Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 9, 2009

Evolutionary psychology and art

Filed under: art,evolutionary psychology — louisproyect @ 5:37 pm

Over the next week or so I am going to be blogging about evolutionary psychology (the more au courant term for sociobiology) that will involve a return to Jared Diamond’s “The Third Chimpanzee”, a book that foreshadowed his more well-known works as well as his boneheaded New Yorker article. I will also be looking at Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist who shared Diamond’s Hobbesian take on hunting-and-gathering peoples—in his case the Yanomami rather than the Papuan New Guinea highland tribes.

In chapter 9 of “The Third Chimpanzee”, Diamond writes about the “Animal Origins of Art”. He begins with a discussion of Siri’s drawings that command prices up to $500 and about which Willem de Kooning had this to say: “They had a kind of flair and decisiveness and originality”.

As you might have guessed, Siri is an animal. In most of these animal-as-artist stories, you are dealing with either an elephant or a primate. In this particular case, Siri is an elephant. Oddly enough, Diamond does not bring up the all-important question for those who are focused on “originality” above all else. Has Siri ever represented anything while she held a pencil in her trunk? 32 thousand years ago, cave dwellers in France put images like this on their walls:

I doubt that an elephant or a chimpanzee could come up with something like this in 32 million years. For comparison’s sake, here is one of Siri’s masterpieces:

Diamond is anxious to refute Oscar Wilde’s dictum that “All art is useless”. So to drive that point home, he tries to establish the utilitarian nature of animal art, which is to help propagate the male’s genes—including as it turns out for homo sapiens (homosexuals like Wilde need not apply.)

Diamond proposes that the elaborate bowers constructed by the male bowerbird, a species native to New Guinea and Australia, establish his case since the female bird inevitably gravitates to the male with the most ambitious bowers. In human terms, this would be equivalent to Pablo Picasso who was reputed to have changed wives as often as he changed painting styles.

Needless to say, this understanding of the evolutionary psychology role of art is somewhat male-oriented. As Diamond puts it:

First, art brings direct sexual benefits to its owner. It’s not just a joke that a man bent on seduction invites a woman to view his etchings. In real life, dance and music and poetry are common preludes to sex.

Second, and much more important, art brings indirect benefits to its owner. Art is a quick indicator of status, which—in human as animal societies—is a key to acquiring food, land, and sex partners.

In a nutshell, this might be described as the evolutionary psychology version of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Philosophy.

One of the more outspoken defenders of the art as gene-spreading strategy is Denis Dutton, the New Zealand academic who used to run the Bad Writing contest. In light of his recently published evolutionary psychology exercise “The Art Instinct”, one wonders whether he will inspire a critical-minded academic to launch a Bad Thinking contest, especially in light of his appearance on The Colbert Nation.

Getting straight to the point, Colbert asks if people make art in order to get laid.

In a survey of evolutionary psychology and art that appeared in the May 20th Nation Magazine (“Adaptation: On Literary Darwinism”), William Deresiewicz looks at Dutton’s book and 5 others. He begins by trying to explain its appeal:

The appeal of evolutionary psychology is easy to grasp. Just think of Annie Hall. The last few decades have left us so profoundly disoriented about the most urgent personal matters–gender roles, sexual norms, the possibility of creating lasting romantic relationships, not to mention absolutely everything to do with family structure–that it’s no surprise to find people embracing a theory that promises to restore order. Once we had religion to tell us who we are. Then, for a while, we had Freud. Now we have evolutionary psychology, which, as an attempt to construct a science of human nature on Darwinian principles, marshals two of the most powerful ideas in contemporary culture: science, our most authoritative way of knowing, and nature, our highest ground of moral appeal. No wonder the field is catnip to journalists and armchair theorists alike. Equip yourself with a few basic concepts–natural selection, inclusive fitness, mating choice–and you, too, can explain the mysteries of human existence. That evolutionary psychology has no real intellectual credibility, that mainstream biology regards it as a house of sand, rarely seems to come up. EP is the Malcolm Gladwell of science: facile and glib, but so persuasive and charming that no one wants to ruin the fun.

