[Paleopsych] Denis Dutton on art and sexual selection

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Denis Dutton on art and sexual selection

Art and Sexual Selection
Philosophy and Literature 24(2000): 512-21.
Denis Dutton

      Followers of evolutionary psychology have marveled in the last few
      years on the capacity of this discipline to throw new light on
      aspects of human life, both the obvious and the curious. The Swiss
      Army Knife metaphor of the mind as a multipurpose instrument fitted
      by evolution to solve Pleistocene problems with natural ease has
      great attractiveness. It offers a significantly more powerful way
      to view our specialized mental capacities than the older model that
      tries to see us as creatures with general abilities to learn
      whatever parents or society teach us. We're not usually as
      motivated to learn the calculus, or as adept at it, as we are in
      figuring out who's sleeping with whom in the neighborhood, and
      these differential interests and capacities are not socially
      constructed. Striking empirical findings, such as the statistic
      that a small child or infant is roughly a hundred times more likely
      to die at the hands of a stepfather than at the hands of a
      biological father, defy explanation in terms cultural imperatives
      but are consistent with evolutionary psychology and explained by
      it. And persistent average sex differences, like the superior
      detail noticing capacities of women and the better map-reading
      abilities of men, nicely fit with evolutionary psychology's account
      of Pleistocene adaptations.

      In developing their approach, evolutionary psychologists tend
      everywhere to see the hand of natural selection in features of the
      mind. Steven Pinker, for instance, argues that we are adapted "for
      causal and probabilistic reasoning about plants, animals, objects,
      and people." We had to be clever problem-solvers in the
      Pleistocene, dealing with the practical challenges thrown up by
      that environment. The mind on this view evolved in response to
      demands for survival. Even such apparently unproductive
      characteristics of homo sapiens as an interest in, say, imaginative
      story-telling, singing, or cave-painting, require that we posit
      some kind of survival advantage advanced by these behaviors.

      This is the Darwinism we all know, and while its central mechanism
      of natural selection has proven to be one of the most versatile and
      powerful explanatory ideas in all of science, there is another,
      lesser known side to Darwin, the central source for which is his
      last book, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, to
      give its complete title. In this monumental work, Darwin discusses
      the other great driving force of evolution, sexual selection. The
      most famous example of sexual selection is the peacock's tail. This
      huge display, far from enhancing survival in the wild, makes
      peacocks more prone to predation. The tails are heavy, and require
      lots of energy to grow and to drag around. And therein, oddly, lies
      nature's point: simply being able to manage with a tail like that
      functions as an advertisement to peahens: "Look at what a strong,
      healthy, fit peacock I am." For discriminating peahens, the tail is
      a fitness indicator, and they will choose to mate with peacocks who
      display the grandest tails.

      Fundamental to sexual selection in the animal kingdom is female
      choice, as the typical routine for most species has males
      displaying strength, cleverness, and general genetic fitness in
      order to invite female participation in producing the next
      generation. With the human animal, there is a greater mutuality of
      choice, although even with us it is often males who propose and
      females who dispose. This is one of the central ideas of The Mating
      Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, by
      Geoffrey Miller (Doubleday, $27.50). Miller holds that the source
      of the traits we tend to find the most endearingly human --
      qualities of character, talent, and demeanor -- have come to be
      built into our character during a million years in which women and
      men chose sexual partners. We can see striking examples of human
      sexual selection at work even in recent, historic times. The
      Wodaabe of Nigeria and Niger are beloved by travel photographers
      because of their geere wol festivals, where young men make
      themselves up (in ways that look feminine to Europeans) and dance
      vigorously to display endurance and health. Women then choose their
      favorites, preferring the tallest men with the biggest eyes,
      whitest teeth, and straightest nose. Over generations, the Wodaabe
      have grown taller than neighboring tribes, with whiter teeth,
      straighter noses, etc.

