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2010-06-02
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms

Suppose that X is an evolutionary adaptation.  Can one infer, prima facie, that it is good?  The consensus in philosophy is that one cannot.  Reflecting on Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct made me reconsider. 

Here, in very schematic form, is the argument that cuts against the consensus:

1.     Suppose that X is an adaptation to circumstances C.  (E.g: the heart is an adaptation to the need for oxygenated blood throughout the body.)

2.     From a scientific account that shows why X is an adaptation, we can (usually?) derive a function-attribution of the form: F is a function of X.  (E.g.: oxygenation and pumping of blood are functions of the heart.)

3.     If F is a function of X, and A is an X that does not perform F, then A is a bad X. (E.g.: a heart that doesn’t pump and oxygenate blood properly is a bad heart.)

Suppose that some human practices are adaptations.  Specifically, suppose that art is one.   Then by 2 above we may conclude that art has a function.  Suppose that work of art A does not perform that function.  Then, by 3 above, work of art A is deficient.

Dutton (who does not give the above argument) argues that an evolutionary account of art would be a source of critical norms.  The above argument supports him.

I want to emphasize that the conclusion of the above argument is defeasible.  It could be argued that art acquires new functions as human culture grows.  If so, works that fall short of the evolutionary functions of art may nevertheless be good.  My question is whether conclusions drawn from 3 are prima facie correct.

(Interactions with Dutton and Justine Kingsbury prompted this post.)


2010-06-03
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen
RE: "Suppose that some human practices are adaptations.  Specifically, suppose that art is one"

What would art be an adaptation to? (ie What would justify the assumption that it is an "adaptation" to anything?)

DA

2010-06-03
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Derek Allan
Hi Derek,

That's an interesting question. 

Dutton's view follows Miller, The Mating Game, who argues that art is a product of sexual selection -- that men produce it in order to demonstrate their fitness to women, who therefore appreciate it.

In my view, the universality of art argues that it is an adaptation of some sort -- though I am sceptical of the sexual selection view.  One possible alternative view is that producers of art are encouraged in social groups -- this view has the advantage of giving very little specific content to the adaptive value of art.  Correspondingly, this view will produce very little by way of beefy critical norms.

I was wondering about the general question though.  Philosophers are generally sceptical, or at least conservative, about oughts following from facts.  I was wondering whether my argument provided a bridge.  It should be noted that my argument does not imply that art is good, but that facts about evolution may imply norms concerning what is good art.

Mohan

2010-06-04
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen

Hi Mohan

I am very sceptical about the claim that art is an “adaptation”.

I confess I find it hard even to take the “Mating Game” argument seriously. Why would art be a good indicator of "fitness"? If Stone Age women were just looking for "fitness", wouldn't they have preferred, say, ability to hunt, or run fast – or, more likely, the guy who happens to be well-built and good-looking? Why choose the (maybe effete) guy whose sole claim to fame is that he can carve a reindeer bone or paint bison on a cave wall? My reading of the history of art certainly doesn’t suggest that artists have been unusually successful in the “mating game”. Quite often they were disasters at it. (And histories of art mostly just talk about artists who became famous. What about the hundreds of thousands of others?)

If we move to the global level, there is no evidence I’m aware of that art has been a net benefit to the sum of human happiness. Art has, for example, often been closely associated with religion, and religion, as we are so often told these days, has been a major contributor to human misery. So maybe art aided and abetted that?  If so, it's hard to see how we could call it an adaptation, since adaptations, as I understand it, are supposed to promote human well-being.

The “universality” argument is equally weak in my view. It is true that various kinds of art seem to have existed in most human societies, but how do we move from that to the claim that art is an "adaptation"? That would presumably imply that cultures with art thrived, and those without it didn’t. But we don't have any test cases – cultures that died out, or lasted for a shorter time, because they didn’t have art. So is the notion of adaptation being used in some unusual and/or imprecise sense?

The mere fact that something is – or appears to be - universal tells us very little about that thing in my view. Language is universal. But what do we learn about the nature of language from that? Schools of linguistics around the world often differ fundamentally about the nature of language, and just knowing it is universal doesn't seem to have helped overcome that. 

There are other problems but I’ll leave it there.  

DA



2010-06-04
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Derek Allan
Derek,

You are right to be sceptical about this claim.  It is highly controversial and contested, and deserves careful scrutiny.  If you want to see my own take on it, you'll find it in this draft of a critical notice of Dutton's book:

http://web.mac.com/mohanmatthen/Site/Mohan_Matthen_files/Art%20and%20Selection.doc

However, I was really concerned with the fact to norm argument via functions.  (And that's why I put my post in the aesthetics forum, rather than the philosophy of biology forum.) 

Take a practice P, whatever it might be -- language-use, say.  Say it is an adaptation, to whatever.  Extract from this a function of P -- call it F.  Is it correct to say that if all of that is right, an instance of P that doesn't perform F is a bad P?

Any help with that argument would be much appreciated.

best,

Mohan

2010-06-05
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen

Hi Mohan

I will have a look at your review. I should add that, while I have not read The Art Instinct, I am familiar with aspects of Dutton’s aesthetics and am not impressed. (I have included some comments on his work in my recent book). That’s why I haven’t read The Art Instinct and probably won’t. I did look at a couple of interviews he gave for it – which only confirmed my feelings on this. I am familiar with other arguments about art along evolutionary lines (e.g. Dissanayake) and frankly I think it’s all a dead end. (The "Mating Game" argument is worse than that: it's just silly.)

As for the general point, let’s say building igloos was an adaption to living in the Arctic. (I worry about the use of “adaptation” in cases like this. Is it the same as the Darwinian notion of adaptation? I doubt it. If not, what does it means exactly, and are we smuggling in a scientific notion where it is not warranted?)

But leaving that problem aside (and it is a problem), let’s say that shelter from the Arctic wind is a function of the igloo. Presumably, then, an igloo that doesn’t shelter from the wind (maybe it has a hole in the side) is a bad igloo. Seems an OK argument to me but I don’t really know what use it is. I certainly don’t think it helps with art since, as I’ve said, I don’t think it’s remotely warranted - or useful - to argue that art is an “adaptation” (assuming that we even know what that word means in the context)

 DA



2010-06-12
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen
Greetings, Mohan,
I think the argument needs to be made more precise. For example, you ask us to suppose that art is a human practice that is an adaption. Before more can be said, we need to know what you take art to be picking out. Presumably, when you say that "suppose that art is one (human practice)" you DO NOT ask us to suppose that ARTWORKS are human practices but rather that ART PRACTICE(S) is a human practice(s) (that is an adaptation). As such, I take it that the argument looks something like the following (very rough) argument:

1) Practice A is an art practice only if i) A is some human practice P and ii) P is an adaption.
2) If P is an adaption, then we can derive a function-attribution of the form: F is a function of P.
3) For all P, if a P is an A, then if F is a function of P, then F is a function of A. 
4) F is a function of A.   
5) If F is a function of A, then for all w, if w is the product of A, then F is a function of w.
6) w is an artwork only if w is the product of some art practice A.
7) If w is an artwork, then F is a function of w.
8) If F is a function of w, then if w cannot perform F, then w is to that extant deficient.
9) Any w that is the product of P and cannot perform F is to that extant a deficient product of that P.
10) If P is an A, then if w cannot perform F, then w is to that extant a deficient product of that A.
11) Any w that cannot perform F is to that extent a bad artwork.

