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Art and Sexual Selection

Philosophy and Literature 24(2000): 512-21.

Denis Dutton


www.denisdutton.com



Followers of evolutionary psychology have marveled in the last few years on the capacity of this discipline to throw new light on aspects of human life, both the obvious and the curious. The Swiss Army Knife metaphor of the mind as a multipurpose instrument fitted by evolution to solve Pleistocene problems with natural ease has great attractiveness. It offers a significantly more powerful way to view our specialized mental capacities than the older model that tries to see us as creatures with general abilities to learn whatever parents or society teach us. We’re not usually as motivated to learn the calculus, or as adept at it, as we are in figuring out who’s sleeping with whom in the neighborhood, and these differential interests and capacities are not socially constructed. Striking empirical findings, such as the statistic that a small child or infant is roughly a hundred times more likely to die at the hands of a stepfather than at the hands of a biological father, defy explanation in terms cultural imperatives but are consistent with evolutionary psychology and explained by it. And persistent average sex differences, like the superior detail noticing capacities of women and the better map-reading abilities of men, nicely fit with evolutionary psychology’s account of Pleistocene adaptations.

In developing their approach, evolutionary psychologists tend everywhere to see the hand of natural selection in features of the mind. Steven Pinker, for instance, argues that we are adapted “for causal and probabilistic reasoning about plants, animals, objects, and people.” We had to be clever problem-solvers in the Pleistocene, dealing with the practical challenges thrown up by that environment. The mind on this view evolved in response to demands for survival. Even such apparently unproductive characteristics of homo sapiens as an interest in, say, imaginative story-telling, singing, or cave-painting, require that we posit some kind of survival advantage advanced by these behaviors.

This is the Darwinism we all know, and while its central mechanism of natural selection has proven to be one of the most versatile and powerful explanatory ideas in all of science, there is another, lesser known side to Darwin, the central source for which is his last book, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, to give its complete title. In this monumental work, Darwin discusses the other great driving force of evolution, sexual selection. The most famous example of sexual selection is the peacock’s tail. This huge display, far from enhancing survival in the wild, makes peacocks more prone to predation. The tails are heavy, and require lots of energy to grow and to drag around. And therein, oddly, lies nature’s point: simply being able to manage with a tail like that functions as an advertisement to peahens: “Look at what a strong, healthy, fit peacock I am.” For discriminating peahens, the tail is a fitness indicator, and they will choose to mate with peacocks who display the grandest tails.

Fundamental to sexual selection in the animal kingdom is female choice, as the typical routine for most species has males displaying strength, cleverness, and general genetic fitness in order to invite female participation in producing the next generation. With the human animal, there is a greater mutuality of choice, although even with us it is often males who propose and females who dispose. This is one of the central ideas of The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature, by Geoffrey Miller (Doubleday, $27.50). Miller holds that the source of the traits we tend to find the most endearingly human — qualities of character, talent, and demeanor — have come to be built into our character during a million years in which women and men chose sexual partners. We can see striking examples of human sexual selection at work even in recent, historic times. The Wodaabe of Nigeria and Niger are beloved by travel photographers because of their geere wol festivals, where young men make themselves up (in ways that look feminine to Europeans) and dance vigorously to display endurance and health. Women then choose their favorites, preferring the tallest men with the biggest eyes, whitest teeth, and straightest nose. Over generations, the Wodaabe have grown taller than neighboring tribes, with whiter teeth, straighter noses, etc.

If we can observe this kind of change (and Darwin himself noted other examples in human populations) in a few centuries, imagine what human mate choice could do to remake or refine homo sapiens in thousands of generations. A slight choice bias over such long time periods could radically reform aspects of humanity, as in fact it has: we are not merely the creation of blind, dumb forces of natural selection in evolution. Along with the obvious end-products of natural selection — an efficient immune system, acute binocular vision, an easily incited fear of animals with large fangs — we also possess species features of personality and character that we have created for ourselves in our courtship choices.

Isn’t Miller here talking about the aspects of humanity that are determined by culture? While there is no denying the importance of culture in creating the character of modern homo sapiens, civilization, and with it modern culture, only goes back 10,000 years, to the invention of agriculture and the establishment of cities. That’s less than one percent of our hunter-gatherer history as humans and near proto-human ancestors. To be sure, in this vast, barely recorded expanse of prehistoric time we were buffeted by changing climatic environments and predation both animal and humanoid. But that world of red teeth and claws wasn’t the only factor affecting our evolution: while we were being made by our environment and natural conditions, our ancestors were also exercising their tastes for “warm, witty, creative, intelligent, generous companions” as mates, and this shows itself in the constitution of both our present tastes and traits.

