- Aesthetics, Art, and Biology
The publication of Stephen Davies’s The Artful Species: Aesthetics, Art and Evolution is an important event for aestheticians and philosophers of art. As cognitive science, neuroscience, and especially evolutionary psychology become more and more influential in the broader culture—supplanting psychoanalysis as the dominant model of the mind and even making occasional appearances on bestseller lists—it is important that aestheticians and philosophers of art, not to mention humanists in general, don’t jump on the band wagon mindlessly.
Davies’s The Artful Species provides an indispensable service in this regard, surveying the various and many relations held to obtain between aesthetics, art, and evolution, engaging a formidable technical literature, and weighing hypotheses judiciously. Throughout, Davies urges caution, thereby warning humanists who resisted and opposed the temptations of poststructuralism against being infected by the same kind of enthusiasm that made Lacan a household name, at least in English departments.
The organization of Davies’s book could not be more lucid. It has three parts. The first part, Key Concepts, includes chapters on aesthetics, [End Page 578] art, and evolution, and is followed by a chapter on their possible interrelations. Part 2 concerns aesthetics, understood as referring to the aesthetic human response to animals, to environments, and to human beauty. Here Davies not only scrutinizes some research programs that focus on landscapes and human beauty, already known to philosophical aestheticians, but also plows new ground by looking at the human aesthetic response to nonhuman animals. Part 3 explores the topic that most philosophical aestheticians and philosophers of art would list as their top priority—the relation of the arts and evolution. Davies explores the leading hypotheses in this arena of debate, including various theories of the origin of the arts such as the claims that art is a spandrel, a technology, or an adaptation.
Most of The Artful Species is dedicated to criticizing extant theories concerning its appointed topics. Davies is admirably comprehensive. The notes and references comprise more than 110 pages of the book—that is, over a third of the volume. The research that has gone into this project is awesome. If nothing else, Davies has carved a path through a complex and tangled forest, making it easier for aestheticians and philosophers of art to join the discussion as informed participants. Davies subjects each theory to the strictest standards, arguing that humanists are often ignorant of science’s requirements. However, although Davies’s negative positions are generally very clear, his positive views about the pertinent relations, especially of the arts to evolution, are harder to identify.
Davies is very good at showing what is wrong with existing theories, though often one might wonder about his standards of evaluation, which are never explicitly stated and which may be so exacting that it is doubtful that any view could survive them. Moreover, since Davies is exclusively concerned with existing views, he does not offer the reader any sense of what he believes an adequate theory of, say, art and evolution would look like, or whether there could be such a theory, or what the limitations of theorizing in this area of inquiry might be. Davies does not philosophize much beyond the particular theoretical specimens he critically lays before us. Furthermore, Davies does not evaluate these theories competitively but, it would seem, against some unstated, absolute criteria against which all are pretty much consigned to the fire. Perhaps this is why Davies is so rarely forthcoming about his own views.
Nevertheless, if I read him correctly, Davies concludes that although art is connected to biology, it is not an adaptation, but a byproduct of adaptations such as intelligence, imagination, humor, sociality, emotionality, inventiveness, and humor.1 That is, art did not originate as a [End Page 579] biological adaptation, though it has in the past served adaptive functions in our biological co-evolution with culture. Also, I think that for Davies, the arts today—apart from remaining tribal cultures—no longer serve the adaptive purposes they may have once performed.
In this critical comment, pace Davies, I would like to attempt to defend the conjecture that the arts originated as an...