musical memory is fairly prodigious—I do know that standard run of Western classical music inside and out.

I entered the University of California at Santa Barbara, originally as a chemistry major, but soon changed to philosophy and was fascinated by aesthetics. As an undergraduate, I was taught—and more or less accepted—elements in Wittgenstein and anthropology that proclaimed the uniqueness and incommensurability of cultures and art forms.

It's not as though this was ever backed up by serious arguments. It was supported by anecdotes. My generation was taught that the Eskimos had 500 words for snow. It's an urban legend; it's simply not true. But if you believed it, then you could believe that the Eskimo lives in a special intellectual world of which we're not a part.

Consider the story, equally fabulous, about the African who, for the first time shown a photograph of a person, didn't know how to read it as a photograph, couldn't see it as a representation of a person. Fancy that: the confused African couldn't see any natural resemblance between a photograph and a live person. My experience in New Guinea would indicate that's just ridiculous. I can imagine that the African might have been a bit confused when for the first time he saw a truck come into his village, with a white man getting out of it and shoving a piece of paper in front of his face. But to turn such an incident into a failure to understand a naturalistic representation—that’s just loopy social constructionist ideology, it’s not serious research on what were then called "primitive" cultures.

Another one of my favorite myths is the story of Ravi Shankar in San Francisco giving a concert. He comes out on stage and tunes the sitar. Now the sitar is a very complicated instrument to tune, and he works on it for about ten minutes. When he's finished, he nods to the audience and everybody applauds thinking that was actually the first piece of music on the program. Ipso facto, people cannot really understand foreign cultures.

After I got out of college, I joined the Peace Corps and went to South India. I worked in a village north of Hyderabad, in South India. It was a Dravidian language-speaking culture with the caste system of India, in many ways ancient and very foreign—Southern California it was not. On the other hand, if you looked at the foibles and passions and absurdities and ambitions and plans that people have for their lives, Indian culture was completely intelligible.

Indians are not another species of animal. They're human beings, and we can understand them. And I found out we can understand their music, because I started playing the sitar in India, studying with Pandarung Parate, a student of Ravi Shankar himself. I still play the sitar. In fact, I can get free meals in Indian restaurants in the town where I live by twanging on the sitar for a while for entertainment. I've played it on and off for 40 years.

And by the way, found out what was behind that story about Ravi Shankar In San Francisco. It’s another urban legend concocted to support the thesis that cultures can't understand each other. No one who has watched it being tuned could possibly think that fiddling with the pegs and the strings is a piece of music. No San Francisco audience, no matter how stoned, could mistake that for a performance: the applause was just relief that the tedious tuning was finished.

But the story got incorporated into the 1960s zeitgeist. It’s time to be done with these fables after 40 or 50 years, and ask ourselves why the arts are universal. The notion that art is purely socially constructed, indeed, the human personality is socially constructed, has to make way for something more complex.

After grad school at NYU and UCSB, I taught philosophy at the University of Michigan, Dearborn, and later moved to New Zealand, where for some years I taught philosophy of art in my university’s school of fine arts. I taught courses across the board in philosophy—the history of philosophy and various subdivisions of philosophy, but the nagging aesthetics questions persisted. My colleagues all seem to agree that culture was the only way to explain art, but this position seemed unsatisfactory.


In the late 1980s, I developed a passionate interest in oceanic art and the carvings of New Guinea. One day, my wife suggested, "Well, we're close enough. Why don't you simply go up to New Guinea and find out what their aesthetic standards are." By that time, I was well acquainted with what European connoisseurship would call the "greatest" works of New Guinea art. But would the Eurpean valuations accord with local New Guinean valuations? Australian friends, old New Guinea hands, helped me to find a village, Yentchenmangua on the Sepik River, where carving traditions were still alive. (This project had the unintended by-product that somewhere out there in a museum or gallery there's an authentic New Guinea carving carved by me. I’d left one of my practice carvings in the village and only found out later that it has been painted and sold off.) This experience taught me something crucially important: that New Guinea standards for greatness and for excellence are as far as I could determine the same as those of knowledgeable European curators, connoisseurs, and collectors.

I'm not saying that the New Guineans would make judgments that would coincide with every naive tourist—newcomers to the art—who gets off the boat. Tourists in my experience make very bad choices in buying New Guinea arts. But the people who really know the good work in museums, who are very deeply familiar with New Guinea art but who have never set foot in New Guinea, oddly have the same taste patterns as New Guinea carvers themselves. And this shows that with the art form, knowledge and familiarity with the whole field determines a convergence of taste. And that, again, has to be explained.