      If we can observe this kind of change (and Darwin himself noted
      other examples in human populations) in a few centuries, imagine
      what human mate choice could do to remake or refine homo sapiens in
      thousands of generations. A slight choice bias over such long time
      periods could radically reform aspects of humanity, as in fact it
      has: we are not merely the creation of blind, dumb forces of
      natural selection in evolution. Along with the obvious end-products
      of natural selection -- an efficient immune system, acute binocular
      vision, an easily incited fear of animals with large fangs -- we
      also possess species features of personality and character that we
      have created for ourselves in our courtship choices.

      Isn't Miller here talking about the aspects of humanity that are
      determined by culture? While there is no denying the importance of
      culture in creating the character of modern homo sapiens,
      civilization, and with it modern culture, only goes back 10,000
      years, to the invention of agriculture and the establishment of
      cities. That's less than one percent of our hunter-gatherer history
      as humans and near proto-human ancestors. To be sure, in this vast,
      barely recorded expanse of prehistoric time we were buffeted by
      changing climatic environments and predation both animal and
      humanoid. But that world of red teeth and claws wasn't the only
      factor affecting our evolution: while we were being made by our
      environment and natural conditions, our ancestors were also
      exercising their tastes for "warm, witty, creative, intelligent,
      generous companions" as mates, and this shows itself in the
      constitution of both our present tastes and traits.

      Miller argues that during human evolution, "sexual selection seems
      to have shifted its primary target from body to mind." It is sexual
      selection, therefore, that is responsible for the astonishingly
      large human brain, an organ whose peculiar capacities wildly exceed
      survival needs on the African savannahs. And beyond its sheer size,
      the human brain makes possible a mind that is uniquely good at a
      long list of features found in all cultures but which are difficult
      to explain in terms of survival benefits: "humor, story-telling,
      gossip, art, music, self-consciousness, ornate language,
      imaginative ideologies, religion, morality." Miller offers us a new
      model to understand the evolved mind. It's not Descartes's ghost,
      nor the mental hydraulic system of Freud, nor the computer chip of
      cognitive science. From the standpoint of sexual selection, the
      mind is best seen as a gaudy, over-powered home-entertainment
      system, devised in order that our stone-age ancestors could
      attract, amuse, and bed each other. Bed, however, was not the only
      object, since the qualities of mind chosen and thus evolved made
      for enduring pairings, the rearing of children, and the creation of
      robust social groups.

      As a minor but telling example of our self-chosen overabundance of
      mental capacity, consider vocabulary. Nonhuman primates have up to
      twenty distinct calls. The average human knows perhaps 60,000
      words, learned at an average of ten to twenty a day up to age 18.
      Does survival require such a huge vocabulary? It's a fact that 98%
      of our speech uses only about 4000 words. I. A. Richard and C. K.
      Ogden's Basic English for international communication used only 850
      words. Surely no more than a couple of thousand words at most would
      have sufficed in the Pleistocene. The excess vocabulary is
      explained by sexual selection theory as a fitness and general
      intelligence indicator. Miller points out that the correlation
      between body symmetry (a well-known fitness indicator) and
      intelligence is only about 20%. Vocabulary size, on the other hand,
      is more clearly correlated to intelligence, which is why it is
      still used both in scientific testing and more generally by people
      automatically to gauge how clever a person is. Such an indicator is
      especially telling in courtship contexts. Indeed, extravagant,
      poetic use of language is associated worldwide with love, being a
      kind of cognitive foreplay. But it is also, he points out,
      something that can "give a panoramic view of someone's personality,
      plans, hopes, fears, and ideals." Little wonder that it might have
      been a choice item in the inventory of mate-selection criteria.
      This choice for more sophisticated language use altered forever the
      nature of the choosing primate -- us.

