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January 03, 2006

Evo-Bio and the Arts

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Edge asks a lot of tiptop brainiacs "What's your dangerous idea?" Denis Dutton responds with a snappy intro to the promise evolutionary biology holds out to reinvogorate thinking about the arts. Writing for TCS, Nick Gillespie visits the Modern Language Association's recent get-together and returns with a report about the ways some arty academic scholars are beginning to make use of evolutionary psychology and neuroscience.

It's about time. After 30 years spent turning narcissistic, Frenchified pirouettes, arts-scholars really do owe it to the rest of us to start contributing a little something of substance to the conversation.

I've been a big fan of these developments since the '80s: Darwinism and neuroscience hold out the possibility of mutual respect between high-level academic thinking and our everyday experience of culture. On the other hand, well, honestly: I sometimes wonder why we worry about academics, academic criticism, and academic scholarship at all. Do the arts derive much benefit from the attentions of academic intellectuals? With every passing year I'm less convinced they do. Perhaps those of us who get a lot out of the culture-thang would do better to ignore academia entirely. Let 'em play their stupid games, and let's get on with life.

Still, it can be awfully nice when brainy people say helpful things. So if anyone's curious and wants to dip a toe in the evo-bio/neuroscience/arts waters, let me suggest a few resources. Ellen Dissanayake's "Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes from and Why" is a fabulous blend of anthropology and Darwinism: down-to-earth (Dissanayake has done a lot of field work), open-minded (she's an independent scholar, not a brown-noser out for tenure), and put together with an exciting fervor. Francis-NoŽl Thomas and Mark Turner's "Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose" is every bit as mind-blowing. It's a how-to-write-well book that's also a discussion of the connections between neuroscience and classicism. Like the Dissanayake, it's a fun and accessible read.

The best web-freebie resource I'm aware of for this kind of material is Denis Dutton's own website, where he makes available a lot of his essays, all of them brilliant brain-openers, and all of them written with Dutton's brand of 18th-century-ish cheerful vigor and humane good sense. Here's Dutton on Dissanayake, and Dutton on Mark Turner. Dutton also guides the interested to many other books.



posted by Michael at January 3, 2006


I love watching scholars in the humanities shoring up their mandate. Every decade or two they need a whole new project to give the affair the illusion of purpose and keep it trundling onwards. Even something as vacuous as "male gaze theory" (remember that?) is enough to excuse their looking at the same old pictures for the umpteenth time. Will they ever say "That's it, art scholarship has completed its task", and go home? I suspect not. What is its task anyway?

Posted by: Brian on January 3, 2006 4:49 PM

The Denis Dutton website is a real find and I thank you for the clue. I'm on the make for order-creators, now that there's so much stuff to think about that I can't really keep track. I haven't heard the evo-bio approach defined before, but I recognize elements.

I'm just so grateful that post-modernism and the rest of the Derrida-corrida is wearing out and going home.

But I really would like to know how this jelly in my head can open up a book and unfold a whole world out of it.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 3, 2006 5:31 PM

As long as people qualify their statements & don't get too carried away, I'm all for it. Evo-bio & neuroscience surely have contributions to lit crit, but you well know how easily lit crit folks hijack scientific language & ride it into outer space. I'm not sure anything mind-blowing will be unearthed, but it's a much more promising project than before -- lots of high verbal IQ people engaged in the literary equivalent of nerdy engineers concocting an elaborate contraption that just digs a big whole in the ground and then fills it right back up.

Posted by: Agnostic on January 3, 2006 10:13 PM

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