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The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

3.8  ·  Rating Details ·  1,538 Ratings  ·  78 Reviews
In a groundbreaking new book that does for art what Stephen Pinker's The Language Instinct did for linguistics, Denis Dutton overturns a century of art theory and criticism and revolutionizes our understanding of the arts.

The Art Instinct combines two fascinating and contentious disciplines—art and evolutionary science—in a provocative new work that will change forever the
Hardcover, 278 pages
Published December 23rd 2008 by Bloomsbury Press
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Community Reviews

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Lazarus P Badpenny Esq
Occasionally irate academic becalmed in his own backwater mentality fails to deliver the book this subject deserves.

Thank God it's over. Like this book, life's too short to waste another moment on such a risible act of narrow-minded scholarship [an oxymoron if ever there was one:], suffice to say it was rife with under-argued assumptions and intermittently self-contradictory. Yet, paradoxically, if the experience had been prolonged it may have been less painful. In a longer, better book every la
Jun 23, 2009 Kathryn rated it did not like it
Shelves: nonfiction
I began this book with unbounded optimism, excited to hear a Darwinian take on the human drive for creativity. I liked some of the information, like Dutton's ideas on how storytelling helped our Pleistocene ancestors survive their hunter/gatherer lifestyle or the ways our ancestors may have come to enjoy certain types of landscapes over others. I was slightly less excited about Dutton's take on postmodern ethnography and his weird repetition of the physical characteristics of women as they apply ...more
Al Bità
May 09, 2013 Al Bità rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
The Arts have been with us a long time, starting, perhaps, with language and story telling, dance, musical sounds, cave paintings, etc. Ditto regarding speculation on them: as early, at least, as Pythagoras and music. In general, each of these disciplines have developed and flourished more or less independently (or so we have been lead to believe) culminating in reaching alleged apexes (within specific cultures and racial groupings) determined more or less in the 19th-century. But it was really ...more
Duncan Berry
Apr 28, 2012 Duncan Berry rated it liked it
A modestly competent popularization of the evolutionary psychology of artistic expression.

While there is a fairly decent representation of more recent speculations on the topic — the survival-, fitness- and sexual selection-value of artistic "activity — Dutton completely ignores the notion that the idea of an "art instinct" has a long and glorious pedigree outside the Darwinian intellectual trajectory.

When I was first thinking about these matters as an undergrad in the late-70s, there was only o
Jan 22, 2014 Billy rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
I suspect that portions of this work were written while drunk, given the blazing confidence of some of its assertions. Dutton's exploration of what primitive, evolutionarily-derived characteristics of the human species drive our interest in making and appreciating art today is built on two premises that permeate (to the point of stifling the analysis, in my view) the exercise: (1) that there is a definable, intrinsic and essential human nature; and that (2) there is a definable, intrinsic ...more
Dec 28, 2010 Jeff rated it really liked it
For the past 50 years or so, most discussions about art and its meanings have been based in either semiotics or phenomenology. Discourse either focused on how art (in whatever medium) functioned as a language, or it focused not on the construction of art but rather the experience of the perceiver. Denis Dutton's book is part of a new trend (particularly popular in the UK, Australia & New Zealand it seems) to examine the notion that artmaking and art enjoying are part of a deeply ingrained ...more
Mar 16, 2011 Avery rated it did not like it
Shelves: gave-up-on
I started reading this book because of a blurb on the Arts and Letters Daily site. It looked intriguing, and I was very interested in the subject.

I finished the intro and that was enough for me. I agree with the premise (that art is an innate evolutionary trait) but disagree with the approach he took. Perhaps it is because I am an anthropology student, but I do not think you can take a cross-cultural approach to anything. While it is true that there are similarities and comparisons between cultu
Nov 17, 2011 Simone rated it it was ok
While Dutton's theories are interesting, I find he relies to often on singular sources of knowledge, specifically Steven Pinker. While I understand Dutton is modelling his theory loosely on Pinker's developments in linguistics as an evolutionary adaptation/instinct, I think the subject matter of art as a human instinct and not a culturally infused by-product of evolution demands a wider array of sources and scientific research. Dutton also takes a significantly long-winded approach to his ...more
Ben Babcock
I am at war with myself. The feminist in me, who has been taking philosophy courses and reading books that challenge contemporary notions about gender, regards much of culture as a construction, something abstract and even arbitrary that we should alter to improve the status of various groups of people. The scientist in me, who reads books about genetics and ponders how amazing it is that we're programmed to learn how to talk but have developed writing as a skill, not an innate ability. These tw ...more
Jun 12, 2012 Liviania rated it liked it
If you can't tell, I don't read much non-fiction for pleasure. I love learning about things, but I usually save that for school and use my reading time for other pursuits. However, THE ART INSTINCT appeared to combine two of my favorite things, genetics and the arts. Unfortunately it is not friendly to casual reading. Denis Dutton's authorial voice is rather dry and unengaging.