The obvious flaw as I see it is premise 5). For example, we could easily imagine a case of a P for which merely engaging in the practice brings it about that the function is performed (rather than engaging with the products of that practice). That is, it doesn't follow that if F is the function of some practice P then F is also the function of the products of P. Consider the following crude example: Suppose that the function-attribution derived from the human practice of sport is the acquisition and refinement of hunting/martial skills. It surely doesn't follow that any football, tennis, cricket match that does not perform that function is thereby to that extent deficient qua sport. Moreover, even were it true of the practice, I would still find it at least prima facie absurd to think that this entails that any (let alone all) evaluative/critical norms constitutive of sport must be explainable fully or even in part in terms of the acquisition and refinement of hunting skills (e.g., that soccer is better than water polo qua sport to the extent that the skills acquired and refined in soccer are more useful with respect to hunting that those acquired and refined in water polo).

Likewise, taking art practices (assuming we can coherently and productively carve them out) to be adaptions doesn't itself entail or suggest anything about the constitutive critical norms governing their products (i.e., artworks). What makes an art practice good or bad qua practice (qua adaption) needn't have anything at all to do with what makes an artwork good or bad qua artwork, and so any account assuming implicitly or explicitly there to be such a connection simply conflates evaluative/critical norms for the practice (artworld institutions&practices) with those for product (artworks). At the very least, such a connection must be argued for rather than assumed.

That said, my own view is that establishing such a connection likely requires either abandoning philosophy for sociology or committing several rather nasty acts of art theoretical, semantic, and metaphysical violence. No doubt there is a fascinating evolutionary story to be told; however, to take it as anything more doesn't signal a leap from the arm chair into the lab but instead a substitution of arm-chair brow furrowing with arm-chair yarn spinning.        




2010-06-12
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Hi Christy,

I think that your distinction between the art-practice and the artwork is important, and deserves attention.  But we should recognize that in some cases of art-practice, the act of production may not be different from the product.  Music performance is both practice and product.  So the distinction you make is troublesome (for me) only in the case of what we might call the productive arts -- arts where the practice yields a product distinct from itself.  Music composition, painting, writing are example.

In my original post, I didn't say what the function of art was.  One way your distinction is important is that it forces me to take a certain line on this.  Here's how.

First, a heritable trait T has function F if T's performance of F allows T to be maintained in the population by natural selection.  (Notice this is not an origin statement, but a statement about what feature of T is causally responsible for the original and continued existence of T.)  The art-function thesis is that art-practice is based on (genetically) heritable skills, and that it is maintained in the population at least partially because it creates products of a certain sort -- call this sort of thing B.

Conceding the art-function thesis for the sake of the argument, I think we can go straight to a version of your premise 4:

4M.  A function of art-practice is the production of B-things.

Now, as you point out, 4M doesn't tell us much about the function of art-products.   For B-things may be valued for something else entirely.  The function of carpentry is the production of furniture -- but this doesn't tell us what the function of furniture is.  This is your point, I think, and it's a good one.

The irony is, however, that when you apply your distinction to art, it creates a puzzle.  Artworks are special in that they have no purpose or function other than themselves.  But this raises the question: how could it have been useful (in evolutionary terms) to produce things that do not contribute to physical well-being and reproduction?  Or to put it differently: how can anything other than a material advantage contribute to evolutionary fitness?

So far this is a reasonable puzzle, I think.  It runs parallel to the question of how altruism can have evolved -- since apparently altruism too fails to contribute to the physical well-being or reproduction of the practitioner.  Some answers to the altruism question are "arm-chair yarn spinning", as you say -- but non-empirical theorists have laid out what would have to be true if altruism did evolve.  And this is not mere yarn-spinning.

The working-heart of Dutton's thesis is that art-producers gain the evolutionary advantages of their practice only if the things they produce shows the mark of their authorship.  Only by producing things that display their authorship can they gain a material or reproductive advantage.  (Again, let's not go into this too deeply, since this would take us off our main track.)  This gives us something of the form:

7M.  A function of artworks is to display marks of the producer.

From 7M, you can derive some art-critical norms by the argument you provide. 

2010-06-13
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen

RE: "Artworks are special in that they have no purpose or function other than themselves.  But this raises the question: how could it have been useful (in evolutionary terms) to produce things that do not contribute to physical well-being and reproduction? Or to put it differently: how can anything other than a material advantage contribute to evolutionary fitness?"

First, what does it mean to say that artworks have "no purpose or function other than themselves"? Presumably, it implies that they have no obvious practical function (though religious art, for example, even had that). But why equate function with practical function?  Many philosophers of art have argued that art has important human functions.

Second, the quote above again raises the question of what adaptation means. We know fairly clearly what it means in the scientific context. It means that those mutations that conferred some kind of survival advantage tended to persist, and the species underwent a gradual change which preserved and built on said mutations. But note, this process affects a whole species.  So, for example, if we are talking about homo sapiens, the species – ie all its members - developed bipedal motion, not just a few of them.

How would one apply this thinking to a cultural phenomenon such as art? If art were an “adaptation” in the same sense, then presumably all humans would automatically be creators and admirers of works of art? But this, of course, is not what we find. In fact, only a small percentage like art, and an even tinier number make it.  It is very much the exception, not the rule.

So we must be talking about adaptation in some other, different sense. What sense? Presumably, we must be saying that whole cultures acquired better “evolutionary fitness” if they developed art. But how would we demonstrate this? Where are our test cases - those cultures that died out or showed less “evolutionary fitness” because they didn’t develop art? Clearly there are none. The evidence is non-existent. Moreover, one could easily argue that art has been as much a “bad adaptation” (to maul the scientific idea even further) as a good one. For millennia, art was closely allied with religion, and religion as we are so often told (rightly or wrongly) has contributed enormously to human suffering, religious wars etc.

In short, the idea that art is an "adaptation" or a contributor to "evolutionary fitness" strikes me as very fuzzy thinking. It is one of those cases where cultural/philosophical thought latches on to a scientific idea and (a) distorts it, and then (b) uses the distortion to make wild, baseless generalizations.

 DA


2010-06-13
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Derek Allan
PS to my last where I wrote: "It is one of those cases where cultural/philosophical thought latches on to a scientific idea and (a) distorts it, and then (b) uses the distortion to make wild, baseless generalizations."

In fact, when one thinks about it, there are clear echoes of social Darwinism. Taken to its logical conclusion, the argument suggests we could even "grade" cultures on the basis of whether they have more or less art. (We'll leave aside the slightly difficult question of its quality...) 

