Dutton, an aesthetic philosopher best known as the curator of the Web site Arts & Letters Daily, sets out to do for art what Steven Pinker and others have done for psychology, language, and religion: consider it from a Darwinian standpoint. Along the way, he gives an engaging, if opinionated, survey of various currents in aesthetic debate; it is perhaps unavoidable that he seems on more solid foundations here than in the realm of science. When trying to assess whether artistic impulses should be considered adaptive or merely by-products of the evolutionary process, a crucial question raised by his approach, he argues by analogy and tries to have it both ways. But the book is ultimately animated less by its grand thesis than by all the questions tossed up along the way�why did no art form develop to exploit smell, as music does hearing?�and by Dutton�s infectious and wide-ranging love of art, a passion that clearly goes beyond anything that could be considered an adaptive trait.
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We talk about the maternal instinct and the mating instinct, why not, asks Dutton, the art instinct? We are a species “obsessed with creating artistic experiences,” so surely there’s a coded-in-our-genes reason for that. Darwinian concepts have been applied with illuminating effect to psychology, history, and politics, why not art? And who better to attempt this mind-expanding analysis than Dutton, a professor of aesthetics and the philosophy of art, and founder and editor of Arts & Letters Daily, named the “best Web site in the world” by the Guardian. Creative, nimble, and entertaining, Dutton discusses landscape art, pottery, Aristotle, forgeries, and ready-mades. Rigorous in his definition of the “signal characteristics” of art and application of evolutionary science, Dutton identifies cross-cultural commonalities in art, explicates our innate feel for images and stories (devoting an entire chapter to the “uses of fiction”), and explores art’s role in individual expression and community cohesiveness. Marshaling intriguing examples and analogies in a cogent, animated argument destined to provoke debate, Dutton formulates the best answer yet to the question, “What’s art good for?” --Donna Seaman