Various ideas caught my attention, but I didn't really get into his argument until the 8th chapter (Intention, Forgery,
Lauren Albert
There are basic logic problems here but I think Dutton's book is worth reading even if you don't agree with his theories. I like books that give me something to think about.

I tend to be a Dantonian (to coin a term)--I mostly agree with Danto's institutional theory of art. To give an example, Dutton uses his 12 criteria of "art" to look at Duchamp's readymades and to "decide" if they are truly art. He writes, "On a numerical calculation of items on the cluster criteria list, not to mention the o
Oct 11, 2014 Dave rated it liked it
My main interest in reading this was to try to figure out at what point art becomes too much. Or to put it another way, how much cultural fluff needs to be stripped away for us to be sustainable? The author doesn't focus on this too much, and I wasn't really expecting him to. This is mostly just him trying to make a case for artistic interests being innate to humanity rather than just a result of cultural values. While he does spend a lot of time in bullshit territory, I do at least agree with ...more
Steven Peterson
Jul 06, 2009 Steven Peterson rated it liked it
This is a well written work, accessible to a general audience, on the linkage between art and evolution. Up front, Dutton contends that (Page 1): "It is time to look at the arts in the light of Charles Darwin's theory of evolution--to talk about instinct and art."

The book begins with reference to a study that found that humans across many cultures seemed to prefer a very similar type of painting--a landscape with people, animals, water, with a preference for the color blue being a part of the w
Benjamin Featherston
Denis Dutton sets out to address a challenging question; how do the Arts, with their excesses and disconnections from the real world, relate to human evolutionary history? Given that evolution manufactures no trait in a vacuum, and punishes any creature which is not attuned to its environmental realities, Arts and Survival should be forces at odds. Instead, Dutton builds a persuasive argument for how human artistic preferences and practices assisted human survival in the Paleolithic era, and how ...more
Nov 09, 2010 Kyle rated it liked it
Shelves: art, science, nonfiction
The thesis of Dutton's The Art Instinct is that aesthetics can be understood in very rational terms as a product of human evolution. He uses the muscular prose of a good, strong-minded, confident scientific/intellectual argument, while also remaining crystal clear and (somehow) delicate. Still, the book never completely coalesces into an effective work.

I admire the audacity and provocation at the core of an argument like his -- marrying the seemingly cloudy and subjective (what is beautiful, int
Bill Gusky
Jul 08, 2012 Bill Gusky rated it liked it
OK I bagged this about 4/5 through. By that time I felt as though I'd gotten all I was going to get out of it.

The author spends an inordinate amount of time correcting what he views as the mistakes of other anthropologists, mistakes that are not in the forefront of consideration for anyone who isn't also an anthropologist.

Meanwhile the author's intense focus on Darwin for pretty much every reference to adaptation is exhausting, considering that biologists have advanced so far beyond the basic i
Aug 17, 2009 Nat rated it liked it
Dutton wants to turn attention away from marginal artistic "hard cases" like Duchamp's readymades that dominate contemporary aesthetic debates back to central features of art. He argues that art is a "cluster concept", meaning that it isn't defined by a single set of necessary and sufficient conditions, but that central, canonical art works satisfy twelve different criteria, from the demonstration of skill to the production of "imaginative experience", and less central examples (like the ...more
Jan 26, 2013 Ryan rated it it was ok
Does Dutton know that art is created during times of affluence? To suggest that since the birth of man, humans have been creating for the sake of creating is confounding. He toes the line: asserting ceramic bowls are somehow more than ceramic bowls. Skill and creative ability is present and necessary in some ancient crafts, and can represent the snapshot of a culture, making it important in its own right, but sometimes a bowl is still a fucking bowl! The idea that there is an over-arching, ...more
Aug 06, 2010 Sieran rated it it was amazing
Shelves: popular-science
This was definitely amazing. :) :)

So easy to read, yet so richly, DELICIOUSLY informative--no, INSIGHTFUL! XD XD Just the PERFECT balance for a popular science/ philosophy book. :) :)

My favorite chapter of all, was of course "Uses of Fiction" :D :D :D :D :D Oh gosh, it's intensifying my hunger to read more literary classics! XD XD