So, twenty-first century Western culture should presumably get very high marks because there is just so much art around these days - especially since we are told that the category is not limited to so-called "high art" but encompasses, for example, Hollywood films, and even video games.  On this basis, we are positively swimming in art!  Ergo, we must be extremely "advanced" and "well adapted" in evolutionary terms - almost certainly superior to any other culture, past or present! 

DA


2010-06-13
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Derek Allan
Derek,

Before I reply, can I say, in a genuinely puzzled way, that I don't know what to do about your tone.  I really don't mean that in a critical way, much less hostile -- but I can't help think that there's something going on here beyond thinking about art and evolution.   And I don't know what it is.  You surely do not mean to accuse ME of "fuzzy thinking" -- that was just an inadvertence.  Up until now I have tried to disregard the high rhetorical tone of your posts -- but I confess it's becoming more difficult.  Why not approach this discussion in a less confrontational manner?

Moving on . . .

First of all, I emphatically do not agree that a "only a small percentage [of humans] like art".  Unless you mean high art.  You just have to look at Facebook profiles to appreciate how many people love *their* music -- so many people emphasize ownership: it's their music they say they love.  Similarly visual art, which includes TV and movies, not to mention a lot of things on YouTube.  And what about blogs?  These are manifestations of a universal need for cultural consumption and expression, and you should no more think that it is discontinuous with high art than that the childish musings of young children about god and infinity are discontinuous with philosophy, or that their scrapbooks and journals are discontinuous with painting and writing by the great heroes of the western canon.

Secondly, I don't see the "art instinct" hypothesis as developed in response to evidence, as such.  It's not like positing Neptune on the basis of perturbations in the orbit of Uranus.  It is a puzzle why humans create and appreciate art, just as it is a puzzle why they care for others, even those unrelated to themselves, and are willing to give up their own well-being (doubtless in small ways) to benefit others.  The puzzle isn't generated by the method of difference that you suggest -- find societies that lack culture or art and compare them to others that possess it.  The puzzle is precisely why there are no such societies, just as there are no societies that lack language.  And while I think I agree with you that art, being allied to religion, was and is often a bad thing -- though are you saying that Giotto contributed to human suffering? -- I am not sure I understand why this reduces the puzzlement regarding the universality of art.  The art instinct hypothesis is a response to the puzzle, an attempt to find an explanation.

Again, I don't see why it's an anomaly that there are only a few artists.  Art, in all of its forms, emphasizes skill, high standards of production and display -- people consume it only when it is valorized by an august form of presentation.  (That's something that Dutton emphasizes -- and possibly it's the single most important thing in his book.)  This means that though I love to consume opera, for instance, I am (like most people I know) utterly incapable of producing it.  Nobody wants to consume tuneless cracked renditions of Mozart performed by some guy in his soiled pajamas.  And the same applies to rap.

As for this:

"So, twenty-first century Western culture should presumably get very high marks because there is just so much art around these days - especially since we are told that the category is not limited to so-called "high art" but encompasses, for example, Hollywood films, and even video games.  On this basis, we are positively swimming in art!  Ergo, we must be extremely "advanced" and "well adapted" in evolutionary terms - almost certainly superior to any other culture, past or present!"

I'll just take it as a jeu d'esprit.  You know that evolution is not equal to progress . . . and I don't think you can get that message out of anything I have said.

2010-06-14
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen
Hi Mohan

Sorry, I don't know what you mean by "tone".  I try to express my ideas clearly and forcefully - sometimes with a bit of what you call "rhetoric" too. Why not - if it helps get the point across? I always avoid anything ad hominem (the "fuzzy thinking" was obviously directed at the quality of the argument in question, not you), but apart from that, why talk as if one were at a tea party? Philosophy is to do with life. Why not give it some? 

Now, to the substance. Personally, I consider the notion of "high art" absurd. There is art, and there is the rest. I think I read recently that the average American reads one novel a year - or was it two? And even those are probably things like the da Vinci Code (or is that "low" art?)  As a proportion, the numbers of people in modern society with a genuine interest in art is very small. For every person who likes Mozart, there will be 10,000 who rave over the latest "rock band sensation".  Not long ago, in the city where I live, they put classical music over the public address system at bus exchanges to stop people loitering there. It worked a treat.

RE: "Secondly, I don't see the "art instinct" hypothesis as developed in response to evidence, as such". 
I'm not sure what evidence "as such" is, but are you really suggesting that one can advance a theory about the evolution of human societies and dispense with any evidence?  Even Dutton would surely baulk at that idea (though the "evidence" he produces is, in my experience, very questionable)

RE: "The puzzle is precisely why there are no such societies [that lack art], just as there are no societies that lack language."
Certainly it's a puzzle.  But where does that get us?  From there, we can just leap to the proposition that artists were better at "the mating game" and things of that ilk? - making sure we regard evidence as unnecessary. The universality of a cultural feature can mean any number of things; it doesn't necessarily mean that it's an evolutionary "adaptation". Theft, rape and murder are universal.

Re: "though are you saying that Giotto contributed to human suffering? " 
My point, as you can see, related to the phenomenon of art in general. But admirer of Giotto though I am, one can't rule out the possibility that his art, like all religious art, may have indirectly contributed to the fervour that goes into religious wars. That, of course, is not a criticism of his art - that would be silly.

RE: "Again, I don't see why it's an anomaly that there are only a few artists." 
It's an anomaly if one takes the idea of adaptation in a serious scientific sense, as I pointed out. So the inference has to be that the term is being used in some other, metaphorical way. But, as I indicated, that raises other, equally thorny, problems.

RE: "I'll just take it as a jeu d'esprit.  You know that evolution is not equal to progress . . ."

No it wasn't a jeu d'esprit. It was intended to highlight the absurdity of Dutton-like explanations. Certainly, the idea of evolution is different from the idea of progress, but the point I have been trying to highlight - a key philosophical point here - is that the idea of evolution is being misused, and/or being used in ways that make its meaning ambiguous and unclear. Personally, I think arguments like Dutton's trade on this lack of clarity. It's what gives them an air of plausibility.

I'm very sorry if these remarks have a "tone"...  

DA  

 

2010-06-14
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen
Greetings again, Mohan,
I think I see your point. Although I'm not familiar enough with The Art Instinct to make any informed commentary, I take it that you are saying something along the lines of the following:

One paradigmatic art-critical norm concerns originality (most would agree that at least ceteris paribus the greater the degree of originality the better the artwork). What might explain at least in part why we come to value originality so highly is that for at least some of the evolutionary advantages of certain (proto) art practices to have been conferred upon their practioners required the products (proto-artworks) of those (proto) art practices to display marks of their producers. So, if we assume 7M, then we can from it derive a sort of proto-notion of originality with which we can then at least in part explain why we now consider originality to be a paradigmatic art-critical norm.

Of course, the above is very crude, but am I more or less on track?


   


2010-06-14
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
RE: " for at least some of the evolutionary advantages of certain (proto) art practices to have been conferred upon their practioners required the products (proto-artworks) of those (proto) art practices to display marks of their producers"

I really don't know what "proto-art" is. I cannot recall ever having seen any, and I've seen a lot of art. Can you explain?