Miller argues that during human evolution, “sexual selection seems to have shifted its primary target from body to mind.” It is sexual selection, therefore, that is responsible for the astonishingly large human brain, an organ whose peculiar capacities wildly exceed survival needs on the African savannahs. And beyond its sheer size, the human brain makes possible a mind that is uniquely good at a long list of features found in all cultures but which are difficult to explain in terms of survival benefits: “humor, story-telling, gossip, art, music, self-consciousness, ornate language, imaginative ideologies, religion, morality.” Miller offers us a new model to understand the evolved mind. It’s not Descartes’s ghost, nor the mental hydraulic system of Freud, nor the computer chip of cognitive science. From the standpoint of sexual selection, the mind is best seen as a gaudy, over-powered home-entertainment system, devised in order that our stone-age ancestors could attract, amuse, and bed each other. Bed, however, was not the only object, since the qualities of mind chosen and thus evolved made for enduring pairings, the rearing of children, and the creation of robust social groups.

As a minor but telling example of our self-chosen overabundance of mental capacity, consider vocabulary. Nonhuman primates have up to twenty distinct calls. The average human knows perhaps 60,000 words, learned at an average of ten to twenty a day up to age 18. Does survival require such a huge vocabulary? It’s a fact that 98% of our speech uses only about 4000 words. I. A. Richard and C. K. Ogden’s Basic English for international communication used only 850 words. Surely no more than a couple of thousand words at most would have sufficed in the Pleistocene. The excess vocabulary is explained by sexual selection theory as a fitness and general intelligence indicator. Miller points out that the correlation between body symmetry (a well-known fitness indicator) and intelligence is only about 20%. Vocabulary size, on the other hand, is more clearly correlated to intelligence, which is why it is still used both in scientific testing and more generally by people automatically to gauge how clever a person is. Such an indicator is especially telling in courtship contexts. Indeed, extravagant, poetic use of language is associated worldwide with love, being a kind of cognitive foreplay. But it is also, he points out, something that can “give a panoramic view of someone’s personality, plans, hopes, fears, and ideals.” Little wonder that it might have been a choice item in the inventory of mate-selection criteria. This choice for more sophisticated language use altered forever the nature of the choosing primate — us.

The centerpiece of Miller’s argument is the making and appreciating of art. Miller’s idea of art, as we might expect, is wide-ranging and popular, drawn more from everywhere in culture: dancing, body-decoration, clothing, jewellery, hair-styling, architecture, furniture, gardens, cars, images such as calendars and paintings, creative uses of language, popular entertainments from religious festivals to TV soaps, music of all kinds, and on and on. Miller’s discussion is less focused on the high-art culture of modernism and postmodernism, since it anyway distinguishes itself against popular taste. Artistic expression in general, like vocabulary creation and display, has its origins for Miller in its role in our early history as a fitness indicator: “Applied to human art, this suggests that beauty equals difficulty and high cost. We find attractive those things that could have been produced only by people with attractive, high-fitness qualities such as health, energy, endurance, hand-eye coordination, fine motor control, intelligence, creativity, access to rare materials, the ability to learn difficult skills, and lots of free time.” It’s worth noting that this view accords with a persistent intuition about art that can be traced from the Greeks to Nietzsche and Freud: art is somehow about sex. The mistake in traditional art theorizing has been to imagine that there must be some coded or sublimated sexual content in art. But it’s not the content that’s sexual in its primal nature, it’s the display element of producing and admiring artists and their art in the first place that touches Pleistocene sexuality.

To the extent that art-making is a fitness indicator in the Pleistocene, it would have to be something that low-fitness artists would find hard to duplicate (were it easy to fake, then it would not be accurate as a gauge of fitness). The loading the Pleistocene mind puts into its concept of art therefore gives us a perspective, at least at a psychological level, on some of the modern problems of aesthetic philosophy. Consider virtuosity: if music is a series of sounds in a formal relation, why should it make any difference to us that the sounds of a Paganini caprice are also difficult to realize on a violin? From the standpoint of sexual selection theory, this is no issue: virtuosity, craftsmanship, and the skillful overcoming of difficulties are intrinsic to art as display. And difficulty isn’t all: art also involves costliness. Miller quotes Thorstein Veblen: “The marks of expensiveness come to be accepted as beautiful features of the expensive articles.” As much as this might go dead against the modernist devaluing of skill and cost as central to the concept of art, it is in line with persistent reactions to art as we can understand the record of them for the last 10,000 years, showing up in the popular liking of skillful realistic painting, musical virtuosity, and expensive architectural details. This may not justify the philistinism of asking how much a famous museum painting is worth, but it does explain it.

