Back to Dutton

Denis Dutton’s new book, The Art Instinct, is an interesting read from my standpoint. Dutton is pretty well-read, and he loves literature and art, so his book doesn’t display the pure ignorance some efforts in this direction have suffered under (EO Wilson’s, for instance).

Dutton is not a philistine, as Gould said most scientists were.

However, he is also no scientist.

As I read his book, I am struck by how badly conceived some of the science is. For instance in his passages about adaptionism, he SAYS it is silly to equate adaptiveness with human value:

By insisting that “some of the activities we consider most profound are non-adaptive by-products,” Pinker is trying to steer clear of any hint of hyper-adaptionism: “it is wrong to invent functions for activities that lack [adaptive] design merely because we want to ennoble them with the imprimatur of biological adaptiveness.

This from a sympathetic source of whom he ought to be heedful. In fact I wonder if this bit wasn’t added after Pinker or some other kind soul pointed out the pervasive tendency of the book to seek to do just what Pinker warns against . . .

But this analysis [that female orgasm is a side effect, not an adaptation] implies, in my opinion, a paltry, limited view of sexual pleasure. . . . Only an impoverished view of erotic sex could grant adaptiveness exclusively to male orgasm and suggest that everything else that happens in sex, from flirting to foreplay to affectionate aftermath, is only an incidental accompaniment, an extraneous by-product . . .

Just to be clear–as far as I know, this matter is still subject to dispute, and I certainly have no dog in the fight: we just don’t know which elements of our sexuality and sexual practices are adaptive in the biological sense.

And as someone judging the importance of different aspects of human activity, and as a sexual being myself, I don’t care what may or may not be adaptive, and neither should Dutton. But he sure seems to care.

Adaptiveness does not confer human importance as Dutton implies above. Adaptiveness tells a story about how something came about NOT what good it may or may not be for us. The etiology of female orgasm may be as a side effect of neural channels whose presence was selected for in males but present in females only out of structural necessity. But this doesn’t change the fact that, in later practice, female orgasm can be quite important, even centrally important, in a society where women have power and choices. That doesn’t alter the etiology of female orgasm, however.

The reason that Dutton so flagrantly defies Pinker’s sound advice here is that the possibility that something like female orgasm may be a “side-effect” suggests the possibility that the arts may be, and that the proper frame of reference for talking about the importance of things like the arts and female orgasm may not be the Pleistocene–the semi-mythical ur-environment which serves to radically simplify evolutionary psychological speculation.

If, say, female orgasm or art are important for a whole load of reasons having to do with biology, yes, but also social structure, cultural tradition, the changing role of women, etc. etc. then Dutton can’t use his origin stories to cut off and limit discussion of the nature art and female orgasm.

So he plays a rather interesting rhetorical game of three card monte–certainly sex and art are FAR too rich and important elements of human experience to be mere side effects, certainly they are adaptations. And because they are adaptations, I can use my origin stories to privilege a particular way of looking at these things (art as, first and foremost, palate reaction; sex as we know it as, first and foremost, procreational).

The second of these rhetorical moves is less important than the first–it is only an example, and I doubt if Dutton really cares about legitimizing certain kinds of sex, but he certainly has an interest in legitimizing pre-modernist standards in art.

Which is fine, as far as I am concerned–it is a viable position to take. But trying to short-circuit the discussion through a pseudo-scientific origin story of how art came about is not just fine. Particularly when Dutton seems so little concerned with and/or incapable of upholding the argumentative standards of the science he is attempting to employ.

Art, however it came about–and nothing in Dutton’s book persuades me that we know–is now a huge part of how we deal with each other, identify each other and group ourselves in society. Whether or not art is “primarily social,” the social aspect of art is a significant part of the role it plays, and cannot be ignored, even if it does make life simpler for critics.


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