Turning to Brian Boyd’s “On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, and Fiction”, a work that appears somewhat more informed than Dutton’s (how can it be otherwise?), Deresiewicz challenges the unilinear underpinnings of this rather narrow understanding of art:

But the attractiveness of a theory is no brief for its validity. Because storytelling, absent literacy, leaves no record, Boyd’s reasoning rests entirely on analogy and deduction. Primates do this, children do that, contemporary hunter-gatherers do the other; therefore this is what primitive humans must have done. Fiction serves these functions now; therefore it always has. This kind of thinking may be clever, but it isn’t science. It also overlooks the crucial phenomenon of functional shift. What evolved for one purpose can end up developing many others. It further assumes that we know not only when storytelling began, 40,000 or 100,000 years ago rather than 10,000, but when fictional storytelling began. For the question of fictionality is one of the most vexed in this whole area of study. It is easy to see why ancient hunter-gatherers might have told factual stories: “When Ogg tried to cross the big woods, he was eaten by a pig”; “Wilma found much good eggs beneath the spotted bird.” But why would anyone want to tell stories that don’t have that kind of truth value? More to the point, when did we start doing so? The question becomes sharper when we remember that stories that look fictional to us may not have seemed so to their original audience. Homer did not think he was making fiction. Indeed, when the novel began to re-establish itself during the Renaissance, it took several centuries for European culture to accustom itself to the notion of fictionality–the idea that something can be true without being factual.

Laura Miller has a go at evolutionary psychology in a Salon.com article titled “The evolutionary argument for Dr. Seuss”. She hones in on Brian Boyd, who is based in New Zealand like Dutton:

Boyd’s explanation, heavily ballasted with citations from studies and treatises on neuroscience, cognitive theory and evolutionary biology, boils down to two general points. First, fiction — like all art — is a form of play, the enjoyable means by which we practice and hone certain abilities likely to come in handy in more serious situations. When kittens pounce on and wrestle with their litter mates, they’re developing skills that will help them hunt, even though as far as they’re concerned they’re just larking around. Second, when we create and share stories with each other, we build and reinforce the cooperative bonds within groups of people (families, tribes, towns, nations), making those groups more cohesive and in time allowing human beings to lord it over the rest of creation.

She makes a crucial distinction between biological and cultural evolution, however:

The difficulty is that once culture became the ascendant environmental factor affecting humanity, the game changed fundamentally. It’s true, as Boyd observes, that culture transforms itself in a way that resembles biological evolution; ideas and practices that catch on (such as Christianity or rap music) become more and more prevalent. But natural selection is a mindless process by which random mutations succeed or fail and the successes slowly accumulate. The evolution of culture is intentional, directed by the desires of human beings pursuing certain goals. (Nobody intends biological evolution to happen, unless you believe in God.) That’s why it took 540 million years for the eye to evolve, while the detective story has become culturally ubiquitous in the mere 170 years since Edgar Allen Poe published “The Murders in the Rue Morgue.”

But as useful as Miller and Deresiewicz’s critiques are, nothing can surpass the devastating articles written on evolutionary psychology/sociobiology in the New York Review by Richard Lewontin and Stephen Jay Gould, most of which unfortunately are behind a subscriber’s firewall.

Gould is of particular interest since he was the preeminent Darwinian of our time. Fortunately, a June 12, 1997 article titled “Darwinian Fundamentalism” is available online. He summarizes their presence on the intellectual landscape as follows:

Darwin clearly loved his distinctive theory of natural selection—the powerful idea that he often identified in letters as his dear “child.” But, like any good parent, he understood limits and imposed discipline. He knew that the complex and comprehensive phenomena of evolution could not be fully rendered by any single cause, even one so ubiquitous and powerful as his own brainchild.

