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The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  1,854 ratings  ·  93 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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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
Gretchen Rubin
A fascinating, thought-provoking, controversial argument for why we love art.
Al Bità
May 09, 2013 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
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
May 17, 2009 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
Flynn Evans
Aug 13, 2019 rated it really liked it
A compelling case for the necessity of art and beauty from a purely Darwinian perspective. While I’m still not fully convinced, Dutton’s work does well in explaining the utilitarian aspects to aesthetics that many too readily neglect.
Duncan Berry
Apr 28, 2012 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 03, 2014 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 essenc ...more
Apr 11, 2010 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 ancest ...more
Jul 14, 2011 rated it really liked it
Shelves: art
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
Jerry Wall
Mar 15, 2020 rated it really liked it
Art, as a subject of awe, wonder, revelation, emotion, appreciation, and more, has been with us since we developed sentience. This book traces with support from evolution as explained by Darwin and others how the appreciation of a landscape vista or a well sung song or well played musical instrument, follows an evolutionary path.
Book subtitle -- Beauty, Pleasure and human evolution is telling and compelling.

Children "grow" language as a natural extension of mental life. p. 30

And along the way t
James Hill
Dec 14, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This book has given me a desire to read classical literature again. I was an English major in college before I dropped out, which I did in part because of the experience of being an English major. It was not because of the realization that there are no jobs for English majors, because nobody goes into that field expecting to make money and I certainly wasn't expecting to. It was because I could not stand the approach to reading literature that English programs promote. They teach you nothing abo ...more
Aldo Ojeda
Aug 13, 2017 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: psychology, art
There are two main ways in which evolution works: natural selection and sexual selection. Dutton argues that our sense of aesthetics and our apreciation of art come from the later (in the afterword, he points out that it also comes from group selection, but that's a contentious theory and not everyone agrees, myself included, that group selection even exists). Art, the author says, is fitness signaling, in the same way a colourful bird is saying 1) "I'm healthy, look at my feathers!" and 2) "eve ...more
Feb 24, 2019 rated it liked it
Overlaps with other stuff I've read recently, but still a fair amount of good unique information (especially in way it applies concepts to particular art examples). Many of the most important arguments for aesthetic grounds and ways we should talk about the arts I agree with, but I think the book more served to clarify my thoughts on topics than to introduce me to new ones. Furthermore, I think Dutton is profoundly wrong that "evolutionary psychology" can be the bedrock of study of the arts. Wha ...more
Feb 15, 2020 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: dnf
Frankly I found this book borderline offensive in a myriad of ways. You’d be better off reading some armchair theories on reddit. This is just a long one that got published somehow.

I kept starting and stopping this book until finally I dnfed roughly half way through when it became clear to me that there’s not much substance here, academically. Most of what I got is women bad (seriously wtf is his problem?) and the western concepts of art are the universal benchmark....which is asinine.
Save you
Sep 28, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
This book presented a really interesting idea, and while I largely followed the argument, there were little to no citations or explanations of scientific articles, studies, or hypotheses, just artistic ones. I think this book would have been a lot stronger if it rested less on speculation and more on demonstrating scientific theories.
Josh Eckert
Mar 14, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I've read it multiple times. It's the best, most comprehensive book on the psychology of art (and I've read them all). It stands alone--it makes sense if you haven't read anything of the psychology or philosophy of art. ...more
James Earle
Jun 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
It's arrogant and cliche at times, but overall good. ...more
Taylor Prewitt
Oct 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
Really thought-provoking, gets the gears turning about the place of art in our lives as physiological beings.

Especially liked the parts about fiction.
Jan 04, 2020 rated it liked it
Shelves: art, evolution
The most popular favorite color in the world is blue (14)
Dec 23, 2020 rated it it was amazing
I’ve created a review on my podcast. Please go check out my podcast: Influential Creative Minds. You can find it on Spotify and most other podcast platforms.
Sep 25, 2011 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 explan ...more
Kara 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
Feb 01, 2009 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 10, 2014 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 t ...more
Steven Peterson
Jul 06, 2009 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
Nov 08, 2009 rated it liked it
Shelves: nonfiction, art, science
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
Jun 20, 2012 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 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 readyma ...more
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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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