Books: Our Genes Make Us Appreciate Art

Art suffuses our lives. Whether it's bluegrass, heavy metal, Frank Sinatra or Mozart, music moves us all. On a trip to a foreign city, visiting an art museum is a mandatory exercise. Imaginative writing affects many of us, though—alas—with decreasing frequency.

Why should art be important? Being seen as an "art lover" may increase our status, but otherwise art is not useful. Yet art has been part of the human experience since Paleolithic man painted on the walls of caves in Lascaux, France, and Altamira, Spain, more than 30,000 years ago. Art preceded cities, agriculture and writing.

Denis Dutton, an art professor in New Zealand, has proposed a bold new explanation. He argues that humankind's universal interest in art is the result of human evolution. We enjoy sex, grasp facial expressions, understand logic and spontaneously acquire language—all of which make it easier for us to survive and produce children. In "The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution," Dutton contends that an interest in art belongs on this list of evolutionary adaptations.

In making his case, Dutton has to refute the late Stephen Jay Gould's argument that human culture is a socially formed byproduct of our large brains. Dutton easily overcomes this argument by pointing out how many "byproducts"—such as a spoken language—have given humans a huge evolutionary gain. But he must still explain why an interest in art gives us an edge. This is no easy task. Just because many people have a trait does not mean that it confers an evolutionary advantage. I like the Boston Red Sox, but I doubt that preference was genetically passed on to my children. (Happily, they became Sox fans anyway.)

Drawing on Charles Darwin's second great book, "The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex," Dutton argues that art, like broad shoulders in a man and a narrow waist in a woman, facilitates seduction. We tell stories, sing songs, invent tales, recount jokes and draw pictures in order to find a mate and, having found one, produce children. We value art because, Dutton claims, it may be made of rare and valuable materials and require much skill to produce. People value wealth and skill in choosing a mate. We can add to Dutton's argument the fact that when 3-month-old infants are shown pictures of women who had been rated by adults as either attractive or unattractive, the babies looked much longer at the attractive ones.

This is a stimulating but not entirely satisfactory argument. Some forms of art may have evolutionary explanations that do not involve sexual selection, and some forms of beauty may not be linked to art at all. Take music: we can imagine men and women singing to one another for sexual reasons, but we can also imagine music being used to induce sleep, energize an army, or identify friends and enemies.

Or painting: zoologist Desmond Morris and others have encouraged chimpanzees to paint. Some of their works were hung in museums, without being labeled as the work of chimps, and they received much acclaim. Did these animals paint to lure sexual partners? It seems unlikely. Likewise, the cave paintings done 30 millennia ago probably had no connection with romance (many were done in remote parts of caves in which no one lived) and may have been produced by shamans for religious purposes.

And we may value beauty even when no human has produced it. Anthropologists have shown that people in many cultures value views of the seashore, a sunset or a mountain peak much more than they like flat ground or hot sun. We have been born with a love for certain kinds of beauty that in turn influences how we react to music, painting and literature.

Dutton recognizes these limitations to his explanation of why art has persisted. His love of music, he notes, cannot be confined to its role in sexual communication; as a child he was entranced (as was I) with Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, long before he had the faintest interest in girls. Moreover, art, especially music and poetry, helps us see into the human personality. When I dated the girl who later became my wife, we went off to dance to Tommy Dorsey. That certainly involved sexual selection. But that cannot explain why every year we attend a Mozart opera. As with everyone else, we value beauty even though we define it differently from people who enjoy the Sex Pistols.

Evolution has, without any doubt, left people with an appreciation for both natural and man-made beauty, but sexual selection explains, I think, only a small part of the reason. But read Dutton's book: his masterful knowledge of art and his compelling prose make it a thing of beauty.

Join the Discussion