You could try to explain it by saying that God has imprinted us with something. Jung thought he had ways of approaching this. Joseph Campbell was interested in these issues. But the person who really has the answers is Charles Darwin. In his first books, which are amazingly detailed, he couldn't go into all of these specific aesthetic issues, but he set out the blueprint for us. And we can apply Darwinian ideas and come to some initial rough account. I hope that over the years my arguments about the genesis of artistic taste will be refined.

And I have to stress that I am far from claiming that I have all the answers about the evolutionary origins of aesthetic taste. Darwinian aesthetics is not some kind of ironclad doctrine that is supposed to replace a heavy postructuralism with something just as oppressive. What surprises me about the resistance to the application of Darwin to psychology, is the vociferous way in which people want to dismiss it, not even to consider it. Is this a holdover from Marxism or religious doctrines? I don't know. Stephen Jay Gould was one of those people who had the idea that evolution was allowed to explain everything about me, my fingernails, my pancreas, the way my body is designed—except that it could have nothing to say about anything above the neck. About human psychology, nothing could be explained in evolutionary terms: we just somehow developed a big brain with its spandrels and all, and that's it.

This position is unsupportable. We know there are built-in spontaneous features of the human personality, conspicuously present, for instance, in the evolutions development of speech. But other aspects of the personality as well, one which have to do with the arts, are also universal, appearing in childhood with little or no prompting, or simply arising "naturally," so it seems to us, as features of social interactions.

I cannot understand why there still is so much resistance among academics to such ideas. If you want to be a one-dimensional determinist, go ahead and make it all "culture." My side of the argument isn't trying to make it all "nature," make it all genetics. Human life is lived in a middle position between our genetic determinants on the one hand and culture on the other. It's out of that that human freedom emerges. And artistic works, the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Jane Austen, the works of Wagner and Beethoven, Rembrandt and Hokusai, are among the freest, most human acts ever accomplished. These creations are the ultimate expressions of freedom.

It makes no more sense to claims that our artistic and expressive lives are determined only by culture, as it does to say that we are determined only by genes. Human beings are a product of both. Why can't we get over our post-Marxist nostalgia for economic or cultural determinism and accept human reality as it actually is? The truth of the human situation is that we are biologically determined organism that live in a culture. That we are cultural creatures is part of what is determined by our genes.


It’s a great question, What is art?. But it's been answered in the wrong way by philosophers for the last forty years. The fundamental mistake has been to imagine that if we can explain why Duchamp's great work, Fountain, is a work of art, then we'd know what traditional works of art are. I say "no" to this procedure. Instead of asking how is it that Duchamp's readymades are works of art, I say, let's ask what is it that makes the Pastoral Symphony a work of art. Why is A Midsummer Night's Dream a work of art? Why is Pride and Prejudice a work of art? Let's look first at the undisputed paradigm cases and find out what they all have in common—and not only in the Western tradition but also in the great Eastern traditions of China and Japan. Look at Hokusai, consider at New Guinea carving, and look at African carving. Better to understand them, and then analyze modernist experimentation and provocations, such as Duchamp’s brilliant work. I do regard Duchamp as an incandescent genius. But our respect for him must include a recognition of the fact that he was in some of his works experimenting in ways intended to outrage and provoke people by implicitly asking what the limits of art are.

To put the point analogically: if you're teaching ethics in a philosophy class and you want to get to understand what murder is, you don't begin by asking whether capital punishment or abortion or assisted suicide is murder. What you do is start with the clear cases and then move out later to ask, "Is capital punishment murder?" We ought first to make sense of the clear cases.

An obsession with marginal cases has actually degraded the discussion in aesthetic theory of what the arts are. I must say it's made for a lot of fun in philosophy of art classes. Duchamp’s gestures are sure to get students interested. It's the same with questions like, what is wrong with a forgery? Or, is there an intentional fallacy in interpreting literature? These issues generate intriguing conundrums. But after we've had our fun, we must also get back to central questions of what is it that makes the Iliad or Guernicaart? Then we can better deal with Duchamp.


Modernism has long had a project—to oversimplify—directed against the excesses, pomposity, and absurdities of the nineteenth-century art that preceded it. Think of those huge, gaudy, sentimental paintings produced by the Victorians. You’ll find many in the basements of art galleries and museums in New Zealand: gigantic canvases of biblical themes—The Flight from Egypt or some other biblical topic. Many of these paintings cannot be regarded today as anything but big dark monstrosities, and white elephants so far as storage space goes. No one wants to look at them—but no one knows what to do with them, either.

We're in the same situation right now in the late twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century. Our museums are burdened with gigantic mega-canvases. Will anyone be interested in seeing them in a hundred years? Will anyone actually care about a shark in formaldehyde in a hundred years? (That’s a particularly tough one: even in formaldehyde, that shark will likely have disintegrated in a hundred year’s time. Or is that fact part of the whole work of art?) This is an interesting issue. I'm not sure I want to put it in permanent storage. The huge canvases produced in the 1970s where size alone was supposed to prove it's great art. Well, it didn't then and it still doesn't now.

