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January 08, 2008

Dutton's Doings

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I'm glad to see that the great Denis Dutton -- aesthetician, philosopher, and founder and editor of the indispensable Arts & Letters Daily -- is up to substantial mischief.

Don't miss his contribution to Edge's 2008 World Question, "What Have You Changed Your Mind About?" In it, Dutton recounts how shook up he was, as a good Darwinist, to think through the consequences of sexual selection. As he says, selection reintroduces "purpose" back into the evolutionary equation:

The revelations of Darwin's later work ... have completely altered my thinking about the development of culture. It is not just survival in a natural environment that has made human beings what they are. In terms of our personalities we are, strange to say, a self-made species.

As I mull over his point in my dimwitted way, I find myself thinking, Hmm, that certainly puts an end to determinism, and reintroduces that nasty "mystery of it all" category all over again, doesn't it? Fine by me!

(Which reminds me: Going through some of the other responses to Edge's inspired question, I was tickled by the number of brilliant scientists who confess to a common experience: waking up one day to to the fact that science -- as freakily impressive and powerful an enterprise as it is -- doesn't, can't, and never will Explain It All. Geniuses, eh? I mean, any guy who has ever dated a few women, let alone gotten married, could have told you that there are phenomena that will never yield to rational explanation.)

Dutton has also created a new best-of, one-stop, digest site for those interested in the climate-change issue: Climate Debate Daily. Check out what the mainstream is saying as well as what the skeptics are taking issue with. Climate Change Daily looks brilliant, and is already a-fizz with much enticing linkage. Here's hoping the site will promote the kind of wide and open debate in the eco-bio-climate-sphere that Arts & Letters Daily has fostered in the culturesphere.

I'm triple-thrilled to see that Dutton also has a book scheduled to come out soon. Its subject: evolutionary biology and the arts. From its description, "The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution" looks to be the book that I've been waiting for for a very long time: a comprehensive survey of the way that evolutionary theory and neuroscience affect our view of the arts.

I'm also hoping that Dutton's book -- which should go on sale in July -- will be the book that will stimulate one of the longest-overdue conversations that I'm aware of: the one about what kind of sense it makes to think of art as socially-constructed, let alone a progressive force. Really, I'm hoping that Dutton's book will topple the current artchat and art-thought regime entirely. I happened to tune into this scene early on, and its views and contributions clicked with me instantly. Evo-bio (and neuroscience) struck me as very effective antidotes to the politicized, substance-free, and unhelpful wheelspinning that art-chat and art-thought has become.

For those who want to do a little prep for Dutton's book, the two easiest and funnest treatments of evo-bio and the arts that I know of are the passages dealing with culture in Steven Pinker's "The Blank Slate" -- Pinker cites Dutton often in these pages -- and Ellen Dissanayake's books, which are semi-speculative essays about the anthropology of art. Why not start with this one? Dissanayake -- who is a freelance intellectual, thinker, and researcher -- has her idiosyncrasies (which I like, for what that's worth). But she's also one of the most provocative thinkers about the role of aesthetics in human life that I've ever run across. Here's her website.

Here's Denis Dutton's very generous personal website, where he makes a lot of his writing available for free. Here's an excellent Robert Fulford appreciation of ALD from 2002; here's a more recent one. Here's a q&a with Dutton that Salon published in 2000. Is Denis Dutton the Samuel Johnson of our age?



UPDATE: ALD points out this wonderfully grumpy late essay by George Macdonald Fraser, in which the author of the "Flashman" novels argues that Political Correctness is a symptom of a civilization in decline. My favorite passage:

I loathe all political parties, which I regard as inventions of the devil. My favourite prime minister was Sir Alec Douglas-Home, not because he was on the Right, but because he spent a year in office without, on his own admission, doing a damned thing.
posted by Michael at January 8, 2008


Here's a politically incorrect factoid that might interest Steve Sailer. The leading rusher for the winning team in the NCAA championship game was a white man, Jacob Hester. Hester isn't just a one dimensional fullback. He runs with power, speed and style. Hester is, I believe, just about the only white tailback in Division I football.

The allocation of positions in college and pro football is segregated strictly by race.

Not a single TV figure noted Hester's race.

Slowly, white men are beginning to come back in basketball, also. The sports press ignores this like the plague.

Why all the celebration over every tiny first by black athletes and the complete blackout over the reappearance, after a decades long drought, of white athletes?

Posted by: Shouting Thomas on January 8, 2008 3:40 PM

"...argues that Political Correctness is a symptom of a civilization in decline."

You can add Jacques Barzun to that list also. The book to read is "The Culture We Deserve".

Posted by: Todd FLetcher on January 8, 2008 4:14 PM

Woah, that Ellen Dissanayake looks like she's doing some wonderful work. Just checking out that website briefly I am filled with admiration and envy.

Posted by: alias clio on January 8, 2008 7:54 PM

Denis is an old friend of mine from our college days - but I didn't know his book is due out so soon. Well, good! Thanks for the update!

Posted by: Lester Hunt on January 8, 2008 8:29 PM

Any guy who has ever dated a few women, let alone gotten married, could have told you that there are phenomena that will never yield to rational explanation.

A friend of mine is descending into a reductionistic, materialist viewpoint via his conversion to atheism a few years ago. I think the edge-types who fall for the science-explains-all line, like my friend, are (ironically) uncomfortable with their bodies.

Dissanayake's site says, Intrinsic to one's actual 'being-in-the-world' is the fact of one's material body, its rhythms and importunities, its idiosyncrasies and satisfactions, its growth and change over time, its effect on others, its vulnerability to accident, disease, and death.

It's discomfort with all of that that seems to be the underlying common characteristic of the science-is-it crowd. Odd, isn't it, that avowed materialists would have so much trouble with the fact that they are incarnated? That they are animals? It's as if the subjectivity inherent in being incarnate is seen by them as a prison.


Posted by: PatrickH on January 9, 2008 12:59 PM

"science... doesn't, can't, and never will Explain It All."

I can think of a very small handful of claims to that effect, most notoriously Laplace's c. 1800 that if one knew the position and velocity of every particle in the universe at one instant, the future from then on would be entirely predictable.

Few scientists would have subscribed to that then, and scarcely any would now. Jokey labels like "Theory of Everything" aside, I've encountered very few such beliefs in decades of association with scientists. On the other hand, I very often see non-scientists assert (or take for granted, as here) that that's what scientists believe.

I read the EDGE posts differently: to me, nearly all the changes of mind described are changes *within* a scientific framework ("The reasearch or theoretical appropach I believed in as a postdoc didn't pan out, so I've shifted to this other one") rather than "I accept that science is helpless before Mystery X."

But I guess if one has been dancing with one's own straw man long enough, yeah... one would be "tickled" when "brilliant scientists... confess." Keep up the good work: you've got that caricature on the run!

Posted by: Monte Davis on January 10, 2008 11:24 AM

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