In this light, especially given history’s tendency to recycle great issues, I am amused by an irony that has recently ensnared evolutionary theory. A movement of strict constructionism, a self-styled form of Darwinian fundamentalism, has risen to some prominence in a variety of fields, from the English biological heartland of John Maynard Smith to the uncompromising ideology (albeit in graceful prose) of his compatriot Richard Dawkins, to the equally narrow and more ponderous writing of the American philosopher Daniel Dennett (who entitled his latest book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea).[1] Moreover, a larger group of strict constructionists are now engaged in an almost mordantly self-conscious effort to “revolutionize” the study of human behavior along a Darwinian straight and narrow under the name of “evolutionary psychology.”

Some of these ideas have filtered into the general press, but the uniting theme of Darwinian fundamentalism has not been adequately stressed or identified. Professionals, on the other hand, are well aware of the connections. My colleague Niles Eldredge, for example, speaks of this coordinated movement as Ultra-Darwinism in his recent book, Reinventing Darwin. Amid the variety of their subject matter, the ultra-Darwinists share a conviction that natural selection regulates everything of any importance in evolution, and that adaptation emerges as a universal result and ultimate test of selection’s ubiquity.

It is entirely possible that Deresiewicz’s notion that evolutionary psychology functions as a kind of religion might have been influenced by reading Gould’s essay, which contains the following take on the new “fundamentalism”:

Why then should Darwinian fundamentalism be expressing itself so stridently when most evolutionary biologists have become more pluralistic in the light of these new discoveries and theories? I am no psychologist, but I suppose that the devotees of any superficially attractive cult must dig in when a general threat arises. “That old time religion; it’s good enough for me.” There is something immensely beguiling about strict adaptationism—the dream of an underpinning simplicity for an enormously complex and various world. If evolution were powered by a single force producing one kind of result, and if life’s long and messy history could therefore be explained by extending small and orderly increments of adaptation through the immensity of geological time, then an explanatory simplicity might descend upon evolution’s overt richness. Evolution then might become “algorithmic,” a surefire logical procedure, as in Daniel Dennett’s reverie. But what is wrong with messy richness, so long as we can construct an equally rich texture of satisfying explanation?

Although it is a brief work and does not specifically mention art, Engels’s “The Part played by Labour in the Transition from Ape to Man” does provide an alternative to the biological reductionism of Dutton and company, while attempting to engage with Darwin’s recent discoveries. As obvious from the title of the article, Engels sees labor as the dividing line between animals and human beings:

First labour, after it and then with it speech – these were the two most essential stimuli under the influence of which the brain of the ape gradually changed into that of man, which, for all its similarity is far larger and more perfect. Hand in hand with the development of the brain went the development of its most immediate instruments – the senses. Just as the gradual development of speech is inevitably accompanied by a corresponding refinement of the organ of hearing, so the development of the brain as a whole is accompanied by a refinement of all the senses. The eagle sees much farther than man, but the human eye discerns considerably more in things than does the eye of the eagle. The dog has a far keener sense of smell than man, but it does not distinguish a hundredth part of the odours that for man are definite signs denoting different things. And the sense of touch, which the ape hardly possesses in its crudest initial form, has been developed only side by side with the development of the human hand itself, through the medium of labour.

The reaction on labour and speech of the development of the brain and its attendant senses, of the increasing clarity of consciousness, power of abstraction and of conclusion, gave both labour and speech an ever-renewed impulse to further development. This development did not reach its conclusion when man finally became distinct from the ape, but on the whole made further powerful progress, its degree and direction varying among different peoples and at different times, and here and there even being interrupted by local or temporary regression. This further development has been strongly urged forward, on the one hand, and guided along more definite directions, on the other, by a new element which came into play with the appearance of fully-fledged man, namely, society.

