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  • Sociobiology and Art
  • Denis Dutton

Why have no great novels been written about income tax preparation? Will there someday be a lasting novel, play, or film which treats the theme tax preparation? This is a serious question. After all, preparing income tax forms is an important aspect of modern life, involving calculation, risk, and moral choice. Moreover, it provides an experience that is nearly universal. Over the years, we have seen it argued now and again in the pages of this journal that it is a function of literature to provide imaginative practice or exercise for the challenges and experiences of life. If that’s so, why doesn’t fiction treat something as familiar, onerous, and challenging as preparing income tax returns?

I borrow the example from Brett Cooke. Along with Jan Baptist Bedaux, he has edited Sociobiology and the Arts (Editions Rodopi, $25.00), a collection of essays that examines the aesthetic life of our species from the perspective of evolutionary psychology. It has appeared nearly simultaneously with another similar anthology, Biopoetics: Evolutionary Explorations in the Arts (ICUS, $16.95), which Cooke has edited with Frederick Turner. The tax remark involves questions of the boundaries of interest in any literary theme. How many people, to borrow another example, are interested in what lies a mile below the surface of Jupiter? Beyond an audience of dedicated astronomers or geologists, it would be hard to generate attention for the topic. Yet raise questions of extraterrestrial life and what it might look like, and most of us are easily fascinated. This differential interest is something that evolutionary psychology would predict. As Cooke puts it, there will be a more tireless interest on the part of the human race in, to cite a couple of random examples, the “politics of the nuclear family than in the nucleus of the atom, more in astrology than in astronomy.” [End Page 451]

Aristotle had something like the same insight long ago, claiming, for instance, that conflict within families—cases where people who ought to love each other actually hate each other—will be a more dramatic and appealing subject-matter for tragedy than, say, conflicts between strangers, however violent the latter might be. Considerations of this sort do not limit absolutely what can or cannot be the subject of a work of fiction. One can imagine a play (perhaps by Ionesco) which followed someone filling out a tax form. In a century in which bottle racks and snow shovels have been presented as works of art, or 49330 of silence (with the odd bit coughing or shuffling) presented as music, nothing can be ruled out a priori. But such modernist experiments, the Darwinians claim, will never for long capture the attention of the vast public for art, whose abiding concerns involve the same themes they always have from the archaic Greeks to this afternoon’s soap operas: love, death, adventure, and triumph over adversity.

The articles in Cooke’s anthologies include general schematic accounts of the theoretical principles of evolutionary aesthetics, discussions of emotion in art, analysis of specific works, such as Crime and Punishment, in light of adaptive mechanisms, so-called supernormal distortion, and expressive and content universals in culture and art. There are essays on the history of theatre and on science fiction. Frederick Turner presents seductive accounts of the sociobiology of beauty and Nancy L. Easterlin argues that there is little about literary values that can be predicted on the basis of general cognitive predispositions. In Biopoetics, Cooke assembles the many scattered discussions of art by E. O. Wilson, who naturally comes away sounding a far more dedicated humanist than most of the denizens of English departments.

As Joseph Carroll points out in this very issue of Philosophy and Literature, it remains a profound problem for many humanists to accept any kind of biological or evolutionary basis for the arts. I’m a little abashed to admit that I too for a long time resisted these ideas, although not always without reason. Back in the 1970s, I recall picking up a book that contained some sublimely naïve analysis of “art” produced by chimpanzees. In the context presented, ape painting was supposed to...

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pp. 451-457
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