The Art Instinct
Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution
Denis Dutton


Writing in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Dr. Aaron Esman is critical of my attitude toward Freud. Still, in a what amounts to one of the clearest reviews of the book in print, he finds much to like: "The Art Instinct is an important book. It undertakes to raise philosophic reflections on art and aesthetics from the realm of metaphysics to that of contemporary cognitive and biological science, and does so with clarity and literary skill. Over time, contributions to our understanding of the psychology of the arts have come from many directions, each from a different perspective; in the modern era names like Dewey, Gombrich, Arnheim, Kris, and Freud come readily to mind. The house of aesthetics has many mansions; Dutton’s, the newest, will doubtless stand for a long time, though it will require and receive many additions and alterations. As it stands, it merits many visitors." Read this stellar review HERE.

Joseph Carroll has done a kind of "review of reviews" for the great new SUNY annual, The Evoutionary Review. He finds a lot to admire in The Art Instinct, but he also thinks I've been asking for trouble on the issue of sexual selection. His essay can be read HERE. Information on purchasing The Evolutionary Review can be found HERE.

Professor Hugo Meynell of the University of Calgary has reviewed The Art Instinct for The Heythrop Journal. Although he calls the book "splendid and entirely convincing," he does not like my six sentences on religion in the Introduction. Maybe he has a point. Read his discussion HERE.

Dr. Mara Miller has given The Art Instinct its first long scholarly review in a specialist journal in aesthetics the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. According to Miller, The Art Instinct  "is one of the most exciting and far-reaching philosophy books to reach the public in some time. As either an enjoyable reading experience or an instigator of further philosophical investigation (by Dutton and others), it could hardly be improved upon." Read the full review (which does have a few justified criticisms) HERE.

The Art Instinct is "a wonderful, mind-changing book ... a rich and persuasive argument for the centrality of art in our evolution ... Dutton's arguments are coherent and convincing." So writes Peter Forbes in The Independent. Read it HERE.

Writing in Newsweek, James Q. Wilson advises: "Read Dutton's book: his masterful knowledge of art and his compelling prose make it a thing of beauty." The whole review is HERE.

Matthew Battles writes in the Boston Globe: "For those wary of biological explanations of human behavior, The Art Instinct makes for a refreshing read.... Denis Dutton is no reductionist; his view of art would preserve all that is unique, challenging, and revelatory in a word, human about our creative and expressive activities." The full review is HERE.

"God bless the contrarians," says Michael O'Donnell in the Barnes & Noble Review. "Dutton has excellent taste. And a good thing, too, because The Art Instinct is an exploration of human taste." O'Donnell's review is HERE.

Writing in The American, and later on amplifying his views on his own website, Roger Sandall compares The Art Instinct with Roger Scruton's Beauty, which was published at almost the same time. He prefers my book, but he finds fault with both sides. It's a fascinating discussion. Read it HERE.

In Prospect, Nigel Warburton writes: "As befits a man whose book tour included a slot on the cult US comedy show The Colbert Report, Dutton’s prose is direct, entertaining and stylish. He never pulls his punches. Unlike most works on aesthetics, this book is a great read." He's written a great review, too. Read it HERE.

Art is still the greatest show on earth, says Brian Morton in the Guardian/Observer: "In 250 elegant pages, [Dutton] demonstrates that aesthetics are linked at the profoundest level to our biological and cognitive prehistory, and that our 'tastes' those famously wavering and manipulable urges emerged in the Pleistocene, and haven't changed in essentials since then." His review is HERE. The Guardian ran a second review by P.D. Smith for the paperback. Read it HERE.

British writer and artist David MacLagan, on Escape into Life, has much to say: "Dutton’s thesis is that [evolved] needs or impulses connect to our experience of art, both as creators and spectators, and provide evidence for what he calls a ‘Darwinian aesthetics’ .... Dutton’s book is robustly argued and would provide an excellent introduction for anyone not yet familiar with the field." An interesting take from a man who is well informed in the psychology of art in general and outside art in particular. Read it HERE.

Writing in Policy Review, the magazine of the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, Peter Berkowitz finds the book "delightful." He says, "Dutton brings to his task a gentle and incisive wit, abundant learning well-grounded in the social sciences and humanities, and an infectious enthusiasm for art and humanity of all sorts." The whole review is HERE.

Prof. Alexander Nehamas of Princeton University has written a very long and generous review for The American Scholar. He thinks the evolutionary psychology of art is in its own Pleistocene era, and my book shows that it has a future. A nice idea: The Art Instinct as a first scrawl on a cave wall. Read the review in a PDF version HERE.