Many times in its history, including ours, art as experienced periods of folly. It’s fun to watch, of course, but as a Darwinian I'm also interested in the features of works of art that are going to make them still looked at and listened to and read 500 years from now. That for me is the question. By the way, I think that Warhol stands a chance, as does Jackson Pollack. On the other hand, I'm not so sure about Schoenberg, particularly his atonal music.

Anton Webern once suggested that someday we will have advanced to the point where the postman will in his sophistication do his rounds whistling an atonal non-tune. A lovely hope for modernism, but the idea is completely implausible. What is it about a melody that a Schoenberg tone row doesn't quite qualify in the minds of most people? That's a question about basic human musical psychology. And, of course, it's the reception of twelve-tone music of usually presented as though it's a question about culture—or resistance to change. I don't think it's about culture. Alone.


One of the earliest influences on my thinking on this is Ellen Dissanayake, who has written three major books and a lot of articles. And she wrote a book entitled What is Art For?, and then Homo Aestheticus. Her most recent book is Art and Intimacy. Her view of the arts was a revelation. She wasn't trying to disparage the arts, reduce them to a brute drive, or make them any less than the grand things they are. She did want to connect them with an evolved human nature in a way that makes a lot of sense. One of the great ironies of the academic world is that this woman who has made such a contribution with her books and articles, has never been able to land an academic job. She's a medical stenographer in Seattle. After working all day, she has goes home to write at night or on the weekends the pioneering books on the subject of evolutionary aesthetics. I regard her as one of the most remarkable intellectual figures of our time.

Of course, John Tooby and Leda Cosmides are extremely important in their groundbreaking work in evolutionary psychology. Stephen Pinker is so imaginative and informed: he has been a great inspiration. Joseph Carroll has done exquisitely sophisticated research in literary Darwinism, sometimes alongside his younger colleague, Jonathan Gottschall. Brian Boyd, my colleague in New Zealand famed for his Nabokov biography, is also heavily involved in the evolutionary psychology of literature.

These people have meant a lot to me and have helped me to overcome, if I may say so, my own Wittgensteinian enculturation in which forms of life are incommensurable between cultures. It’s not just Foucault and Derrida: Wittgenstein also has a lot to answer for. There's a deep anti-naturalism in his work, but a consistent ambiguity that makes it difficult to identify. Consider Wittgenstein’s gnomic, seemingly profound claim, "If a lion could speak, we could not understand him." Oh yeah? That’s a deeply mischivous idea, and Wittgenstein would have profited from getting to know an animal ethologist or two. If a lion could speak, the ethologists would be pretty clear about that he’d be talking about: annoying other lions, and members of the opposite lion sex, tasty zebras, and so on. People who live with animals can understand them, sometimes rather remarkably.

On the other hand, used in the wrong ways, animal ethology can itself be misleading. In evolutionary aesthetics, animals have to be used to explain evolutionary principles, natural selection and sexual selection in the human situation. Take, for instance, chimpanzee art. We became human in the Pleistocene, having forked off from the chimps fully five million years before that—which means we are still very distant indeed from our closest surviving primate relatives. These days, people in zoos and primate research centers enjoy to take out big sheets of butcher paper and let the chimps go at them with brushes and paint. The chimps have a grand old time, scribbling about or making a typical upward fan figure. They are essentially taking joy in the sheer disruption of the white background with a solid color. It's not unlike the pleasure many of us have gotten with finger-painting, or early painting in school: we can get pleasure simply in the contrasts that we create.

Is this "chimpanzee art"? People who make the claims are usually not aware of other aspects of the chimps’ behavior. First, the typical upward fan shape actually is not a picture, an image of a fan, because a chimp can't turn it on its side or render it upside down. It's not a representation as much as part of a motor sequence in the chimp's arms and hands. Second, if the trainer does not take the piece of paper away from the chimp, the result will be inevitably be a brownish blob because a chimp has no idea of when to stop. It no objective, or sense of a plan or end point in creating the work. It's only a work of art for us because the trainer took it away from the chimp before it became a blob. Finally, and for me most tellingly, when they're finished—or the paper’s been taken away—the chimps never again go back to look at the work.

It is seems to me that anyone who says, "Yes, chimpanzees have art," is making a mistake. Chimpanzees like to disrupt white paper with big colored blobs. As human beings, we can understand that, but that does no make their creations works of art. There is no cultural tradition within which chimps are working. There's no criticism—art talk or evaluation of any kind—with the chimps. There's no style in the sense that it's a learned way of doing it, though there are uniformities in the output for muscular reasons. To call this art or proto-art underestimates and misunderstands what human art is.

Animals have much to teach us, but from a Darwinian perspective, human beings really are something else.