Denis Dutton Goes On About Art

There’s a mini media blitz underway promoting Denis Dutton’s new book The Art Instinct. He was on the Colbert Report last week, he’s reviewed in the Times, and he’s featured in this week’s Bloggingheads Science Saturday:

While it’s kind of entertaining to listen to John Horgan struggling to get a word in edgewise, I’m kind of skeptical about the book. Dutton’s argument is that human aesthetics are, contrary to the claims of the academic art establishment, more universal than socially constructed, and can best be understood through evolution. Or, to be more precise, through evolutionary psychology.

Dutton’s an erudite guy– a philosopher by trade, and founder of Arts & Letters Daily— and he cites lots of examples to attempt to prove his point. I’d be more impressed with the whole business, though, had I not recently read a Scientific American article on fallacies of pop evolutionary psychology.

The problem with Dutton’s arguments (on tv and the web– I haven’t read the book) is that, like most other evolutionary psychology arguments, they’re not so much scientific arguments as Just So Stories. They sound very good, but they’re all premised on some ideas about what things were like in the Pleistocene when our distant forebears were evolving, and we just don’t know that much about those conditions. It’s hard to shake the idea that, presented with some study showing a radically different result, you could construct an equally convincing story about how human evolution shows things must be that way.

The Times review nods briefly in the direction of this problem, but then shakes it off, and agrees wholeheartedly with everything Dutton says. That review was by another philosopher, though. I’d be interested to see how somebody with a more relevant science background (preferably somebody skeptical about evolutionary psychology) would review it.

I’m not curious enough to read it myself, of course…