7M also intrigues me. It reads "A function of artworks is to display marks of the producer."

Why would this be a function of art? All kinds of things show the "marks of the producer" - a badly written essay, a break-in where the thief left his fingerprints, Mr Madoff's villainous financial scam, etc etc.

Moreover, there are vast quantities of art which carry no form of signature and whose producers are quite unknown - including very famous pieces like the Victory of Samothrace, the frescos at Ajanta, and the sculpture at Chartres. Not to mention nearly all Egyptian, African, Oceanic, and Pr-Columbian art, etc. Unless you mean that the "producers" happened to be known at the time. But even so, what valuable "function" could that circumstance have performed if the society in question judged their work inadequate and unworthy?  Presumably only that the members of said society would have known who not to ask next time!

DA




2010-06-14
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Hi Christy,

I think that is right -- and I thank you for helping to get me clear on it. 

One small amendment: it may be authorship, rather than originality, that this norm refers to.  Of course, originality implies authorship, but the converse is not always the case.  (I see that you have written about authorship -- I'll look it up before I publish my critical notice of Dutton.)

By the way, it is a puzzle for Dutton why pornography is not art, and also (as he insists) why very little, if any, erotic art is great art.  His treatment is not particularly convincing (to me).  I have a view -- and it runs against his main thesis about why art-production is adaptive.  I mention the view in the last section of my draft notice, available on my website, but it is merely sketched, not fully discussed.  I see you have written on this too, and that's another thing I must look up.

Thanks again,

Mohan


2010-06-14
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Derek Allan
Derek, "get the point across" says it all.  Conversation is about exchanging ideas, not about proselytizing.

You've helped me become clearer about an argument that still puzzles me.  Your clear and strong views on aesthetics are much appreciated.  Thanks. 

On the other hand, it is evident that you are not very well informed about philosophy of biology -- on the notion of progress in evolution, on polymorphisms (cf. "few artists"), on game theory (cf. theft vs art/altruism), on biological functions (cf how it can be a function of an artifact to bear the mark of your authorship), and even on abduction (why you can formulate a hypothesis without being prompted by antecedently favourable evidence). 

If you adopted a slightly less strident tone, you might get people to help you with these matters.  But as it is, I find that replying to you takes more psychic effort than it ought to, just to disregard your provocations and keep on-point.

best,

Mohan


2010-06-15
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen
Hi Mohan

All these mysterious references to the philosophy of biology are very intriguing. 

Could you please explain how any one of them - just one will do, if you like - bears on the issues we have been discussing?  (I would be hoping for a clear explanation of relevance, as distinct from a brief, cryptic reference, which, although I'm quite sure you don't intend it, could, by a less charitable soul than myself, perhaps be seen as a bluff.)

I should perhaps add that the key point I have been making - which so far you have not responded to - is precisely that biological analogies are out of place and misleading in the present context. I'm quite happy to assume that the philosophy of biology is relevant to biology (and I have no doubt that, as you suggest, you know much more about that topic than I do). My problem lies in the assumption, which you seem happy to make, that the philosophy of biology is relevant to art.

DA


2010-06-19
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen
One of the things this discussion shows is that we have barely begun to study the evolution of the arts.Similar basic principles underlie the evolution of the arts and species and technology - they all for example evolve from the simple to the complex - from systems with simple forms and sets of functions to those with complex forms and sets of functions. Which if you think about is more or less inevitable - you can't start building an extremely complex machine with loads of new inventions from scratch. These principles aren't laws - progress and the next step in evolution aren't guaranteed - but the general drift is bleeding obvious. And those who deny them are wasting time that could be spent studying and understanding them. We are just literally beginning to understand the evolution of technology - Brian Arthur has produced an excellent groundbreaking book on The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves.   http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/arthur09/arthur09_index.html   But he is just opening up a new field.   Isn't it time we had a serious discipline studying the evolution of the arts? With the main focus on how art forms themselves have developed, and the focus only secondarily on the "selection pressures" of audiences/markets/funding (or, God help us, mating) etc. ? 

What good works if any already exist on any aspects of the evolution of the arts?

2010-06-19
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mike Tintner
Hi Mike,

Evolution doesn't have to be biological for some of the more abstract principles of biological evolution to be germane -- principles drawn from population genetics and cladistics, for example. 

Donald Campbell, Boyd and Richerson, Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, and David Hull have, in different ways, talked about how such principles can be applied to non-biological change.  There are three basic ideas at work in this body of literature.  First (Campbell, Boyd and Richerson, Hull), look at statistical patterns of how ideas (memes) are retained and multiply (and don't concentrate on content).  Second, one can study how memes mutate -- and this implies a focus on similarity across technological change -- the QWERTY keyboard is often cited as an irrational persistence.  Finally (Cavalli-Sforza), there is an application of cladistics to reconstructing the history of languages and science.

This said, there are many kinds of "evolution", including simple historical progression, and the above-stated methods aren't always applicable.  I haven't studied Brian Arthur's work, but my impression is that he uses a variety of methods, including (but not restricted to) some taken from the biological theory of evolution.  (He is interested in mutation, I think: wasn't he one of the first to talk about QWERTY?) As far as I know, he is a multi-disciplinary historian of technology -- not an evolutionist as such.

I don't know what's been written on the arts in particular, but Lumsden and Wilson Promethean Fire and Richerson and Boyd Not by Genes Alone are relevant.  I understand that evolutionary psychology is attracting the interest of some literary theorists, but I have zero knowledge of what's being done over there. 

It isn't clear to me what kind of evolutionary study of the arts you are contemplating.  Certainly, "selection pressures" are only one aspect of the studies I mention above -- Campbell is concerned only with the analogue of fitness, i.e., reproduction rates -- but not with the pressures that produce it, and Cavalli-Sforza (and Hull, for that matter) are interested in cladistic patterns -- but again not selection pressures.  Arthur, as I understand him, a) is interested in selection pressures, and b) is also interested in explanatory factors in history of technology other than the evolutionary analogues mentioned above.  He is, moreover, interested in modularity, towards which you gesture in what you say about complexity.

Hope this speaks to your point.

cheers,

Mohan

2010-06-20
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mike Tintner

Hi Mike

You write: "One of the things this discussion shows is that we have barely begun to study the evolution of the arts. Similar basic principles underlie the evolution of the arts and species and technology - they all for example evolve from the simple to the complex - from systems with simple forms and sets of functions to those with complex forms and sets of functions..."

The suggestion that the arts have “evolved from the simple to the complex" is very questionable indeed. Are the paintings at Lascaux less “complex” than many modern works (such as many Matisses or Mondrians)? Picasso is reputed to have said on emerging from Lascaux the first time: “In twenty thousand years we have learnt nothing!" and even if the story is apocryphal it captures an important truth to my mind: that art proceeds by changes - metamorphoses - in style not by “evolution “or "progress". The latter idea is really a hangover from an era in which Western art - especially “representational” art - was seen as superior to the art of other cultures such as Africa, ancient Egypt etc. (One still find echoes of this thinking in earlier editions of Gombrich’s books for example).