"Dutton's eloquent account sheds light on the role art plays in our lives ... His discussion of the arts and our responses to them is uniformly insightful and penetrating," writes Anthony Gottlieb in the New York Times Sunday Book Review (also in the International Herald Tribune). Read the entire review HERE. Check the sidebar, where the Times also presents part of the first chapter of the book.

Tim Black says that "The Art Instinct is beautifully written, gliding effortlessly from explaining the knotted abstraction of Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Judgement to a brilliantly pithy description of the meaning of kitsch. But the easy elegance of the writing, its ability to shift from concise explications of aesthetic theory to a critique of the relativism of 20th-century anthropology, before sidling into personal, poetic passages on the meaning of art, is no accident of charm. Rather it touches upon the animus of Dutton’s book. For Dutton, a professor of the philosophy of art, is moved, not by a crude evolutionary psychologist’s desire to explain art in terms of evolutionary theory, but by a passion for art itself or, to be more precise, a conviction that art is essential to our humanity." His review for The Spiked Review of Books, can be read HERE.

Benjamin Pate, writing in the Trinity Tripod, finds The Art Instinct "critical to opening discussion of art in its biological relationship to the humanities." Read his review HERE.

The New Yorker finds that The Art Instinct is "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." Their review is HERE.

Denis Dutton "explains how an expansive vocabulary is a robust sexual trait (rare good news), how a chimpanzee with a paint brush is having fun but not making art, and why a perfectly executed forgery still leaves us cold," writes Todd Shy in the Raleigh News and Observer. "We read about Duchamp and Hopi pottery, Dickens and sports, the aesthetics of sound and smell, and major debates within evolutionary psychology. All books nourished by Darwin should be so fertile." The Art Instinct is "vigorous and wonderfully provocative." The entire review is HERE.

In the New York Observer, Damian Da Costa grouses about Arts & Letters Daily but calls The Art Instinct  "a guided tour of the great landmarks of the philosophy of art — aesthetic theory explained, modified and refuted with patience and fluency." So have I ever ever climbed the cold white peaks of art? Of course not. But with my binoculars, I've sure had a glimpse of Mozart and Chekhov up there. More HERE.

For readers of German, Mara Delius has written an excellent review in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. You can find it HERE.

If you've been pining to read about The Art Instinct in Hebrew, here's your chance. In The Calcalist, Ronny Shani has produced an excellent article. Read it in two PDFs: part 1 and part 2.

Writing in Beijing Today, Charles Zhu find The Art Instinct "penetrative and insightful." Read the review HERE.

In the Dutch newspaper, Vrij Nederland, critic Carel Peeters worries that my take on art means that human nature will start telling what we will find beautiful and what ugly. I thought it already did. You can fret with Mr. Peeters HERE.

A severely condensed version of the first chapter of The Art Instinct was published by The New Statesman, HERE. It also appeared in The Australian, HERE. These essays were also glossed in German by Die Welt. You can find that HERE.

Writing in The Australian Literary Review, art critic Sebastian Smee says that "what Dutton has come up with is a grand explanatory theory whose most beneficial effect may be to dispense with the need for other kinds of abstract theory." In fact, Smee writes, the book "contains scarcely a proposition I disagree with." In that case, my direct aim to overtun a generation of art theory has succeeded. Not quite, as it seems the book is hardly worth bothering with. Read Smee's weird take HERE.

The CBC's Richard Handler has made some interesting comments on The Art Instinct HERE.

Of all the reviews on this page, the only one that is personally disturbing to me is the one printed in the Financial Times. The review is HERE, my answer is HERE. I've more to say about this in the column to your right.

Roberto Casati has written a skeptical review of The Art Instinct for Cognition and Culture. Read it HERE, long with my response HERE. Ought he to feel "intimidated"?

Interviews, audio, and video

Jean Feraca's Here On Earth program for Wisconsin Public Radio featured some of the music I discuss in The Art Instinct. Hear it HERE.

Peter Clarke of Australia's Inside Story has put online a half-hour interview. Listen to it HERE.

Santa Barbara broadcaster Colin Marshall — like me, a former staffer of KCSB — has done an interview for his Marketplace of Ideas program. Colin has read not only the book, but all the reviews on this page: this is a man who comes to the office prepared! Hear it HERE.

David Hall has written a very fine interview and think piece on the book in the New Zealand Listener. You can read it HERE.

Had a great talk with Tom Ashbrook on NPR's ON Point, which comes out of Boston and goes across the country. Listeners had good questions and comments as well. Hear it HERE.

John Brockman's Edge has an interview HERE. It has gotten around the Web rather a lot, with a Spanish version in El Mundo (national, with HQ in Madrid). Journalist and academic Arcardi Espada refers to a "magnífico ensayito de Denis Dutton." Click to it from HERE.

