denis_dutton's picture
Philosopher; Founder and Editor, Arts & Letters Daily; Author, The Art Instinct

The humanities have gone through the rise of Theory in the 1960s, its firm hold on English and literature departments through the 1970s and 80s, followed most recently by its much-touted decline and death. 

Of course, Theory  (capitalization is an English department affectation) never operated as a proper research program in any scientific sense — with hypotheses validated (or falsified) by experiment or accrued evidence. Theory was a series of intellectual fashion statements, clever slogans and postures, imported from France in the 60s, then developed out of Yale and other Theory hot spots.  The academic work Theory spawned was noted more for  its chosen jargons, which functioned like secret codes, than for any concern to establish truth or advance knowledge. It was all about careers and prestige. 

Truth and knowledge, in fact, were ruled out as quaint illusions.  This cleared the way, naturally, for an "anything-goes" atmosphere of academic criticism. In reality, it was anything but anything goes, since the political demands of the period included a long list of stereotyped villains (the West, the Enlightenment, dead whites males, even clear writing) to be pitted against mandatory heroines and heroes (indigenous peoples, the working class, the oppressed, and so forth).

Though the politics remains as strong as ever in academe, Theory has atrophied not because it was refuted, but because everyone got bored with it.  Add to that the absurdly bad writing of academic humanists of the period and episodes like the Sokal Hoax, and the decline was inevitable.  Theory academics could with high seriousness ignore rational counter-arguments, but for them ridicule and laughter were like water thrown at the Wicked Witch.  Theory withered and died.

But wait. Here is exactly where my most dangerous idea comes in. What if it turned out that the academic humanities — art criticism, music and literary history, aesthetic theory, and the philosophy of art — actually had available to them a true, and therefore permanently valuable, theory to organize their speculations and interpretations?  What if there really existed a hitherto unrecognized "grand narrative" that could explain the entire history of creation and experience of the arts worldwide?

Aesthetic experience, as well as the context of artistic creation, is a phenomenon both social and psychological. From the standpoint of inner experience, it can be addressed by evolutionary psychology: the idea that our thinking and values are conditioned by the 2.6 million years of natural and sexual selection in the Pleistocene.

This Darwinian theory has much to say about the abiding, cross-culturally ascertainable values human beings find in art. The fascination, for example, that people worldwide find in the exercise of artistic virtuosity, from Praxiteles to Hokusai to Renee Fleming, is not a social construct, but a Pleistocene adaptation (which outside of the arts shows itself in sporting interests everywhere).  That calendar landscapes worldwide feature alternating copses of trees and open spaces, often hilly land, water, and paths or river banks that wind into an inviting distance is a Pleistocene landscape preference (which shows up in both art history and in the design of public parks everywhere).  That soap operas and Greek tragedy all present themes of family breakdown ("She killed him because she loved him") is a reflection of ancient, innate content interests in story-telling.

Darwinian theory offers substantial answers to perennial aesthetic questions. It has much to say about the origins of art. It's unlikely that the arts came about at one time or for one purpose; they evolved from overlapping interests based in survival and mate selection in the 80,000 generations of the Pleistocene. How we scan visually, how we hear, our sense of rhythm, the pleasures of artistic expression and in joining with others as an audience, and, not least, how the arts excite us using a repertoire of universal human emotions: all of this and more will be illuminated and explained by a Darwinian aesthetics.

I've encountered stiff academic resistance to the notion that Darwinian theory might greatly improve the understanding of our aesthetic and imaginative lives.  There's no reason to worry.  The most complete, evolutionarily-based explanation of a great work of art, classic or recent, will address its form, its narrative content, its ideology, how it is taken in by the eye or mind, and indeed, how it can produce a deep, even life-transforming pleasure.  But nothing in a valid aesthetic psychology will rob art of its appeal, any more than knowing how we evolved to enjoy fat and sweet makes a piece of cheesecake any less delicious. Nor will a Darwinian aesthetics reduce the complexity of art to simple formulae.  It will only give us a better understanding of the greatest human achievements and their effects on us.

In the sense that it would show innumerable careers in the humanities over the last forty years to have been wasted on banal politics and execrable criticism, Darwinian aesthetics is a very dangerous idea indeed.  For people who really care about understanding art, it would be a combination of fresh air and strong coffee.