      The centerpiece of Miller's argument is the making and appreciating
      of art. Miller's idea of art, as we might expect, is wide-ranging
      and popular, drawn more from everywhere in culture: dancing,
      body-decoration, clothing, jewellery, hair-styling, architecture,
      furniture, gardens, cars, images such as calendars and paintings,
      creative uses of language, popular entertainments from religious
      festivals to TV soaps, music of all kinds, and on and on. Miller's
      discussion is less focused on the high-art culture of modernism and
      postmodernism, since it anyway distinguishes itself against popular
      taste. Artistic expression in general, like vocabulary creation and
      display, has its origins for Miller in its role in our early
      history as a fitness indicator: "Applied to human art, this
      suggests that beauty equals difficulty and high cost. We find
      attractive those things that could have been produced only by
      people with attractive, high-fitness qualities such as health,
      energy, endurance, hand-eye coordination, fine motor control,
      intelligence, creativity, access to rare materials, the ability to
      learn difficult skills, and lots of free time." It's worth noting
      that this view accords with a persistent intuition about art that
      can be traced from the Greeks to Nietzsche and Freud: art is
      somehow about sex. The mistake in traditional art theorizing has
      been to imagine that there must be some coded or sublimated sexual
      content in art. But it's not the content that's sexual in its
      primal nature, it's the display element of producing and admiring
      artists and their art in the first place that touches Pleistocene

      To the extent that art-making is a fitness indicator in the
      Pleistocene, it would have to be something that low-fitness artists
      would find hard to duplicate (were it easy to fake, then it would
      not be accurate as a gauge of fitness). The loading the Pleistocene
      mind puts into its concept of art therefore gives us a perspective,
      at least at a psychological level, on some of the modern problems
      of aesthetic philosophy. Consider virtuosity: if music is a series
      of sounds in a formal relation, why should it make any difference
      to us that the sounds of a Paganini caprice are also difficult to
      realize on a violin? From the standpoint of sexual selection
      theory, this is no issue: virtuosity, craftsmanship, and the
      skillful overcoming of difficulties are intrinsic to art as
      display. And difficulty isn't all: art also involves costliness.
      Miller quotes Thorstein Veblen: "The marks of expensiveness come to
      be accepted as beautiful features of the expensive articles." As
      much as this might go dead against the modernist devaluing of skill
      and cost as central to the concept of art, it is in line with
      persistent reactions to art as we can understand the record of them
      for the last 10,000 years, showing up in the popular liking of
      skillful realistic painting, musical virtuosity, and expensive
      architectural details. This may not justify the philistinism of
      asking how much a famous museum painting is worth, but it does
      explain it.

      Again, admiration for the ability to do something difficult is not
      unique to art: we admire athletes, inventors, skillful orators or
      jugglers. Miller is claiming that this is at least as much
      intrinsic to art as it is to any other field of human endeavor. He
      cites Ellen Dissanayake's much-discussed notion of "making special"
      as essential to the arts. But whereas she sees making special as
      something that tends to promote an intense communal sense in a
      hunter-gatherer group, he interprets the phenomenon as more
      connected with display: "Indicator theory suggests that making
      things special means making them hard to do, so that they reveal
      something special about the maker." It follows that almost anything
      can be made artistic by executing it in a manner that would be
      difficult to imitate. "Art" as an honorific therefore "connotes
      superiority, exclusiveness, and high achievement." Cooking as a
      mundane productive activity is one thing; elevate it to "the art of
      cooking" and you emphasize its potential to be practiced as a skill
      and achievement that could be a useful fitness indicator. Miller
      adds to this a mordant comment: it is because artistic activity is
      an important fitness display that people will argue so passionately
      about whether something is or is not a work of art. Thus might the
      whole philosophical sub-field of aesthetics be understood as an
      extension of courtship rituals.

      Miller is aware just how controversial these ideas are. He grants
      that these days artistic elites may prefer abstraction to
      representation, but it is in the history of the tastes of hoi
      polloi that we're going to find the keys to the origin of the arts.
      So the vulgar gallery comment, "My kid could paint better than
      that," is vindicated as valid from the standpoint of sexual
      selection, and can be expected to be heard in popular artistic
      contexts for the rest of human time: people are not going to
      "learn" from their culture that skill doesn't count (any more than
      they will learn that general body symmetry does not indicate
      fitness). Moreover, even with the elites it's really not so
      different: the skill-discriminations of elites are simply
      accomplished at a more rarefied level. Cy Twombly's blackboard
      scribbles, which look to many ordinary folk like, well, children's
      blackboard scribbles, are viewed by high-art critics such as Arthur
      Danto as demonstrating an extremely refined artistic skill. That
      the works do not obviously show skill to the uninitiated simply
      demonstrates that they are being produced at a level that the
      unsophisticated cannot grasp. The esoteric nature of art, and with
      it status and hierarchy, thus remains in place.

