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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Evolutionary psychology: Don't you know that this stuff is supposed to "rile" you?

Michael O'Donnell's Barnes and Noble book review of Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct does its best to make the case for evolutionary psychology in the arts, a book that will supposedly "rile" many readers - but will probably make far more wonder why they don't just watch the afternoon soaps.

It offers a paean of praise to Dutton (and Steve Pinker) who "know" that great tenors could "spot the savanna with little Pavarottis" by catching the ear of ladies:

Natural selection is one thing, but the stronger, and more entertaining, basis for Dutton's case for an evolutionary aesthetics is sexual selection, which Darwin explored in The Descent of Man. A clear tenor voice wouldn't help Pleistocene man outrun a jaguar, but it might ingratiate him with the ladies -- remember the guitarist on the stairs in Animal House? -- allowing him to spread his genes widely and spot the savanna with little Pavarottis. Dutton describes the possession of artistic talent as "an ornamental capacity analogous to the peacock's tail" -- or to a florid vocabulary. These traits signal a certain robustness or intelligence, which are attractive qualities in a potential mate.

This stuff is so terminal that it is hard to believe that the people writing it believe it. I bet they don't. Perhaps they think they must write it, in order to ingratiate themselves with the powers that - they think - rule the world.

First, if Pleistocene man (with whom Katie Couric has never booked an interview, no matter how passionately she believes in him) couldn't deep-six a jaguar, his sweet tenor voice would be at best a happy memory for his forlorn ladies. And worse for them, the tone-deaf dullard - whose aim with a projectile is unerring - must then be their companion.

But who knows?

Evolutionary psychology is a discipline without a subject. We really do not know what went on among humans in the Pleistocene era - assuming that we agree they were humans. In other words, that they could think about things the way we can. And if they couldn't, no direct comparison is possible.

O'Donnell notes, re Dutton,

He also makes important concessions, acknowledging, for instance, the confounding resistance of music to natural selection theory: pitched sounds are elusive in nature, so the ability to decipher or deploy them would not help anyone survive. In the tradition of all pathbreaking scholarship, The Art Instinct is therefore an invitation to further study rather than the final word.

I am glad to hear that Dutton is not setting himself up as the final word. That cuts down on the mess to clean up later.

Note: In any event, it is not clear that the peacock's tail attracts mates. But why let facts get in the way of a good story about the cavemen.

So go ahead, get "riled." Oh, okay ... yes, getting riled by this is pretty far down on my list too.

Just thought I should note this story in passing. This is, after all, the year of ridiculous Darwin hagiography. And, in fairness, O'Donnell doesn't write like he really believes it, as a true worshipper of Darwin's toothbrush or sidewalk:

Ah, but there's no accounting for taste. If sexual selection shaped human character by favoring high artistic talent, why does the average young woman spend her evenings watching clumsy footwork on Dancing with the Stars rather than attending the symphony on the arm of a clever sculptor?

Well, that could be because the theory of sexual selection is utter nonsense, and sometimes malignant, racist nonsense.


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