"These sorts of factors in the human personality cry out for a Darwinian explanation," says Arts & Letters Daily founder and editor, philosopher Denis Dutton in "A Talk With Denis Dutton" at Edge, making the case con brio for his theory that "aesthetics have a universal basis in human psychology, ultimately to be illuminated by the processes of evolution," as Steven Pinker explains in a jewel of an introduction. A few Dutton excerpts that caught our eye:
We are totally sympatico with Dutton's thesis and were delighted with his linking of our species' love of beasts and Beethoven as points on a spectrum. It called to mind our favorite Thoreau quotation:
"Many people believe that this consilience between the arts, humanities and sciences represents the future of the humanities, revitalizing them with a progressive research agenda after the disillusionments of postmodernism," notes Pinker in his introduction. We're not sure what he means by "progressive," but given the pervasive moral relativism left in the wake of the Gramscian march through the institutions, we're skeptical of postmodernism's demise anytime soon. Nevertheless, Dutton on postmodernism's nemesis — universality — is music to our ears:
But of course, a moment’s thought reveals that this can’t possibly be true. We know people in Brazil love Japanese prints, that Italian opera is enjoyed in China. Both Beethoven and Hollywood movies have swept the world. Think of it — the Vienna Conservatory has been saved by a combination of Japanese, Korean, and Chinese pianists …
Pleasure, universality, spontaneous development. We see them in the cross-cultural realities of music, the universality of storytelling, as well as things like food tastes, erotic interests, pet-keeping, sports interests, our fascination with puzzle solving, gossip — the list is indefinitely long. Charles Darwin has a lot more to say about how we evolved as inventive and expressive social animals with our remarkable personalities than has been given credit for. These aspects of evolution have deep implications for the origins and evolution of the arts.
"I love William Blake's 'The Tyger,'" we wrote in answer to the question "What is your favourite poem?" for our normblog profile back in October of 2005. "Dazzling imagery red in tooth and claw makes mincemeat of the peaceable kingdom paradigm," we added with relish. In photo Tiny, one of "our own in-house tygers …with fire burning bright in [her] eyes as [she and her brother] defended their turf from the intruder."
"Why can't we get over our post-Marxist nostalgia for economic or cultural determinism and accept human reality as it actually is?" asks Dutton, seemingly without irony. Doesn't he realize that generations of scholars have long since invested their intellectual capital in the left's utopian, blank-slate, noble-savage project that denies any such thing as human nature?
One more related thought. "Survival of the fittest usually makes one think of the biggest, strongest, or smartest individuals being the winners, but in a biological sense, evolutionary fitness refers to the ability to survive and reproduce in a particular environment," explains the PBS Evolution Library, making a point that people who aren't paying attention often miss:
Popular interpretations of "survival of the fittest" typically ignore the importance of both reproduction and cooperation. To survive but not pass on one's genes to the next generation is to be biologically unfit. And many organisms are the "fittest" because they cooperate with other organisms, rather than competing with them.
The same dynamics apply in the evolution of ideas. As we blogged a few years back in our post "Fear societies, heavy and lite":
Democratic Europe's go-along-to-get-along types in turn call to mind those members of academia who go along with politically correct groupthink they may not agree with in order to protect their careers. Call it "Fear Society Lite." Sharansky's "mechanics of tyranny that sustain such a society" are at work in those lofty intellectual bubbles just as surely as they were in the old Soviet Union and are today in the Arab tyrannies. A repressive society is a repressive society, wherever it may fall on a continuum of brutality and thought control. The crushing of dissent brutalizes the human spirit. Sharansky's optimism encourages the human spirit to soar.
"I cannot understand why there still is so much resistance among academics to such ideas," Dutton continues, puzzled at his peers' willful blindness to "human reality as it actually is":
If you want to be a one-dimensional determinist, go ahead and make it all "culture." My side of the argument isn't trying to make it all "nature," make it all genetics. Human life is lived in a middle position between our genetic determinants on the one hand and culture on the other. It's out of that that human freedom emerges. And artistic works, the plays of Shakespeare, the novels of Jane Austen, the works of Wagner and Beethoven, Rembrandt and Hokusai, are among the freest, most human acts ever accomplished. These creations are the ultimate expressions of freedom.
Like Thoreau's wildest, "The most alive is the freest. Not subdued to any man, its presence refreshes him."
Update: We were horrified to realize, as Charles Johnson wrote the other day, that "The Top 3 GOP Governors [are] All Creationists." We proudly stand with Johnson's band of "Some Anti-Creationism Bloggers" who share Randy Barnett's view that "A Republican candidate who is an avowed adherent to creationism will not be elected President of the United States":
Volokh Conspiracy: Defining "Creationism" down
Noblesse Oblige: Which Controversy? Discovery Institute vs Science
Daimnation!: Darwin’s next fight
The Atheist Conservative: If I saw an angel or if man was made of brass
Well That’s Just Dandy: I Don’t Know Why This Is So Hard To Understand
Kerplunk - Common sense from Down Under: The Discovery Institute’s willful destruction of Christian values
An old friend and philosophy geek: Blog Here Now
What hath Got wrought?
Update II: Noah had nothing over Steve at Modulator. Friday Ark #232 now boarding.