- Denis Dutton:Interview with Stephen Colbert
Following is a transcript of an interview broadcast as part of the Colbert Report on January 28, 2009.
My guest tonight says appreciation of art is a product of evolution. I agree: a monkey could paint most of that stuff. Please welcome Denis Dutton … (applause).
Thanks so much for coming on the show, Mr. Dutton—pleasure to meet you. Your book is called The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. Let’s put aside, just for a moment, that evolution is a fraud propagated by secular humanists who wish to undermine our belief in an all-knowing, all-loving, all-powerful God. Can you set that aside for a second?
I can too. All right, what do you mean, “Art has an evolutionary component”? How does art help us survive in Darwinian terms?
Well, it would have helped us survive in the Pleistocene—in the period, say, 1.6 million years ago until fairly recently. The kind of imaginative abilities that artists have and that we all have in the appreciation of art—to appreciate Jane Austen, the late quartets of Beethoven. …
How many cavemen were reading Emma?
They weren’t reading anything, but what they were doing was telling very complex stories to each other.
They were using their imaginations to imagine what it would be like to not be devoured by a saber-toothed tiger. [End Page A319]
What would that be like? Think big?
Exactly, and that is exactly, of course, what animals couldn’t do and human beings could. They could tell stories, they could imagine not simply what’s on the other side of the hill but they could invent fictions, very complicated fictions. I think these people have been very underrated.
Here’s what I think: I think you are creating a really complicated fiction right now [laughter]. You have no idea what those guys were doing. It’s prehistoric—no history. They didn’t write it down. We don’t know what they were thinking or what they were doing, Mr. Imagination.
All we’ve got is what we know about hunter-gatherer tribes that survived into the modern world—what we know about the cave paintings, about the few things that they left.
What do we know about the cave paintings? In what way is that an evolutionary advantage for them?
The cave paintings are wildly sophisticated. They show a kind of talent—
They’re stick figures.
They’re not stick figures.
They are stick figures, man—spear, buffalo, done. Are you saying that some Frenchman, some French caveman, is sophisticated? Why, ’cause he’s French? Did he have a little wooly-mammoth beret on?
Who knows, they might have had all sorts of French food, with mastodon fat and honey. There are all sorts of things we don’t know about.
… You were talking about primitive art. In what way does present-day art fit into your theory about the evolutionary component? How does present-day art, like conceptual art, how does that fit at all? [End Page A320]
Well, instead of going to the high end of conceptual art, let’s say, how about calendar art? Let’s say this [pointing to Colbert’s copy of The Art Instinct].
The picture, on your book.
Show the book—show the book.
See the picture right there? [He holds up the book.] You have a stream right there, you got a nice tree, you have a blue sky in the background….
You will find those kinds of pictures in calendars all over the world. You find those streams, you find open areas and groups of trees, you find a little path that leads into the distance. And what happens is that these kinds of tastes, even in countries that don’t have landscapes like that, show that there is something intrinsic inside us that actually is attracted to that.
Because we see that and we say, “Oh, there’s fish in that water.”