The idea of complexity in art is, in any case, a very murky one. Is a very detailed 17th century Dutch still-life more “complex” than, say, one of Michelangelo’s Sibyls in the Sistine (which tend to have very little detail)? I for one would not want to defend that proposition.

I think it highly unlikely that the notion of evolution has any useful light to throw on our understanding of art – either generally or in specific cases.. Mohan’s recent suggestion that the QWERTY keyboard is in some way relevant seems quite bizarre to me. What is the QWERTY keyboard? One of umpteen technological inventions that humanity has made over the millennia – like the use of fire, the wheel, the clock, the light bulb, the internal combustion engine, the atomic bomb etc. Doubtless art is also inventive in its way, but that fact alone tells us very little about it, and it most certainly doesn’t link it to the idea of evolution.

Which reminds me: One thing we need to look out for in this debate, I think, is that various theories will try to piggy-back on the Darwinian notions of evolution, adaptation etc while twisting them beyond recognition – i.e. use the prestige of the ideas but distort their meaning. It would not be the first time that has happened in philosophy.

DA


2010-06-20
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Derek Allan

Derek, 

You stated, "I think it highly unlikely that the notion of evolution has any useful light to throw on our understanding of art – either generally or in specific cases".

 I really hope you are being hyperbolic because otherwise requires not only a fantastically parochial view of philosophical aesthetics itself but also a rather dim view of philosophical aesthetics with respect to its relevance to the rest of the philosophy. Look. I'll be the first to tell impertinent biologists to keep their noses out of my philosophy of art, but I also think that any responsible theory of art ought to at least be consistent with (if not grounded in) a responsible philosophy of science (and likewise, that any responsible philosophy of science (or metaphysics) must be able to make sense of art). The point is that you needn't be a dyed-in-the-wool methodological naturalist to think that philosophers of art would do well to look science-ward now and again. So, if you really think that philosophical aesthetics can continue to be a relevant and productive field of philosophy while simultaneously rejecting as in principle uninformative things like the application of evolutionary principles, then I'm afraid that your reasoning and the history of QWERTY have something in common.

On a side note, while I applaud your no doubt fierce desire to engage in philosophical debates of all kinds, you really do have a tendency to rub others the wrong way due to your often needlessly adversarial tone, tendency to straw-man all views other than your own, and overall fondness for making wildly irresponsible or ill-informed claims (to which you routinely take others to task for failing to respond).

For instance, in a previous post you more or less intimated that Mohan Matthen of all people was being willfully cryptic in an attempt to bluff knowledge of evolutionary principles. That required some cheek to be sure, but it also required a deliberate disregard for any sense of charity, decorum, responsibility, and genuine interest in what other folks have to say.

You are clearly an intelligent person and I have no doubt as to your philosophical acumen (I wouldn't be bothering if I thought otherwise), but the manner in which you apparently prefer to engage with others (at least in this venue) suggests that you take the goals of philosophical debate to be far less epistemically-oriented than do most others around these parts.

You are obviously capable of productive philosophical exchange, yet you routinely and needlessly make it the case that for those of us on the other side of any such exchange the return just isn't worth the effort. That's unfortunate.


Christy




2010-06-21
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Hi Christy

I'll skip all the ad hominem stuff.

You write: "I really hope you are being hyperbolic because otherwise requires not only a fantastically parochial view of philosophical aesthetics itself but also a rather dim view of philosophical aesthetics with respect to its relevance to the rest of the philosophy. Look. I'll be the first to tell impertinent biologists to keep their noses out of my philosophy of art, but I also think that any responsible theory of art ought to at least be consistent with (if not grounded in) a responsible philosophy of science (and likewise, that any responsible philosophy of science (or metaphysics) must be able to make sense of art). The point is that you needn't be a dyed-in-the-wool methodological naturalist to think that philosophers of art would do well to look science-ward now and again."

The problem with all this is that it is essentially rhetoric, not argument. Why should "any responsible theory of art ... at least be consistent with (if not grounded in) a responsible philosophy of science"?

And equally, Why must "any responsible philosophy of science (or metaphysics) be able to make sense of art"?

Naturally, any respectable theory of art should not rely on propositions that are known to be scientifically false. Offhand, I can't recall this ever being a significant problem in the philosophy of art, but I guess the point may be worthwhile making anyway.

Apart from that, I see no reason whatsoever why a theory of art should be somehow "consistent with" scientific theory, and still less why it should be "grounded" in it. In fact, I can think of good reasons why the theory of art and scientific theory are likely to have very little to say to each other.  Equally, of course, I see no reason why scientific theory should be able to "make sense" of art (whatever that means precisely).

Returning to the specific topic of this thread, the attempt to link art to evolutionary theory strikes me as a classic example of a blind alley. Certainly, nothing I've read - on this thread or elsewhere - has even begun to persuade me otherwise. What has struck me, however, in a lot of what I've read, is a tendency to use scientific terminology much too loosely, and a recurring failure to distinguish between literal and metaphorical meanings in the case of certain key terms. As philosophy, this most certainly "rubs me up the wrong way", to borrow one of your phrases..

DA

PS I notice by the way that there has been a rash of would-be "evolutionary" explanations in recent times - of everything from religion, to morality, to art, to a sense of humor, to you name it. Presumably the Darwin anniversary was partly responsible? 

 

2010-06-21
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Derek Allan
Actually, Derek, the "specific topic of this thread" is not the attempt to explain art in evolutionary terms, but rather the question whether an evolutionary explanation of art would have normative consequences if successful.

It is not contested, as far as I know, that there are good candidate evolutionary explanations of moral behavioural dispositions -- altruism and cooperation for instance.  John Maynard Smith's text on evolutionary game theory and Brian Skyrms's simulation of strategy-competitions made this clear. (I say "candidate" because the historical facts of evolution are not transparent -- we don't have direct evidence about what actually happened with regard to morality.  Thus, in his Stanford Encyclopedia article on evolutionary game theory, Jason Alexander says: "Although an evolutionary game theoretic model may exclude certain historical sequences as possible histories (since one may be able to show that the cultural evolutionary dynamics preclude one sequence from generating the phenomenon in question), it seems unlikely that an evolutionary game theoretic model would indicate a unique historical sequence suffices to bring about the phenomenon.")  

I don't know of a single reputable philosopher who questions that the Maynard Smith and Skyrms techniques yield a good and textured explanation of the behavioural disposition to benefit others at some cost to oneself. (It's significant that Alexander doesn't cite anybody who shares his reservation about the veracity of these explanations.)  Whatever may be said about evolutionary explanations of art, then, these works are not "blind alleys".

The real question, again, is whether such explanations have normative consequences. It was the bridge to norms that I was concerned with.  It seems to me that in the case of art it is more difficult to give a good evolutionary explanation than in the case of moral behaviour (at least given the current state of play) but easier to build a bridge from such an explanation to critical norms.






































The question that has been hotly contested is whether this would have normative consequences. 