      A book such as this, if it is to be taken seriously, should be able
      to gain some traction in traditional philosophy of art. And so it
      does. How pleasant to read a work on the origins of art that has
      resonances with Aristotle (the human delight in skillful
      representation and story-telling), Kant (the idea of a sensus
      communis, a universal, hard-wire response to art), and Hume (works
      of art can have cross-cultural appeal, and pass the Test of Time by
      showing attractiveness to succeeding generations of art audiences).
      One curious connection I noticed concerns a classic of modern
      aesthetics, The Concept of Criticism, by Francis Sparshott (long
      out of print, but recently brought back by the Sparshott fans at
      the Internet publishing company [3]www.cybereditions.com).
      Sparshott's book contains an unusual but compelling thesis: that
      all art, and not just the so-called performing arts, is in some
      sense performance. Indeed, aesthetic criticism is also performance
      -- critical performance about artistic performance. He doesn't say
      it, but perhaps any art-appreciative display could be performance
      too. There is nothing cynical in the way Sparshott expresses this.
      The vast world of art contains many authentic pleasures, and they
      are not just the pleasures of showing off, or intimidating others
      with demonstrations, true or false, of erudition. What Sparshott is
      saying is that the world of art is shot through with the assessment
      and evaluation of human action at all levels: how good was that
      pianist? Isn't that one of Liszt's corniest pieces? Wasn't the
      audience cold and unresponsive? How could the Times's critic write
      something as silly as that? That was a terrific review -- it taught
      me a lot. For Sparshott, writing in complete innocence of sexual
      selection theory, the world of art is saturated with something that
      resonates strikingly with Miller's account of the way in which all
      manner of activities associated with art invite value judgments of
      one kind or another.

      However, Miller's way of approaching this thesis goes temporarily
      off the rails when he needlessly adopts the cynical reading of such
      art-related behavior. In fact, he begins at one point to sound
      rather surprisingly like an old-fashioned Marxist: high-art taste
      simply expresses and is used to enforce status distinctions (the
      Marxist would drop in the word "bourgeois" at this point). "With
      folk aesthetics," he says, "the focus is on the art-object as a
      display of the creator's craft." In the aesthetics of the educated
      elite, on the other hand, "the focus is on the viewer's response as
      social display." This is not an acceptable generalization about the
      essential nature of high-art discourse. Of course, we all know that
      people sometimes strain to appear knowledgeable and sophisticated
      at gallery openings and concert intermissions. We know too that bad
      critics can be more interested in flowery displays of verbal
      fluency than in the works they write about. But to imagine that
      such display is therefore the only function of educated
      appreciation and criticism is wrong. Example: Jane has to drive her
      rented car from Denver to Albuquerque. Out of range of radio
      stations, she finds a CD of the Pastoral Symphony in the glove
      compartment. Listening to it while she crosses an empty Western
      landscape, she's transported, experiencing the purest, most intense
      pleasure music can produce. How, pray, does sexual selection figure
      in explaining this? Is her pleasure something connected with an
      admiration of the composition-display of Beethoven? Seems
      implausible, as does an explanation that she is taking pleasure in
      the performance-display of the orchestra. It is one thing to say
      that our huge brains and tendencies to take an evaluative interest
      in artistic displays have sources in Pleistocene interests in the
      qualities of potential mates. It's another thing to reduce those
      present pleasures solely to such Pleistocene interests. High-art
      criticism and discourse, even taken as display, is about a real,
      substantive experience that people have, to greater or less
      intensity. It is about the pleasure of art.