Again, admiration for the ability to do something difficult is not unique to art: we admire athletes, inventors, skillful orators or jugglers. Miller is claiming that this is at least as much intrinsic to art as it is to any other field of human endeavor. He cites Ellen Dissanayake’s much-discussed notion of “making special” as essential to the arts. But whereas she sees making special as something that tends to promote an intense communal sense in a hunter-gatherer group, he interprets the phenomenon as more connected with display: “Indicator theory suggests that making things special means making them hard to do, so that they reveal something special about the maker.” It follows that almost anything can be made artistic by executing it in a manner that would be difficult to imitate. “Art” as an honorific therefore “connotes superiority, exclusiveness, and high achievement.” Cooking as a mundane productive activity is one thing; elevate it to “the art of cooking” and you emphasize its potential to be practiced as a skill and achievement that could be a useful fitness indicator. Miller adds to this a mordant comment: it is because artistic activity is an important fitness display that people will argue so passionately about whether something is or is not a work of art. Thus might the whole philosophical sub-field of aesthetics be understood as an extension of courtship rituals.

Miller is aware just how controversial these ideas are. He grants that these days artistic elites may prefer abstraction to representation, but it is in the history of the tastes of hoi polloi that we’re going to find the keys to the origin of the arts. So the vulgar gallery comment, “My kid could paint better than that,” is vindicated as valid from the standpoint of sexual selection, and can be expected to be heard in popular artistic contexts for the rest of human time: people are not going to “learn” from their culture that skill doesn’t count (any more than they will learn that general body symmetry does not indicate fitness). Moreover, even with the elites it’s really not so different: the skill-discriminations of elites are simply accomplished at a more rarefied level. Cy Twombly’s blackboard scribbles, which look to many ordinary folk like, well, children’s blackboard scribbles, are viewed by high-art critics such as Arthur Danto as demonstrating an extremely refined artistic skill. That the works do not obviously show skill to the uninitiated simply demonstrates that they are being produced at a level that the unsophisticated cannot grasp. The esoteric nature of art, and with it status and hierarchy, thus remains in place.

A book such as this, if it is to be taken seriously, should be able to gain some traction in traditional philosophy of art. And so it does. How pleasant to read a work on the origins of art that has resonances with Aristotle (the human delight in skillful representation and story-telling), Kant (the idea of a sensus communis, a universal, hard-wire response to art), and Hume (works of art can have cross-cultural appeal, and pass the Test of Time by showing attractiveness to succeeding generations of art audiences). One curious connection I noticed concerns a classic of modern aesthetics, The Concept of Criticism, by Francis Sparshott (long out of print, but recently brought back by the Sparshott fans at the Internet publishing company www.cybereditions.com). Sparshott’s book contains an unusual but compelling thesis: that all art, and not just the so-called performing arts, is in some sense performance. Indeed, aesthetic criticism is also performance — critical performance about artistic performance. He doesn’t say it, but perhaps any art-appreciative display could be performance too. There is nothing cynical in the way Sparshott expresses this. The vast world of art contains many authentic pleasures, and they are not just the pleasures of showing off, or intimidating others with demonstrations, true or false, of erudition. What Sparshott is saying is that the world of art is shot through with the assessment and evaluation of human action at all levels: how good was that pianist? Isn’t that one of Liszt’s corniest pieces? Wasn’t the audience cold and unresponsive? How could the Times’s critic write something as silly as that? That was a terrific review — it taught me a lot. For Sparshott, writing in complete innocence of sexual selection theory, the world of art is saturated with something that resonates strikingly with Miller’s account of the way in which all manner of activities associated with art invite value judgments of one kind or another.

However, Miller’s way of approaching this thesis goes temporarily off the rails when he needlessly adopts the cynical reading of such art-related behavior. In fact, he begins at one point to sound rather surprisingly like an old-fashioned Marxist: high-art taste simply expresses and is used to enforce status distinctions (the Marxist would drop in the word “bourgeois” at this point). “With folk aesthetics,” he says, “the focus is on the art-object as a display of the creator’s craft.” In the aesthetics of the educated elite, on the other hand, “the focus is on the viewer’s response as social display.” This is not an acceptable generalization about the essential nature of high-art discourse. Of course, we all know that people sometimes strain to appear knowledgeable and sophisticated at gallery openings and concert intermissions. We know too that bad critics can be more interested in flowery displays of verbal fluency than in the works they write about. But to imagine that such display is therefore the only function of educated appreciation and criticism is wrong. Example: Jane has to drive her rented car from Denver to Albuquerque. Out of range of radio stations, she finds a CD of the Pastoral Symphony in the glove compartment. Listening to it while she crosses an empty Western landscape, she’s transported, experiencing the purest, most intense pleasure music can produce. How, pray, does sexual selection figure in explaining this? Is her pleasure something connected with an admiration of the composition-display of Beethoven? Seems implausible, as does an explanation that she is taking pleasure in the performance-display of the orchestra. It is one thing to say that our huge brains and tendencies to take an evaluative interest in artistic displays have sources in Pleistocene interests in the qualities of potential mates. It’s another thing to reduce those present pleasures solely to such Pleistocene interests. High-art criticism and discourse, even taken as display, is about a real, substantive experience that people have, to greater or less intensity. It is about the pleasure of art.