2010-06-21
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen
Sorry, something went wrong with the formatting of my last post.  The sentence that appears way down at the bottom was intended to fit in at the end of the second paragraph.  (But it's a bit superfluous anyway.)

Mohan

2010-06-22
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen

Hi Mohan

Yes, I realize you have a particular interest in the “normative” issue. But presumably that depends on the viability of evolutionary explanations of art, does it not? I mean, if they are all blind alleys – as I suggested - then any “normative” conclusions based on them would presumably be dead in the water? 

But your post doesn’t talk much about art anyway. It mainly talks about morality. Even here, though, I have problems. You write, for example: “It is not contested, as far as I know, that there are good candidate evolutionary explanations of moral behavioural dispositions -- altruism and cooperation for instance. ... (I say "candidate" because the historical facts of evolution are not transparent -- we don't have direct evidence about what actually happened with regard to morality.”)

I’m really not sure what a “good candidate evolutionary explanation” is. Pre-Copernicus, Ptolemy’s theory was no doubt regarded as a “good candidate explanation” of the universe. Pre-Newton, Descartes’ “vortices” doubtless seemed a “good candidate explanation”. If evolutionary theories of art, morality, etc are ever to get beyond elaborate academic guessing-games, they need sound explanations based on solid evidence, not just “candidate” explanations.

And there’s the rub. Because it’s precisely the evidence that’s lacking. You say that the historical facts are not “transparent”. A slight understatement! The historical facts about the cultural beliefs of prehistoric societies (touching such things as art, morality etc) are simply not known, and in all probability never will be. What do we know about the cultural beliefs of the communities responsible for Lascaux or Chauvet, for example? Not to mention the countless, much earlier, human communities of which nothing at all remains. This is the land of pure conjecture (despite some art historians’ loose talk about “magic” etc). Yet if we are talking about evolution, it is surely this long, prehistoric period – when said “evolution” presumably took place - that is so crucial.  

I gather you and Christy are admirers of scientific method (as I am too – in its place). But “evolutionary explanations” of art like Dutton’s, Dissanayake’s etc are not science. They are an unholy mixture of conjecture posing as fact, and superficial, tendentious argumentation. They seem to attract a certain amount of public interest (people like to think there are simple “hey presto!” explanations for art – hence the appeal of artists’ biographies as well) but that is hardly a measure of their intellectual merit.

DA


2010-06-22
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Derek Allan

Derek,

As I understand it, you are claiming something like the following:

(A) The extent to which the application of evolutionary principles is constitutive of an account of an art-relevant phenomena is the extent to which that account is explanatorily inviable with respect to that art-relevant phenomena.  

What I'm not sure about is exactly what you take the reasons to be for (A).

Here are your options as I see them.

(B) The application of evolutionary principles is explanatorily viable within biology but explanatorily inviable without.

(C) The nature of art is such that being art entails being outside any reasonable construal of evolutionary explanation’s domain of interest.

Taking the (B) route requires having to deny the rather sensible if not prima facie evident claim that the application of evolutionary principles may be explanatorily viable for a range of areas outside biology (e.g., psychology, sociology, linguistics, etc.). Think Young Earth Creationism’s forced repudiation of fields like astronomy and geology.

If (B) requires a scorched earth policy with respect to the social sciences then (C) demands setting your own house ablaze. That is, (C) being true likely requires either excessively denigrating or unduly rarefying art: either art simply isn’t important, serious, relevant enough a thing to be on the radar of any legitimate scientific inquiry (e.g., being art should no more be a target for evolutionary explanations than should being fashionable) or art is too mystical and sacred a thing to be grasped by the profane physical-bound hands of science (e.g., art-critical norms should no more be a target for evolutionary explanations than should religious rituals).

Problem is that while you fairly consistently claim something like (A), when pressed or when pressing, you sometimes implicitly invoke (B) only to then later suggest (C). If you are claiming (B), then you’re just being irresponsible. You have no reason to think (B) is the case other than it gets you (A), and whatever your investment may be in (A), it sure as hell doesn’t warrant bootstrapping to (B). And if your claiming (C), then you are perpetuating the very kind of pernicious insularity that philosophical aesthetics has been trying to dig itself out of for the last few decades (i.e., you’re either telling everyone that they shouldn’t take art seriously or you’re rarefying art to the point where no one will actually take art seriously but you).

Perhaps the most sensible thing to do then is to give up (A). It’s a pretty ridiculous claim, useful rhetorically perhaps, and I know how you love the rhetoric, but we’re all philosophers here and so should know when to drop the rhetoric and start making sense.


2010-06-22
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms

Christy

 I’ll take your post bit by bit: (Your parts are in bold)

You write: “As I understand it, you are claiming something like the following:

(A) The extent to which the application of evolutionary principles is constitutive of an account of an art-relevant phenomena is the extent to which that account is explanatorily inviable with respect to that art-relevant phenomena.  

I confess I struggled with this statement, especially with the notion of “art-relevant phenomena”. Can you give me an example of an “art-relevant phenomenon”?

If the statement means: Do I think any explanation of art is unviable to the extent that it is an “application of evolutionary principles”?, I can only reply that no account I’ve seen to date comes within a bull’s roar of being viable. I don’t see any real need to make extravagant claims about imaginary accounts that don’t yet exist, but, yes, I would be greatly surprised – amazed in fact – if anything of this kind ever offered a satisfactory account of art.

(B) The application of evolutionary principles is explanatorily viable within biology but explanatorily inviable without.

I don’t really want to speak for all areas of human knowledge. Sounds a mite imperialistic! I think the “application of evolutionary principles” to art has been a total failure. The arguments I’ve seen for religion, morality, etc haven’t remotely convinced me either, but I’ll leave that problem to people in those fields.  

 (C) The nature of art is such that being art entails being outside any reasonable construal of evolutionary explanation’s domain of interest.

 Yes. Though it’s not only the nature of art. As I’ve said, it’s the almost complete absence of relevant evidence. (And I would replace “interest’ with “competence”.)

Re: “Taking the (B) route requires having to deny the rather sensible if not prima facie evident claim that the application of evolutionary principles may be explanatorily viable for a range of areas outside biology (e.g., psychology, sociology, linguistics, etc.). Think Young Earth Creationism’s forced repudiation of fields like astronomy and geology.

“May be”? Different from “is”. In any case, these are not my main concerns. As for the “Young” thing, too cryptic for me; you would need to explain. (I hope, by the way, you’re not suggesting that I reject the theory of evolution. Hardly.)

If (B) requires a scorched earth policy with respect to the social sciences then (C) demands setting your own house ablaze. That is, (C) being true likely requires either excessively denigrating or unduly rarefying art: either art simply isn’t important, serious, relevant enough a thing to be on the radar of any legitimate scientific inquiry (e.g., being art should no more be a target for evolutionary explanations than should being fashionable) or art is too mystical and sacred a thing to be grasped by the profane physical-bound hands of science (e.g., art-critical norms should no more be a target for evolutionary explanations than should religious rituals).