      If you accept his line on this, you might as well argue that
      Geoffrey Miller himself wrote The Mating Mind for sexual display,
      thereby implying that the subject content of the book itself has no
      particular intrinsic fascination. (And what's the authentic "folk
      aesthetics" analogue to Miller's scholarly, elitist performance?
      Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus?) The problem is that
      Miller has at this point forgotten his own recommendation in his
      chapter on the virtues. There he argues, very persuasively, that
      such virtues as kindness, bravery, and generosity have also been
      sexually selected for. He is quick to point out that this does
      nothing to discredit the moral status or validity of these
      attributes. We possess such virtues, and have selected mates with
      them, because they have romantic appeal. But because they evolved
      as sexual ornaments does not mean that every time we exhibit them
      we are engaged in sexual display. Miller says that "we must
      remember that a sexual function is not a sexual motivation." Fine
      so far, but even this falls short of what should be claimed: the
      exercise of the virtues does not in normal, daily human life have a
      sexual function at all, let alone a sexual motivation. It at best
      has a social function, if it can be said to have a function at all.
      With courting couples, mutual kindness can serve a sexual display
      function (as can courting men leaving big tips on restaurant
      tables). But kindness, like the pleasures of art, is a big-ticket
      item in the inventory of human pleasure and interests. It cannot be
      reduced to a courtship behavior, even if courtship behavior might
      have established its prominent positions in the repertoire of human
      virtues in the first place.

      There is too much slippage of this sort in The Mating Mind. It is
      one thing to give a intriguing explanation of the origins of some
      proclivity, such as the human will to create synonyms to
      extravagant excess, in terms of Pleistocene sexual selection. From
      this, it's a mistake to suggest that everyone today who walks out
      of a bookshop with a guide to a bigger vocabulary is somehow on the
      make with a potential sexual partner (or even trying to ascend a
      career ladder with a display of verbal sophistication). Forget
      about sex for a minute: knowing what words mean in ever larger
      numbers makes it possible to read with greater comprehension and
      hence more enjoyment; that's a good in and of itself. Even if the
      origin of the propensity is sexual, it may well be that neither the
      motivation nor the function is sexual for the person who today
      tries to learn more words. Exercising this capacity presents itself
      as an intrinsic pleasure without the slightest present connection
      to sex, except in human prehistory.

      Miller's uncertainty on this issue is underscored by some
      light-hearted remarks he makes at the end of the book about the
      human attitude toward knowledge and science. We've evolved pretty
      good responses to the physical world, with a sound understanding of
      mass and momentum, an intuitive grasp of plants and animals, and
      fairly good inferential capacities. But take us out of the
      practical, everyday exigencies of life, and we become instant
      suckers for ideologies that are "entertaining, exaggerated,
      exciting, dramatic, pleasant, comforting, narratively coherent,
      aesthetically balanced, wittily comic, or nobly tragic." Thanks to
      sexual selection, we ended up with big brains that are hungry for
      news and gossip, religion, urban myths, political ideas, wishful
      thinking and pseudoscience. We like such information, but we're not
      very good at fact checking.

      This may be a fair description of a considerable slice of humanity,
      call it homo tabloidus, but what about legitimate science? How did
      it manage to carve such an important place for itself in this
      welter of flashy fiction and seductive superstition? Miller's
      peculiar answer is that science itself is a "set of social
      institutions for channeling our sexually selected instincts for
      ideological display in certain directions according to strict
      rules." Science concentrates on intellectual display (instead of
      sport, art, charity, and other displays), and even uses its forums
      for display to single young people (in undergrad teaching). It's
      jarring to hear the normally Freudian term "channeling" introduced
      here, but it is part of the hydraulic-system model of mind that has
      temporarily taken hold of Miller's argument at this point. In any
      event, these pages, like some of those on art, deny the reader any
      sense that doing science might somehow, at least for some people on
      some occasions, be purely its own reward.

      Still, as Miller rightly points out, nature has never felt under
      any obligation to explain to us why it has designed us the way we
      are. Ripe fruits taste sweet and pleasurable, while rotting meat
      repels us, for sound biological reasons. But there need be no
      directly intelligible connection between a felt pleasure or pain
      and its true evolutionary origins, no connection available to mere
      introspection. So we find great pleasure in pastimes such as art
      and music, in probing conversation with charming company, in
      displays of athletic prowess, in an inventive metaphor or a
      well-told story. These pleasures too require an explanation, and so
      far sexual selection theory provides one of the most plausible and
      refreshing accounts we have. Contemporary art theory cannot afford
      to turn its back on The Mating Mind.

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