While it is far beyond the scope of this article (and the knowledge of the author) to lay out a historical materialist explanation for the origins of art, but it probably served both would-be utilitarian and spiritual/esthetic needs. A bear or an antelope drawn on the wall of a cave or a tipi was essentially a totem. It helped our ancestors gain a kind of control over the world by familiarizing certain powerful objects in their environment. By painting a bear, you demonstrate a kind of mastery over it.

But more to the point, I would suggest that attempts to extrapolate from such primeval artifacts—or from the animal kingdom—is a very problematic business. The evolutionary psychologists harp on such early history (Diamond, for example, is fixated on the Eastern Islands) in order to essentialize the human condition. They look at bower birds, cave drawings and Miro etchings in a bachelor’s pad in order to turn everything into a quest to disseminate sperm effectively.

Who knows. In their anxiety to render the human condition as a simple working out of biological necessity, people such as Denis Dutton and Brian Boyd might be seeking to control their environment in the same fashion as cave painting artists. Fortunately for humanity, out destiny is not in our genes but in our willingness and ability to challenge the forces of the status quo and transform reality according to our ideals, just as long as economic and social forces have matured to the point where that is objectively possible.


  1. “Napoleon Chagnon, the anthropologist who shared Diamond’s Hobbesian take on hunting-and-gathering peoples—in his case the Yanomami rather than the Papuan New Guinea highland tribes.”

    You probably already know this, and made a simple mistake, but the Yanomami and most of the Papua New Guinea peoples are shifting horticulturalists, with a little hunting and gathering thrown in, but still very reliant on cultivated plants, tubers etc..

    Comment by Sheldon — June 10, 2009 @ 2:17 am

  2. Louis,

    Check out “The Necessity of Art” by Ernst Fischer.

    Comment by David McDonald — June 10, 2009 @ 4:15 pm

  3. I’m appreciating your series of posts debunking sociobiology and its guises. As a teenager, I was turned on to Stephen Pinker books by my radical right wing grandpa. Later, I discovered some books by a guy named Howard Bloom (particularly ‘The Lucifer Principle’) on my own. I bought into this stuff for a time. But it was when I found the critiques of this reactionary and bankrupt ‘philosophy’ by Lewontin and Gould that I realized the error of my thinking. Have you ever come across Bloom’s works, Louis? It’s been awhile since I trekked into those dark intellectual swamps. But from what I can recall, his work is the absolute height of sociobiological absurdity.

    Comment by Tim — June 11, 2009 @ 7:49 am

  4. […] From The Unrepentant Marxist, Evolutionary Psychology and Art […]

    Pingback by Diamond, third chimpanzee, art evolution — 1848+: Out Of Revolution — June 13, 2009 @ 8:40 pm

  5. Applying sociobiological thinking to human societies is a perilous undertaking. But the sociobiology of the New World Order must be revealed!!

    Comment by Heresiarch — June 17, 2009 @ 1:01 am

  6. Chagnon is indeed a very keen proponent of the view that human social and cultural life can ultimately be reduced to matters of biology, in particular matters of success in biological reproduction.

    It’s very telling, however, that he has had to state repeatedly and explicitly that Yanonmamo warfare is not carried with the intention of capturing women from neighbouring groups for breeding purposes. He has had to state this, because this particular misrepresentation has been a consistent feature of the arguments of some Evolutionary Psychologists.

    What does that tell us about the EP paradigm?

    Comment by Dr. X — June 18, 2009 @ 10:27 am

  7. You may be interested in an article on my blog called Can Animals Create Art?. The key point about art is not biology but that it is a form of labour, i.e. it is the product of human beings acting to alter their material environment towards their own ends. It is not created by animals.

    As Louis says, all human objects have both utilitarian and spiritual value. In art the latter is predominant, but there is no firm dividing line between what is art and what is not. Marxists have to see everything as a totality – art, like all things, is a process acting upon, and acted upon by, countless other processes. Thus the reductionist line taken by sociobiology is alien to Marxism.

    Comment by Eugene Hirschfeld — June 21, 2009 @ 9:01 pm

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