Can biology explain art?

OK, so you buy into all of that evolutionary psychology stuff and look for the adaptational drivers behind everything humans think and do and are.

You will be on the solidest of ground when you’re describing the physical mechanisms of bodily states and functions. And you’ll do pretty well, most of the time, with speculations about the evolutionary advantage of this or that adaptation. You’ll convince a growing number of people of the interaction of both individual and group selection.

But once you’ve done that, what do you do with the hard stuff?

Consciousness is notoriously hard to explain, and even after many articles on the subject here I’m not at all confident that I, or anyone else, really has a handle on it. For now, I’m leaving that topic alone.

The other really tough topic is art, the creative and imaginative output of the free-flowing human mind. What advantage does art add to the evolutionary mix?

One common response is that art, in all of its forms, is one of the kinds of “social glue” that keep our groups together and allow group selection to operate. Taken in this way, “art” becomes almost a synonym for “culture.” According to this argument, whether art is an expression of culture or culture an expression of the artistic impulse is largely semantics. Art/culture is the external form of the internal forces that bond groups together.

Not so fast, says Adam Kirsch. In “Art Over Biology,” published by The New Republic on July 12th, Kirsch reminds us that the artist is often an outsider, and art itself often expresses ideas and feelings that run contrary to the group dynamics that an adaptation would seem to need.

“Art Over Biology” is an impressive piece of magazine writing. Kirsch’s long critique of recent attempts to explain art biologically is broadly based, thoughtfully developed, and extremely readable.

Officially a review of three recent books, “Art Over Biology” ranges widely over its chosen ground, but it is anchored firmly in the obvious fact that artists are as often as not isolates, exiles who are painfully aware that they are not part of the pack, not one of the group.

The art that these outcasts produce often challenges the conventions of the societies from which they have separated. How, then, can art satisfy either the reproductive imperative of individual selection, or the social impulses characteristic of groups?

For the artist to deny any connection with the enterprise of life, then, is to assert his freedom from this universal imperative; to reclaim negatively the autonomy that evolution seems to deny to human beings. It is only because we can freely choose our own ends that we can decide not to live for life, but for some other value that we posit. The artist’s decision to produce spiritual offspring rather than physical ones is thus allied to the monk’s celibacy and the warrior’s death for his country, as gestures that deny the empire of mere life.

But why should art be exempt from biology?

If ethics and politics can be explained by game theory and reciprocal altruism, there is no reason why aesthetics should be different: in each case, what appears to be a realm of human autonomy can be reduced to the covert expression of biological imperatives.

After all, Hirsch concedes, “the notion that the human instinct to make and appreciate art can be explained by evolution seems true, even a truism.”

Stephen Jay Gould and others made of art not only an outcome of biology but an accidental, unintended, inconsequential outcome. Art, said Gould, is not an adaptation but a “spandrel,” a side-effect of the real and crucial adaptation — the large and powerful human brain.

Hirsch sees in the books he’s reviewing various attempts to elevate art above the status of merely utilitarian adaptation or essentially pointless sidelight, to “defend the honor of art .” To the trio of Why Lyrics Last, Wired for Culture and The Age of Insight, Hirsch adds Dennis Dutton’s The Art Instinct.

According to these books, art is important because it is the product of hundreds of generations of evolutionary selection, or because it is needed for social cohesion, or because it is the necessary expression of our brains’ tendency to seek patterns.

Despite his sympathy for the authors’ motivations, Hirsch finds parts of each of these approaches wanting.

A neurological analysis of our experience of art tells us as little about the meaning of that experience as a chemical analysis of the pigments of a painting would tell us about the painting’s meaning. It is not scientifically false, but it is aesthetically pointless. It is an imperious category mistake.

In the end, Hirsch concludes, neuroscience is not up to the task of explaining the human impulse to create and enjoy art.

Today’s Darwinists treat the aesthetic as if it were a collection of preferences and practices, each of which can be explained as an adaptation. But the preferences and the practices are secondary, made possible only by the fact that the aesthetic itself is a distinct dimension of human experience—not the by-product of something more fundamental, but itself fundamental.

Fundamental? Perhaps. But Hirsch is certainly correct that the art instinct is something that we cannot explain satisfactorily in biological terms. Not yet, anyway.

– * –

Hirsch’s article motivated me to do more reading, so I’ve acquired both Dutton’s The Art Instinct and Pagel’s Wired for Culture. Look for them here when I’ve finished reading them.

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