How far back can the history of art go? The Lascaux cave paintings in southwestern France are thought to be some 16,000 years old. The Venus of Willendorf, a plump and bosomy statuette from lower Austria, may be about 9,000 years older. A few coarse figurines – found in Morocco, the Golan Heights and other places – may be several dozen millenniums more ancient still. But some psychologists argue that the origins of art should be sought much further back. They look to the Pleistocene epoch, which began about 1.6 million years ago, when – in the course of some 80,000 generations of surviving and mating – our ancestors may have evolved the instincts that led eventually to the works of Bach, Rembrandt and Proust. “Darwinian aesthetics” is what Denis Dutton, the author of “The Art Instinct,” calls this idea, and he thinks its time has come.

Dutton is a professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, in New Zealand, and the founder and editor of a popular Web site, Arts & Letters Daily. The ideas that are his starting point come from a form of evolutionary psychology that began to catch on in the 1990s. It claims – in its crudest, popularized form – that some bit of human behavior is explained by the fact that we are genetically hard-wired to succeed and breed in a Stone Age environment.

Its terrain is full of pitfalls, and I suspect that Darwin would have been skeptical of it. We know so little about the environment of our Pleistocene ancestors, what they were like, and how they lived, that almost any hypothesis about which strategies might have helped them to reproduce, and thus let their characteristics ripple through the gene pool, is bound to be highly speculative. In addition, the story told by mainstream evolutionary psychology may both start too late and stop too early. When Darwin ventured into psychology, with his study of the expression of emotions, he cast his net far wider and looked at the distant common ancestors that humans share with other species. If he was right to do so, the origins of some human psychology may be older than the Stone Age. And evolution is now reckoned to be capable of working faster than was thought in the 1990s.

All of this ought to be a problem for Dutton’s book, but I rather think it isn’t. Although he endorses the popular form of evolutionary psychology in principle, his practice is more nuanced. His discussion of the arts and of our responses to them is insightful and penetrating, and I doubt whether much of it really depends on the ideas of evolutionary psychology.

His considered view is that Darwinian aesthetics sheds light on literature, music and painting not by demonstrating them to be evolutionary adaptations, but by showing how their existence and character are connected to prehistoric preferences, interests and capacities. This is a reasonable aim, and it is certainly intriguing to hear that the sorts of landscape pictures preferred by 8-year-olds around the world seem to mirror the types of flat, savannah-like vistas in which their distant ancestors may have thrived. Similarly, when reading of the pianist Arthur Rubinstein’s admission that “what he really liked in a recital was to fix his eye on some lovely sitting near the stage and imagine he was playing just for her,” it’s interesting to consider Dutton’s theory that the desire to impress potential mates played a role in spreading artistic skills among our forebears.

Dutton has evidently spent plenty of time wrestling with the theories of art propounded by thinkers from Aristotle and Kant to Clive Bell and Michel Foucault. He touches on all the major issues of aesthetics and illuminates them.

Of particular value is his discussion of three controversies: the role of artists’ intentions; the implications of forgery and plagiarism; and the status of Dadaist provocations, like Marcel Duchamp’s “Fountain” – a urinal put forward for exhibition in 1917. He tests these cases against a cluster of 12 characteristics that he argues are collectively definitive of art and finds that the difficulties stem from conflicts or tensions among these characteristics. Thus a perfect forgery may succeed in producing the same pleasure the original was designed to elicit, but we nevertheless feel cheated because it does not demonstrate the originality of mind we expect to find expressed in art. For Dutton, this expectation of originality derives from art’s ancient function of demonstrating that the artist would make a desirable mate.

Dutton quotes Darwin’s hope that in the distant future, psychology “will be based on a new foundation, that of the necessary acquirement of each mental power and capacity by gradation.” Note those last two words. What makes a genuine piece of Darwinian science – like the explanation of the development of the eye – so powerful is the way in which a large number of intermediate steps are shown to lead gradually from humble beginnings to a magnificent result. No such progression of intermediate steps seems to be available for inspection in the case of evolutionary explanations of the instinct to make art. Still, Dutton’s eloquent account sheds light on the role art plays in our lives, whatever its ultimate origins.

Anthony Gottlieb
International Herald Tribune