Dutton describes the central idea of his book (p. 100):

Given their evident universality, the pleasures of the arts should be as easy to explain as the pleasures of sex and food; that they are not is a central problem for anyone wanting to broaden the relevance of evolution to the whole of human experience.

Having successfully established in the first few chapters that art is indeed a cross-cultural universal, which seems like a necessary condition should he wish to prove that art is a human instinct, he now needs to prove that it is an adaptation. As Dutton explains (p. 90):

The gold standard for evolutionary explanation is the biological concept of an adaptation: an inherited psychological, affective, or behavioral characteristic that reliably develops in an organism, increasing its chances of survival and reproduction.

He goes on to say that everything else is either a mutation or a by-product of an adaptation, the latter essentially meaning “an unintended consequence of the adaptation.” The name of the game in this book must be proving this case for our changing, yet constant, strong relationship with art.

Dutton begins this herculean task with a major chapter in the book titled “The Uses of Fiction,” a subject to which I have devoted myself previously in this blog and from which I shall quote in the next post (see, in order: “The Angels Within” and “The Death of Angels“). Dutton begins by saying that criterion 12, imaginative experience, is the most important again. He does this because he’s going to link persuasive arguments for fiction-making being an evolved adaptation (p. 105), and fiction-making uncontroversially deals in the imaginative. Dutton argues that fiction-making is an adaptation, finding the aforementioned gold standard based on the following possible adaptive advantages (p. 110):

  1. Stories provide low-cost, low-risk surrogate experience.
  2. Stories– whether overtly fictional, mythological, or representing real events– can be richly instructive sources of factual information.
  3. Stories encourage us to explore the points of view, beliefs, motivations, and values of other minds, inculcating potentially adaptive interpersonal and social capacities.

Dutton details the compelling evidence for fiction-making being an adaptation: (1) the rather elaborate, yet consistent, rule-governed way children pretend-pour pretend-tea out of an empty teapot into several cups, (2) pleasure in purely imagined fictions, and, most interesting of all, (3) the pedagogical uses of Iliad and Odyssey. As for this last bit of evidence, which is persuasively suggestive as opposed to conclusive (p. 115-6):

Classicist Eric Havelock argued that providing cultural grounding and even technical knowledge was a major purpose of [the stories]. […] We tend to imagine the Homeric rhapsodes as entertainers for their age, but Havelock argues that they were essentially preservers of a ‘magisterial tradition’: teachers, in fact, providing lessons in how a priest ought to be addressed, how classes of people– women and men, kings and warriors– ought to behave with respect to one another…. […] The narrative of the first book of the Iliad even gives specific instruction on docking a ship at harbor: furl the sail, lower the mast, row to the beach, anchor the stern in deep water, disembark by the bow, and unload the cargo, and so forth. The bard, says Havelock, ‘is at once a storyteller and also a tribal encyclopedist.’

So maybe all is not lost in an investment to study dead languages? A little joke for my Classicist buddies. Very little. In any case, at this point, I realized that no matter how hard I tried, I could not believe that there is an art instinct. This book, in my view, is not important because Professor Dutton is correct in everything he argues. Rather, it’s because, while he is right about most of his assertions, he sets up analytical frameworks and categories that do explain a lot and give laypeople like me something to think about. I actually think that the distinction between adaptation and by-product is dead-on and should be applied to this problem. I just don’t think he has succeeded in making the case that this ‘art instinct’ is an original selected-for adaptation. It seems that although Dutton has his points, a far stronger argument could be made that it is a by-product.

A by-product of what, you ask?

The language instinct. Or, more specifically, an “information transmission” instinct, which was probably a precursor to the language instinct. Although very little beyond the intuitive is even necessary to argue the case, scholars have shown how the evolution of our neural architecture and pharyngeal system, separately, derive from very important adaptive advantages for humans. Stephen Pinker has done the most to popularize the subject in required reading for all linguistics students. It isn’t that a fiction-making or art instinct arose separately, and so, I write to confirm Pinker’s hesitation to go too deeply in ascribing “adaptation” status to by-products, though they are indeed profound, meaning-giving adaptations.

Language, and its pidgin-esque predecessors, and the grunts, whistles, and singing before that, concerns information transmission. But the information, whatever the state of language in humans or their evolutionary forebears, has never encoded nearly as much information as can be gained from our extraordinary senses. (On account of this reality, many have accused humans of never being more than solipsists.) In some sense, then, whatever we say or write lacks a sense of authenticity because it necessarily leaves so much information out. You, in the “theater of the mind” as Dutton writes, must fill in the gaps through all sorts of methods: fictions of complementarity, as Kermode writes, implication, connotation, paradox, etc. And so it is in a similar sense that the late Nobel Prize-winning author Czeslaw Milosz writes:

Obviously, all biographies are false, not excluding my own…. They are false because their individual chapters are linked according to a predetermined scheme, whereas in fact they were connected differently, only no one knows how.

Milosz’s point is that in an important sense, biographies are also fiction. I’m generalizing the point to say that every narrative is a fiction because it lacks the encoding power and gaps in meaning and description must always be filled with fictions. ( Our senses are not fictions; they are the frame of reference for other narratives, fictions. ) Every piece of information allows for a world of inference to be created, a world in which, as writer/director Nicholas Meyer points out, the intentional voice of the actor is not necessarily controlling in interpretation. This suggests that we create fictions with every sentence we utter or gesture — possibly since the first organism in our evolutionary line, presumably pre-Pleistocene, communicated purposefully. Animal communication amongst beings with no ability of mental representation (yet another very interesting point that Dutton lays out for us to consider), which would not include some primates and certainly not Tursiops dolphins, would hardly count on these grounds. If this is true, and I think it must be, then the fiction-making instinct certainly comes from our language instinct and is therefore its by-product. One appealing aspect of this “alternative hypothesis” to The Art Instinct is that it proceeds from first principles and gets built from the ground-up, as opposed to the naturalist approach which seems to work from the top-to-bottom.

I think the naturalist approach works extremely well, on the other hand, for looking at other questions that might be better answered by Dutton’s surveys of the arts and virtuosity. I will address this in my next post.