I’m not conscious of any “scorched earth” policy or setting any “houses ablaze”. You suggest that I think that

either art simply isn’t important, serious, relevant enough a thing to be on the radar of any legitimate scientific inquiry (e.g., being art should no more be a target for evolutionary explanations than should being fashionable) or art is too mystical and sacred a thing to be grasped by the profane physical-bound hands of science.

I don’t in fact think either of these things. Nor do I need to. What I think is simply that science is not the appropriate instrument to gain an understanding of the nature and purpose of art. Would you fix a watch with a crowbar? Doesn’t mean a crowbar isn’t a very useful tool. Just not the right one for the job.

You also say

you are perpetuating the very kind of pernicious insularity that philosophical aesthetics has been trying to dig itself out of for the last few decades (i.e., you’re either telling everyone that they shouldn’t take art seriously or you’re rarefying art to the point where no one will actually take art seriously but you.

Actually, I do think philosophical aesthetics tends to be rather insular and I spend a lot of my time trying to combat that very tendency. But that’s only worth doing to the extent that one is pointing it in relevant and important directions. “Evolutionary” explanations are not one of them.

I get the feeling you think art is somehow being a kind of troublesome maverick by trying escape the all-seeing, all-knowing gaze of science. But I suspect you have forgotten to ask yourself a basic question: What is art? Do you have any thoughts on that?

DA


2010-06-22
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Derek Allan
I talked about morality because of your PS.  By 'candidate explanation', I mean one that would satisfy the principles of the science within which it is couched, modulo the truth of the explanantia.  Game theory is very much admissible as far as evolutionary theory is concerned.

By the way, nobody said that one had to know anybody's beliefs.  Do you think historical explanation is impossible because we can't know what Napoleon believed or desired?  (Don't feel shy if you do: lots of people are on that boat.)

As much as I admire your focus on the bottom line, I still want to examine the function argument.  It may be a bridge to nowhere, but Sarah Palin notwithstanding there are engineering questions even about such bridges.  And as I said earlier, I wouldn't be going to an aesthetics forum for help with the arguments about evolution.

2010-06-22
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Derek Allan
Derek: You write "science is not the appropriate instrument to gain an understanding of the nature and purpose of art."

This suddenly reminded me of a wonderful book that I am sure you know a lot better than I do: E. H. Gombrich's The Sense of Order -- which is a study of decorative art.

"My belief in a "Sense of Order" derives from the same theory of perception on which I drew in the analysis of representation," Gombrich writes. "Like [Popper] I believe in . . . "the searchlight theory of the mind", a conception that stresses the constant activity of the organism as it searches and scans the environment.  The terms in which I have just formulated this theory should tell the reader that it is based on an evolutionist view of the mind.  I believe with Popper that such a view has become inescapable since the days of Darwin" 

As he continues, it becomes clear that his main critical instrument is Gestalt Theory -- as it was in Art and Illusion -- but he continually alludes to the evolutionary foundations of that theory.


2010-06-23
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen

Hi Mohan

I'll reply to both of your posts together.

In the first you say: “By 'candidate explanation', I mean one that would satisfy the principles of the science within which it is couched.”

I’m not sure what you mean by “within which it is couched”, but science requires evidence, does it not? In this case there is none – or next to none.

You also write: “By the way, nobody said that one had to know anybody's beliefs. Do you think historical explanation is impossible because we can't know what Napoleon believed or desired? “

We do in fact know a lot about what Napoleon believed and desired, and that has contributed enormously to the writing of history about the Napoleonic period. But it is not just Napoleon himself. It’s the society and culture generally. What kind of history of the Napoleonic period could one write if (per impossible) one knew nothing about what the people of the times believed or desired?  

In the case of the Palaeolithic period – which is more relevant to the issue we are discussing – one of the reasons why a history of that vast stretch of time is non-existent (and why it is called “pre-historic”) is that we have not the slightest idea what Palaeolithic man believed or desired. Not the foggiest. And we never will.  Which does not of course prevent people like Dutton and Dissanayake making all kinds of confident claims on the subject.

You write: “I wouldn't be going to an aesthetics forum for help with the arguments about evolution”. Perhaps in fact you should. Might be a bracing experience to come in contact with people who spend their time thinking about art. I wouldn’t be at all surprised, by the way, if you even found some who think that evolutionary arguments are feasible. Dutton is a prominent philosopher of art...

As for Gombrich, well, don’t get me started. Gombrich’s account of art is superficial and confused – as well as conservative and out of date. Frankly, I don’t think anyone takes him very seriously these days, even in his home discipline of the history of art. His books still sell, of course, because he had a flair for a kind of slick journalistic prose, but if you’re looking for penetrating, relevant, coherent thinking about art, I would strongly advise looking elsewhere.

DA 


2010-06-23
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen
Hi Mohan,

Thanks for your reply&refs. No, I don't think much of the stuff mentioned is really adequate. Off the top of my head, issues in the evolution of the arts are:

*how did the depiction of face and facial expression progress and deepen from its simplest origins to today
*how did the depiction of character - of dialogue and manner and motivation  - evolve
*how did the depiction of story evolve - from, presumably, simple chains of cause and effect, to elaborate webs
*how did the dimensionality of causation evolve - from simple personal interaction, to becoming aware of the effects of social groups, communities, society, culture, technology, early psychological events etc?
*how did the depiction of scene - physical settings - evolve

[obviously all this started v. crude from cave drawing level and gradually got more sophisticated]

*how did literatures and arts extend their coverage of society from isolated key figures till, say, in the 19th c. even the lowliest chambermaid could be seen as a hero?
*how did the arts extend their coverage of towns, cities, natural landscape and the physical world?

As soon as you start thinking in these terms - in serious detail about how the arts evolve - you will realise that the question of whether the arts are "adaptive" is a sick, ignorant joke. The arts are every bit as adaptive as the sciences - but that adaptiveness has not been understood and exploited - and the academy of the arts is of no help - a totally bankrupt, deeply ailing enterprise, producing very little of use. The arts themselves however have always been enormously important and influential in producing knowledge about, and shaping the way we see, the world.

One principal difficulty is that to understand the arts you need not the standard rational skills and sign systems of logic, maths and logical language, but the creative skills and sign systems of the arts, such as dialogue, photography, painting, sculpture, movies, story, portraiture, narrative, inner monologue etc etc   These have always been thought of as peripheral.

But this year the ipad changed all that, marking the transition to an entire new epoch of civilisation, in wh. those skills will come to be recognised as *primary* not secondary. You don't dream in analytical prose, logic or maths - you dream in movies, (even if you're a scientist or mathematician). Obviously the brain knows something about the adaptiveness of the arts that the sciences don't ... yet..

2010-06-23
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen
P.S. The one outstanding work on the evolution of the arts, though perhaps not billed as such - that I know - is Auerbach's Mimesis. There must be more but perhaps not many. 

2010-06-23
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen
I'm still waiting for a previous post to be approved in wh. I pointed out various dimensions of how art's depiction of the world evolves.

