Thursday, May 14, 2009

Morton, Brian. "It's the Greatest Show on Earth." OBSERVER March 8, 2009.

Dutton, Dennis. The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution. London: Bloomsbury, 2008. The peacock's tail gave Darwin considerable grief. A single feather made him feel "sick". The bird's cumbersome display seemed to confound the guiding principle of natural selection: that any evolved form should answer fittedness to environment. Not until his last book, The Descent of Man, did he come up with a satisfactory answer based on "natural selection in relation to sex". Even in his final years, Darwin had little to say about aesthetics but his theory of evolution does prepare the way for a comprehensive understanding of what art is and why we make it. Denis Dutton's title is also his conclusion. In 250 elegant pages, he demonstrates that aesthetics are linked at the profoundest level to our biological and cognitive prehistory, and that our "tastes" - those famously wavering and manipulable urges - emerged in the Pleistocene, and haven't changed in essentials since then. For Dutton, cultural relativism is an academic parlour game. Human arts speak to a universal human nature different only in plumage. This is an interpretation that runs counter to the view - held by Stephen Jay Gould among others - that art is merely the by-product of an over-sized brain and should be excluded from the natural selection rulebook. Evolutionary biologists have argued that human emotions emerged as a mechanism for orchestrating specific biological needs, harmonising potential actions in a useful way. Fear is a way of getting the body prepared for potential dangers. When risk and therefore fear are no longer aspects of day-to-day survival - no sabre-tooths on Hampstead Heath! - fear remains with us as an objectless emotion, and evolution leads smoothly on to Hammer House of Horror. . . . Read the rest here:

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