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A Mind For the Arts
Philosopher Denis Dutton Explores the Creative Impulse

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Denis Dutton is getting the kind of exposure for which his fellow academics would wrestle saber-toothed tigers.

The New Zealand-based philosophy professor and author of "The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution" launched his book tour conventionally enough last month at various California libraries, bookstores and campuses. He then zipped through Washington to deliver a speech at the American Enterprise Institute. That was all very nice, but nothing to write home to Christchurch about.

Ah, but by the time he got to New York, Dutton had landed an appearance on "The Colbert Report."

A philosopher! Getting his book flogged by Stephen Colbert!

What is this man's secret?

Surely it's not that, according to Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, Dutton's opus on Darwinism and art "marks out the future of the humanities -- connecting aesthetics and criticism to an understanding of human nature from the cognitive and biological sciences."

Nope. Deep thoughts about the future of the humanities don't usually get the attention of TV bookers or, for that matter, newspaper feature writers.

When it comes to the Darwinian competition that is book marketing, Dutton actually has two secrets: sex and the Internet.

On the one hand, he's picked a topic that easily lends itself to crude Colbertian humor.

On the other, well, he happens to be the founding editor of Arts & Letters Daily, a Web site beloved of academics and media types around the world, where an ad for "The Art Instinct" flashed prominently on-screen for weeks.

"You'll never read Jane Austen -- or look at a landscape -- the same way again," it said.

"Is everybody doing art just to get laid?"

Stephen Colbert

to Denis Dutton, Jan. 28

Dutton is a round-faced, silver-haired man of 64 who looks a bit like Newt Gingrich. American born, he moved his family to New Zealand a couple of decades ago for a job at the University of Canterbury and never looked back. At his AEI talk, he tossed out ideas in rapid bursts, as if constantly worried he would have to leave something out -- which, given the range of his interests and enthusiasms, he inevitably does.

For the whole of his career as a philosopher of art, he told his lunchtime audience, "the hand of a certain view of the arts has had its clammy grip on all thinking." That view is the "blank slate" concept of human nature, in which the art we humans produce is seen as being entirely shaped or "constructed" by culture, not genes.

Dutton rejects this notion.

Culture is part of the equation, he believes, but far from the whole enchilada. In an interview after his presentation, he explained how, as a philosopher, he came to reach out to evolutionary psychologists in his thinking about art.

"A lot of what counts as philosophy," he said, "is explaining and justifying fundamental human intuitions," including "intuitions about the beautiful and the ugly." The problem has been that philosophy "doesn't ask where the intuitions come from. . . . Human nature is a traditional philosophic topic, but let's face it, a lot of it is uninformed armchair speculation by people who just happen to be geniuses: Hobbes, Mill, Kant.

"It's time to go over to the psychology department and see what they're up to."

"The Art Instinct" is nothing if not ambitious. Along with the evolutionary psychologists and like-minded scholars on whom he relies, Dutton wants to explain "how we became a species obsessed with creating artistic experiences with which to amuse, shock, titillate, and enrapture ourselves, from children's games to the quartets of Beethoven, from firelit caves to the continuous worldwide glow of television screens."

To take just a couple of examples:

Why did people worldwide, when polled about their artistic preferences, seem drawn to realist paintings of a certain kind?

"What everybody wanted was the Pleistocene savanna landscape," Dutton explained at AEI. The preference was ingrained in us during the Pleistocene era, some 80,000 generations long, during which our ancestors evolved into human beings.

And why is creative storytelling something humans everywhere value and understand?

Well, for one thing, stories offer "low-cost surrogate experiences" that help us play out different possible scenarios. The ability to imagine "states of affairs not present in direct consciousness" must have had "a huge adaptive power in human prehistory."

Then there's the sex part.

Dutton spends considerable time reminding both readers and listeners that Darwin developed two complementary principles of evolution. The first, natural selection, is the familiar "survival of the fittest" notion in which creatures with the most advantageous adaptations get to pass on their genes while the evolutionary equivalents of 90-pound weaklings die without reproducing. The second, sexual selection, was Darwin's attempt to explain dysfunctional-seeming adaptations -- such as the peacock's oversize, colorful tail -- that aren't useful in direct competition for survival but help in "attracting and seducing members of the opposite sex."

Storytelling skill and other forms of artistic accomplishment, for Dutton, made our ancestors more attractive to potential mates, thus helping engrave the art instinct into our genes.

Reviewers have varied in their reaction to such theorizing.

