- Denis Dutton:Interview with John Horgan
Following is a transcript of Denis Dutton’s interview with John Horgan, conducted via Skype for Bloggingheads.tv, January 26, 2009. Horgan is director of The Center for Science Writings at the Stevens Institute of Technology.
Denis, is that you?
Yes, I’m here, John.
How are you?
I’m just fine. I’m here in my daughter’s apartment. Sonia and Steve have an apartment here in Tribeca, in Manhattan, center of the world—of the known universe, excuse me.
Certainly, center of the art world.
Let me just introduce myself briefly and then I will let you do the same. I am John Horgan. I am an occasional correspondent on science for Bloggingheads.tv, and you are …
I am Denis Dutton. I am a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand. My accent is not a New Zealand accent because I grew up in North Hollywood, [End Page A293] California. My parents had bookstores, which my brothers ran, called Dutton’s Books, and I come from UC Santa Barbara, studied with Sydney Hook at NYU, and I have been teaching … in New Zealand for twenty-four years.
We’re here to talk about your new book. I’m holding it up in front of my camera right now—it’s called The Art Instinct.
Thank you. I hope we’re holding up the same book—does that look right?
Yes, I hope so too.
I hope so, except I am holding up the U.K.—the Oxford University Press—edition and you are holding up the Bloomsday edition. I’m just saying this for our British viewers—and we do have them in Britain—this will be coming out on … the 200th anniversary of [Darwin’s] birth, on February 12th, from Oxford University Press, U.K.; also in Australia and New Zealand.
Well, that’s appropriate. I wonder if you could start by giving us a kind of book-jacket overview of your book—its major theme.
The idea … that has dominated academic criticism and scholarship of the last forty years [is] that our artistic values are relative to culture, are constructed by culture, are socially constructed by culture—a very popular idea with Marxists, with all sorts of social constructionists: culture, culture, culture. But this is only part of the story. The book is not a denial of the importance of culture, but it says that culture is working on deeper, biologically evolved adaptations; that in the Pleistocene, the period … of 80,000 generations, 1.6 million years, before the modern period, where we became modern humans, we actually acquired as part of our nature hardwired tastes for storytelling, for music, for the enjoyment of images, for dancing, and these adaptations are the basis for the arts. Of course, they emerge differently in different cultures, and it is important to know that, and to recognize it. But: culture is not the whole story. Darwin had the answer to the basis of the arts. [End Page A294]
What inspired you to write this book in the first place, and how long ago did you start working on it? Was there some particular writer or scientist who inspired you to write this thesis?
Well, certainly the work of Ellen Dissanayake, who wrote Homo Aestheticus and What Art Is For, inspired me in the later years of this project, but the beginning of this scholarly project, I have to say, goes back a lot farther. When I graduated from UC Santa Barbara with a degree—a philosophy B.A.—in the 1960s, I went into the Peace Corps in India. And, of course, I came out of university as people did in those days, with all of the usual ideas—you know, that the Eskimos had five hundred words for snow. We know now that they have fewer words than [exist in] English, but at that time I was even teaching that to my students in Michigan, when I started teaching, as if it were fact. Or that Africans, if...