I just love how Denis Dutton gives a UNIVERSAL explanation of our passion for art, rather than sticking to "culturally relativistic" ones--which I simply hate. Also, it
Jun 21, 2015 Nish rated it really liked it
I used to read Arts & Letters daily quite often and learned that the editor had died. I checked out Dutton's book on the possible evolutionary roots of aesthetics and the arts. The book begins with a meditation on America's Most Wanted, a painting in the mid-90s by expat Soviet artists Komar and Melamid. The work was commissioned to satisfy the preferences of Americans through polls, focus groups, and other surveys. What follows is a pastiche of "desired images" that patch together to create ...more
Curtis Butturff
Should prove an interesting argument. Basically it's making a case that what we like in art (and other venues presumably) aesthetically isn't a social convention that it is in fact hardwired genetically. I'll confess up front I'm skeptical of this as an end all argument. Certainly we have evolved to see a particular part of the wavelength spectrum of light there is no denying an underlying linkage to taste. I am just not likely to be sold there is nothing to the social construct theory of it. ...more
Nelson Zagalo
A masterpiece, and a mind-bending work. Denis Dutton faced criticism from the entire continent of art theorists to research and publish his work. As evolution theory continues to be doubted and critiqued by sceptics, trying to extend its rules and naturalism to the arts, is not only an act of bravery, but also of pure scientific curiosity. Humanities have lacked for too long a scientific foundation, Dutton opened here a new avenue for critical thinking. As Steven Pinker states in the back cover ...more
Jul 23, 2011 Alan added it
I liked it a lot. It provides an evolutionary explanation of art that's more satisfying than cheescake for other senses and goes beyond Steven Pinker's and other efforts that I'm aware off. But the latter part was not as satisfying as the beginning as Dutton seemed to shift from evolutionary and scientific evidence toward what I guess is more traditional philosophy of art. The book explains more than any other that I know, but I hope some empiricist keeps working on this and writes one that goes ...more
Alexi Parizeau
Jun 30, 2015 Alexi Parizeau rated it really liked it
This book is often cited, so it was nice to read what the fuss was all about. It actually does a decent job of discussing art/beauty/evolution, but ultimately I think it falls short of making a convincing case for why we must have an "art instinct". In fact, instead of showing that an art instinct exists in humans, I think Dutton instead succeeds at illustrating why this subject requires a more rigorous investigation (which indeed others have done, primarily in the new field of ...more
Mar 20, 2016 Greg rated it it was amazing
A lucid, engaging, and scientifically-informed exploration of how our evolutionary past shapes our intuitions about art. This understanding enhances our appreciation of art, rather than cheapening it. Dutton is a consummate appreciator of art, generally, and his treatment of, say, modernist music is much more comprehensive than certain writers who have a more scientific background. It has changed my attitude toward sophisticated art, which I had previously dismissed as an outgrowth of the ...more
Jul 14, 2011 David rated it really liked it
So why are the best selling calendars in Africa made up from scenes in the foothills of North America? Why are snake statues placed on buildings to frighten away birds in New Zealand when there are no snakes in the country? What makes us like art? Dutton brings several almost unconnected elements together to build his theory. I'm not sure he answers everything he brings up (or I buy it) but he made me stop to ponder quite a few things about art and culture.

Sadly he passed away recently. A wise m
May 18, 2010 Mike rated it really liked it
This book is no good if you're not interested in learning something cool every paragraph or so.

One thing to recommend it: The dude actually defines art (or at least gives several criteria for distinguishing art from, say, cooking and basketball). Turns out he comes down on the side of common sense and against haughty and high-flung art theories, though he does so from a remarkably original and intersting vantage point.

Which is cool.
Nov 06, 2012 Flora rated it did not like it
Shelves: art
Picked it up and finish the intro...looks very opinionated and provocative.

I finished it after a slog through the many names and side trips that Dutton makes to prove his thesis, that we have an innate sense of art. Dutton has some interesting ideas, i.e. we enjoy landscapes with 44 percent blue in them. You have to read him to get to the point.

I would not recommend this unless you want a course on art philosophy and thought.
El arte ha evolucionado como una respuesta evolutiva para resolver problemas de adaptacion y supervivencia principalmente selecionado por el mecanismo de la seleccion sexual. El placer estetico, los valores esteticos, la belleza, las preferencias y los gustos etc. se pueden entender desde los principios de la evolucion darwiniana encontradose algunas caracteriticas del arte como universales y transculturales. Se puede definir que es el arte, que no lo es, juzgar el arte...
Jul 18, 2011 Steve rated it really liked it
Makes the case for the evolutionary basis of the creation and appreciation of art in all its forms primarily through sexual selection starting in the Pleistocene era. Interesting fact: it has been about 500 generations since the invention of agriculture but the just prior Pleistocene era encompassed 80,000 generations. So even invisible seemingly adaptations over a few generations can be effected on this scale. A 1% change can evolve over the entire population in 30 generations.
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Denis Dutton was the founder and editor of the immensely popular Web site Arts and Letters Daily, named by the Guardian as the “best Web site in the world.” He also founded and edited the journal Philosophy and Literature.
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