"Why do we create art and beauty? Dutton may be the best-equipped thinker in the world to explain," wrote Philadelphia Inquirer critic Carlin Romano, who called "The Art Instinct" the "most shrewd, precisely written and provocative study you'll find on its topic's place in human nature."

Bookforum reviewer Rochelle Gurstein, by contrast, questioned both Dutton's methods and his relevance. Much of "The Art Instinct" is "necessarily the product of speculation," Gurstein wrote. "How does Dutton know such things happened? What is the evidence? Even more vexing, what would evidence look like?"

And even if you granted his premises, "what difference would it make?" Dutton's "Darwinian conundrums" offer no insight into the eternal preoccupations of artists and art scholars: "questions about beauty, sublimity, taste, genius, invention, originality, aesthetic autonomy, form and composition."

Stanford English professor Blakey Vermeule, like Dutton, is deeply interested in "the question of whether fiction is adaptive, whether narrative is adaptive." She introduced Dutton when he spoke at Stanford last month and she admires the man and his work. But that doesn't mean it proves anything.

"The modesty of the experimental results" in environmental psychology, Vermeule said, "so far doesn't match the ambitions." What Dutton has done "is put a big conversational marker down. He's saying: 'Here's a starting point.' "

And a good thing, too, because there's too much going on in other disciplines for humanists to ignore.

"If you're going to be an educated humanist," Vermeule said, "you can't just circle the wagons and say knowledge hasn't changed."

* * *

"If Socrates were alive today, Arts & Letters Daily would be his home page."

Christina Hoff Sommers,

introducing Denis Dutton at AEI

When Bloomsbury Press publisher and editorial director Peter Ginna first picked up an agent's proposal for a book called "Darwinian Aesthetics," the title didn't exactly make his heart leap. "It was a little wonky for me," Ginna recalled.

Not a problem, though. First of all, the book's subject fascinated him. And beyond that, he already knew the author, Denis Dutton, as a man intimately connected to what the publisher saw as "the perfect book-buying demographic" for his imprint.

"I'm a huge fan of Arts & Letters Daily," Ginna said.

Dutton launched the site in September 1998. "There was a burgeoning of intellectual material on the Internet," he said, "but no way to organize it." So he set out to create "a single source of the best writing that would be updated every day."

His brainchild now boasts around 3 million monthly page views from more than 330,000 unique viewers.

Arts & Letters Daily offers links to three new articles each weekday ("except for Mondays there's six"). It stacks them neatly in three columns headed "Articles of Note," "New Books" and "Essays and Opinion." Dutton selects the articles with the help of the site's managing editor -- Wright State University economist Tran Huu Dung -- and from suggestions that flow in from around the world.

Dutton writes pithy teasers for the links. A typical recent effort: "Edgar Allan Poe was also a player of hoaxes, a plagiarist, and substance abuser. But oh, how he could write . . . "

At first Dutton published Arts & Letters Daily himself. He had some help, but that "didn't all work out very well." Translation: He was sued by an early collaborator after he sold the site to the now-defunct magazine Lingua Franca in 2000. The suit was settled, Dutton said, and he can't talk about it.

Within a year of the purchase, Lingua Franca died, and while Dutton and Dung kept the site going for a while, it eventually went dark. It was purchased and resurrected by the Washington-based Chronicle of Higher Education. Unsurprisingly, articles from the Chronicle are now regularly featured.

A lot of articles on evolution show up as well. Dutton confesses additional biases in favor of contrarianism and political libertarianism, sometimes confused with straight conservatism. He supported the American invasion of Iraq, for example, and hoped Iraqis would embrace democracy. "In retrospect," he said, "my hopes seem naive."

But what Dutton may be more than anything else is a member of that endangered species, the intellectual generalist.

"I'm an extreme generalist," he said, "with all of the perils of superficiality and so forth."

His parents founded Dutton's Books, until recently a Southern California bookselling landmark. He said his philosophy career "started at the dining room table, with argumentative brothers and sisters and my mother and father, who loved to introduce interesting ideas and debates," and that from the first philosophy course he took at the University of California at Santa Barbara, he was hooked.

He has never, however, let his academic specialty constrain him.

He has played the sitar for 40 years, having learned while in the Peace Corps in India. At one point he abandoned academic philosophy for ethnographic research, heading into the jungle of New Guinea to study Oceanic carvings.

"I learned how to carve," Dutton told his AEI audience. But at some point, one of his efforts got mixed up with a batch scheduled to be sold overseas.

The result?

"Somewhere out there in a museum or gallery or living room," the author of "The Art Instinct" reported gleefully, there is "an authentic New Guinea Sepik River carving carved by me."

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