(Clearly BTW, science's depiction of the world also evolves - i.e. its models and media and the sophistication of those models and media - and not just the steady accumulation of facts, and evolution of paradigms - and the evolution of sciences and arts need to be studied alongside as well as separately).

There is of course another crucial dimension of art's evolution wh. is central to - and unavoidable in - this whole thread. And that is - art depicts the evolution of *morality* and *mores*. It shows how accepted morals in every area of social life constrain people, and typically leads to the evolution of those morals - think A Doll's House, Mme Bovary, Uncle Tom's Cabin,  Solzhenitsyn's works, Catcher in the Rye, Portnoy's Complaint, Lady Chatterly's Lover and all the works of the sexual revolution, or other areas like Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, Roots. And these works have actually been a vital part of actual social change.

Equally, one could also look at mores and say how Sex and the City and the like will change what women wear - and their fashion ideals.

As I wrote in my previous post, the idea that art is not adaptive is a sick, *very* ignorant joke.

Equally the idea that art is in any way "normative" in a static sense is also absurd, for art shows the plain reality of history that all norms and morals and values are continuously evolving.



2010-06-23
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Derek Allan
Derek, 
In response to your rhetorical question "Would you use a crowbar to fix a watch?" the answer is, of course, "Why yes, Derek, I would." Check any watch repair kit and you'll find a host of what are called micro-tools, i.e., tools that apply the same principles as do their larger counterparts, just on a smaller scale appropriate for watch repair. These kits all have micro-hammers, micro-screwdrivers, and yes, even micro-prybars. Of course, no one thinks that you should be fixing watches exclusively with a prybar (micro or otherwise), but clearly with respect to certain areas of watch repair, a pry bar is incredibly useful. 

Of course, I suppose that there could be highly specialized watch-repair tools for which there are no large-scale counterparts, but what a strange watch it would be were no non-specialized micro-tool whatsoever useful even in the slightest for its repair. I would imagine such a watch would be ridiculously expensive and even when working properly likely to keep poor time. Furthermore, I would take those selling such a watch to be nothing more than shills for the highly specialized watch-repair tool industry, peddling a broken product so as to keep themselves in the business of fixing it. So, no matter how pretty the watch may be (and let's be honest, it's rather garish and pretentious looking), I certainly am not buying it.
Given the above, the rhetorical question better suited to your position is something like:

"Would you fix a watch by watering a ficus?"

or my personal favorite (and feel free to use it):

"Would you fix a watch with enthusiasm?"

You're welcome.

At this point, I'm done with this discussion insofar as you are involved, Derek. I need to take my own advice and stop wasting effort towards the negative return of what has now become an infuriating and insulting pseudo-discussion.

You no doubt will have the last word, so let this be mine: People other than Mohan and myself read these forum discussions, Derek; you'd do well to remember that.





2010-06-23
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Hi Christy

Some bracing ad hominem from you again! Phew!

But what disappoints me about your posts is that you do not reply to my substantive points.

I am on these lists because I enjoy philosophical discussion and I like the stimulation of a good argument. Over time, I have learnt quite a lot from discussion lists, here and elsewhere. Responses to what I've said often make me go away and ponder, and that helps me clarify my ideas. But if I don't get useful and relevant comment, that's a bit disappointing. (Sounds a bit selfish when I put it that way! But I assume others get similar benefits.)

For example, your reply on my crowbar point was really not to the point, was it? (Forgive me if that sounds ad hominem.) Obviously, I wasn't talking about a "micro" instrument. I was talking about the large, heavy tool used to dig holes. My question - to spell it out quite clearly - was: Is science an appropriate intellectual tool to gain an understanding of art?

In that connection, I asked if you had any thoughts on what art might be. I notice you have not replied. A pity. It does seems to me that if you and Mohan are so enthusiastic about applying the methods of science to art, you might at least try to formulate some ideas about what art is (a subject on which, after all, an immense amount has been written). Otherwise, you surely run the risk of trying to fix a watch with a crowbar and not realizing you are doing so.

DA

 



2010-06-26
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen
Looking out from the Lit. studies world, Jerry Fodor has been put to work thinking about these issues and to a lesser extent John Searle because of his supposed "reactionary thinking," A title that I'm just reading and finding to be illuminating because of the modest claims that it makes: *The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding* by Mark Johnson. Seems to me that the stop-start nature of the discussions about this issue stems in part from the *US* style garden variety anti-foundationalism in lit studies. So broad scientific categories smack of "essentialism." Chaos theory had its moment precisely because it was read into anti-foundationalism. The most recent attempt to set evolutionary discourses to work in aesthetics/lit crit is of course Franco Moretti's *Graphs, Maps, Trees* which has been roundly panned precisely for its "naive" wholesale transportation of scientific system building into the theorization of the history of the European novel. Art's aleatory nature, the criticism goes, simply doesn't jive with the (post-, neo-) empiricism of science (Feyerband, Heisenburget. al  notwithstanding).

2010-06-26
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Joseph Clarke

Hi Joseph

I'm not sure I follow your post entirely and I have not read the works you refer to. But you seem to be saying - please correct me if I am misinterpreting - that the problem lies in the nature of the scientific approach being adopted. The point I have been trying to make – unsuccessfully, it seems – is that one would first need to establish that a scientific approach of any kind is likely to tell us anything important about art. This step – which would require at least some basic thinking about the nature of art (and indeed of science) - seems to be missing. So is does all this just depend on a leap of faith?

On top of this, there are, to my mind, particular problems associated with attempts to apply the concepts of evolutionary biology - e.g. adaptation – to a cultural issue such as art, which typically result in what strike me as unacknowledged distortions of those concepts. But that's a secondary question. The fundamental one, in my view, is whether and why science should be applicable anyway.

DA


2010-08-25
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Mohan Matthen
From the OP:

"3. If F is a function of X, and A is an X that does not perform F, then A is a bad X. (E.g.: a heart that doesn’t pump and oxygenate blood properly is a bad heart.)"

Is this simply a stipulative definition of "a bad X"? If so, then it's not clear why we should necessarily disvalue a bad X.

But if it's not just a stipulative definition of "a bad X" then it seems like this line 3 needs a lot of support.

2012-08-24
Evolutionary Adaptation and Critical Norms
Reply to Derek Allan
This thread has been dormant for some time. I wonder if I might try to regenerate it by re-asking a question I asked in one of my last posts but which didn't ever receive a response. It was : 'Is science an appropriate intellectual tool to gain an understanding of art?'

I realize it is a large question and that one might approach it in a number of ways. But it is fairly topical, given the current enthusiasm for 'neuro-aesthetics' etc.

I should confess my own position - though it may be obvious from things I've already said. I think science can tell us very little about art (with the exception of obvious things like the age of paint on a painting etc) And I think that, as a means of understanding art, 'neuro-aesthetics' is a complete waste of time.

Sorry. That may have put everyone off and killed any chance of seeing the discussion restarted. But I am very happy to discuss alternative views - and surely that's point of discussions in philosophy. Not much to be gained by just patting one another on the shoulder.    

DA