The Magazine

Wired for Art

Can genetics explain the human appetite for beauty?

Mar 2, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 23 • By MAUREEN MULLARKEY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

So far as I can tell, our science simply has no handle whatever on the most conspicuous and immediate reality of our lives: that we are aware.

Dutton knows better. He recognizes the correspondence between our consciousness of beauty and the engines of mating criteria, incest avoidance, and whatever is flashing a thigh in popularizations of evolutionary biology. References galore stand bail for supportable inferences. To refer to something (e.g., "the ways in which costliness and waste impinge on beauty") is as good as arriving at a justified conclusion. It takes chutzpah to ride the coattails of a discipline of which one has only a superficial grasp.

Denis Dutton moonlights as the editorial entrepreneur behind Arts & Letters Daily. Bookmarked on browsers across the anglophone world as www.aldaily.com, it is a lively grab bag of articles vacuumed from a miscellany of sources. In a mouse click, readers can swing from anti-intellectualism in presidential speeches to the ancient connection between bathhouses and sex. How about something on Yiddish, cat cloning, botox, or behavioral economics?

The site is required skimming for the same reason Joseph Epstein confessed fondness for the Times Literary Supplement: It is indispensable for intellectual dilettantes. A little dilettantism makes conversation, but it drags on the interdisciplinary splash Dutton wants to make. The Art Instinct follows the format of ALDaily: It is a magpie succession of opinions, snippets of anthropology, bouquets to Steven Pinker, and leaps from Pleistocene rain forests to calendar art and Kant. Names drop; the desiderata pile up. Dutton chats about art forgery, sniffs at "bourgeois high seriousness," curtsies to irony, jabs at "theists," and draws analogies between clitoral stimulation and .  .  . well, it is hard to say.

The Art Instinct seems partly calculated to establish the author's bona fides as a correct-thinking multicultural feminist and enlightened opponent of "masculinist agendas" and creationism. He is pleased to let on that religious convictions and patriotic feelings are byproducts of Pleistocene adaptations. (Count how many times the word Pleistocene appears.) Neanderthal man is the measure of all things.

Yet to say that man has an instinct for artmaking is to state the obvious. The human animal is a cauldron of instincts. Like other species, homo ludens loves to play. Homo faber craves to build and make things; so do beavers and bower birds. But our shared creatureliness tells us nothing useful about Western man's historic ache to identify the beautiful and the good. Aristotle ("The beautiful is that which .  .  . being good, is pleasurable because it is good") would have had no difficulty grasping St. Augustine's prayer: "O Beauty, late have I loved Thee."

One instinct specific to man is the quest for transcendent meaning, an enduring subtext of the study of beauty. Dutton's armchair panty raid on evolutionary biology forfeits philosophy's crucial witness to questions that lie beyond the legitimate horizon of
science.

Maureen Mullarkey writes about art for the New Criterion and other publications.