I think the poet Marianne Moore said it first about psychology, but it remains true in general: a theory that explains everything, explains nothing. And evolutionary biology is a theory that explains… well, everything. I’m talking about all these recent attempts to trace every human trait back to its origin in some Pleistocene survival or romantic situation. It’s fun, I guess, and has the reassuring ring of science to it. But it’s not really science in the least, it’s mere speculation, and in the end, it doesn’t really tell us much of anything. If humans have some useful feature like a thumb, it’s due to natural selection; if they have some completely useless but attractive habit like singing, it’s due to sexual selection. Whatever. Even if it’s all true, which it may well be, it doesn’t exclude purpose behind the apparent contingency or an experience that’s ultimately greater than its beginnings and the sum of its parts.
Anyway, I recently read a book called The Art Instinct by Denis Dutton, who founded and edits one of my favorite websites, Arts & Letters Daily. It proposes an evolutionary theory of the arts. And it’s an entertaining book and has good insights into our experience of the arts, as one would expect from a smart professor of the philosophy of art like Dutton. But the insights arising from evolution (ie. we enjoy landscapes that remind us of the ancient savannahs on which early man throve) tend to be mundane and eminently dismissable. Their most appealing quality is that they suggest our standards do have some basis in human nature… but then, outside of university classrooms, we knew that already.
In the end, the whole thing reminded me of one of those books that attempt in a Causabon-like way to explain the nature of all stories. When you think about them long enough (including my favorite, Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces) you find they sound a lot more profound than they really are and are reductive to the point of absurdity.
The Art Instinct is an amusing read, it just doesn’t move the ball much – or at all – in terms of our true understanding of the human experience of the arts.