If you accept his line on this, you might as well argue that Geoffrey Miller himself wrote The Mating Mind for sexual display, thereby implying that the subject content of the book itself has no particular intrinsic fascination. (And what’s the authentic “folk aesthetics” analogue to Miller’s scholarly, elitist performance? Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus?) The problem is that Miller has at this point forgotten his own recommendation in his chapter on the virtues. There he argues, very persuasively, that such virtues as kindness, bravery, and generosity have also been sexually selected for. He is quick to point out that this does nothing to discredit the moral status or validity of these attributes. We possess such virtues, and have selected mates with them, because they have romantic appeal. But because they evolved as sexual ornaments does not mean that every time we exhibit them we are engaged in sexual display. Miller says that “we must remember that a sexual function is not a sexual motivation.” Fine so far, but even this falls short of what should be claimed: the exercise of the virtues does not in normal, daily human life have a sexual function at all, let alone a sexual motivation. It at best has a social function, if it can be said to have a function at all. With courting couples, mutual kindness can serve a sexual display function (as can courting men leaving big tips on restaurant tables). But kindness, like the pleasures of art, is a big-ticket item in the inventory of human pleasure and interests. It cannot be reduced to a courtship behavior, even if courtship behavior might have established its prominent positions in the repertoire of human virtues in the first place.

There is too much slippage of this sort in The Mating Mind. It is one thing to give a intriguing explanation of the origins of some proclivity, such as the human will to create synonyms to extravagant excess, in terms of Pleistocene sexual selection. From this, it’s a mistake to suggest that everyone today who walks out of a bookshop with a guide to a bigger vocabulary is somehow on the make with a potential sexual partner (or even trying to ascend a career ladder with a display of verbal sophistication). Forget about sex for a minute: knowing what words mean in ever larger numbers makes it possible to read with greater comprehension and hence more enjoyment; that’s a good in and of itself. Even if the origin of the propensity is sexual, it may well be that neither the motivation nor the function is sexual for the person who today tries to learn more words. Exercising this capacity presents itself as an intrinsic pleasure without the slightest present connection to sex, except in human prehistory.

Miller’s uncertainty on this issue is underscored by some light-hearted remarks he makes at the end of the book about the human attitude toward knowledge and science. We’ve evolved pretty good responses to the physical world, with a sound understanding of mass and momentum, an intuitive grasp of plants and animals, and fairly good inferential capacities. But take us out of the practical, everyday exigencies of life, and we become instant suckers for ideologies that are “entertaining, exaggerated, exciting, dramatic, pleasant, comforting, narratively coherent, aesthetically balanced, wittily comic, or nobly tragic.” Thanks to sexual selection, we ended up with big brains that are hungry for news and gossip, religion, urban myths, political ideas, wishful thinking and pseudoscience. We like such information, but we’re not very good at fact checking.

This may be a fair description of a considerable slice of humanity, call it homo tabloidus, but what about legitimate science? How did it manage to carve such an important place for itself in this welter of flashy fiction and seductive superstition? Miller’s peculiar answer is that science itself is a “set of social institutions for channeling our sexually selected instincts for ideological display in certain directions according to strict rules.” Science concentrates on intellectual display (instead of sport, art, charity, and other displays), and even uses its forums for display to single young people (in undergrad teaching). It’s jarring to hear the normally Freudian term “channeling” introduced here, but it is part of the hydraulic-system model of mind that has temporarily taken hold of Miller’s argument at this point. In any event, these pages, like some of those on art, deny the reader any sense that doing science might somehow, at least for some people on some occasions, be purely its own reward.

Still, as Miller rightly points out, nature has never felt under any obligation to explain to us why it has designed us the way we are. Ripe fruits taste sweet and pleasurable, while rotting meat repels us, for sound biological reasons. But there need be no directly intelligible connection between a felt pleasure or pain and its true evolutionary origins, no connection available to mere introspection. So we find great pleasure in pastimes such as art and music, in probing conversation with charming company, in displays of athletic prowess, in an inventive metaphor or a well-told story. These pleasures too require an explanation, and so far sexual selection theory provides one of the most plausible and refreshing accounts we have. Contemporary art theory cannot afford to turn its back on The Mating Mind.


Copyright 2000 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.