Kim Hill of Radio New Zealand, gave me a pleasant half an hour to talk about the book. You may hear the interview HERE.

I'm not keen on astrology, as my friends well know (I've been an amateur astronomer almost all my life). But Caroline Casey was a charming host for her "Coyote Network" program on KPFA (and affiliated stations) in Berkeley. Listen to our chat HERE. Venus was rising, she explained, which is why we got on so well (She was in Washington D.C. and I was in Christchurch for this interview broadcast live in the Bay Area.)

Miriam Cosic, writing in The Australian, finds my ideas about Mark Rothko a bit of a stretch, but graciously adds, "the thing about Dutton's book is his ideas are thought-provoking even when you know he's making a stretch." You can read her piece HERE

Writing HERE in New Zealand's Sunday Star-Times, Anthony Hubbard seems to have discovered my temperamental side. Did my voice over the telephone "crackle with exasperation"? Guess so. But it had been a long day, and Anthony was understanding.

While I didn't think I was being exactly "gleeful" about having carved a New Guinea artifact that likely ended up in someone's collection (anyway, that outcome was not intended when I was taking lessons on the Sepik), Bob Thompson's Washington Post piece sure has a lot of things right. Read it HERE

In a Seed Q&A, Elizabeth Cline deletes umms and ahhs, making me sound more articulate than I was on the morning she talked to a jetlagged me. Read it HERE. Thanks, Elizabeth!

Bob Stevenson of NPR station KUHF in Houston said in the course of our interview that the first chapter of The Art Instinct gave him "goosebumps." He was much fun to talk with. Hear it HERE.

At WNYC in Manhattan, Brian Lehrer also showed he had actually read a good deal of The Art Instinct — a rarity in the interview biz. Part of our talk is on YouTube HERE. Audio of the whole interview is HERE

William Crawley of BBC Radio Ulster was a delightful conversationalist in an interview for Sunday Sequence, going to air February 1st. Details HERE.

BBC Radio 4's Today program carried a short interview (squeezed by a heavy news day). Appearing with me was Nigel Warburton. Hear it HERE.

Michael Duffy and Paul Comrie-Thomson of the ABC's Counterpoint program in Sydney talked with me for an hour during my visit for Darwin Day. You can hear the discussion HERE.

My Darwin Day address in Sydney was also recorded by the ABC. It is HERE.

The Art Instinct Paperback CoverThe Art Instinct is now in paperback with a new Afterword. Click on the image at right to get to the Amazon page for the paperback. We do love the Fred Astaire cover. You can see a bigger view of it HERE (take a look!). The hardback with the sublime Frederick Church South American landscape on the dust jacket is still available from all sources.

The book was orginally published on January 1, 2009 in the United States and Canada by Bloomsbury Press. It was launched in Britain, Australia, and New Zealand on February 12, 2009 — the two-hundreth anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin — by the Oxford University Press. The Dutch, Spanish, and Portuguese translations have already appeared (see below). Greek, Korean, and Polish will follow, with other languages still under negotiation.

USA buyers: in stores now or order online from Amazon, Powells, or Barnes & Noble. The Art Instinct can be ordered by phone for immediate delivery from Diesel Books in California: (310) 576-9960. Find the book at your local, independent bookseller through IndieBound.

UK buyers: in stores or order from Amazon UK or Waterstone's.

The book is available in Australia for immediate delivery anywhere in the country from Abbey's Books in Sydney. Telephone 02-9264-3111.

For immediate delivery in New Zealand, telephone the University of Canterbury Bookshop at (03) 364-2043.

The Art Instinct is now available from Amazon in its Kindle format. Barnes and Noble also offers the book in a variety of electronic formats. Find out about them HERE.



This TED video is a collaboration between TED Talks and the brilliant British artist Andrew Park. It is the brainchild of Chris Anderson, head honcho of the TED ideas factory, if the term is approriate.

What strikes me is the way Andrew has of taking philosophical ideas and embodying them in such unexpectedly imaginative, creative ways. Who's have thunk it? A few of my favorite moments: the 18th-century courtier who tries to block the goal; Dorothy and friends worried about "barnacles, pigeons and worms, oh my!"; Plato taking notes at the back of the aesthetics class; the caveman and his conveyor belt; the peahen fan 'zines; the overlay of landscapres (marvelous!); Andrew actually holding an Acheulean handaxe; and, of course, the Erectus and Co. Jewelry Shop.

The Atlantic Monthly selected The Art Instinct as one of its top 25 new books of 2009. Chief critic Benjamin Schwarz complains in an accompanying interview that too many nonfiction titles these days are little more than padded magazine articles. He says he enjoyed The Art Instinct especially because it presents a complicated argument in a way that only a book can. The details are in the audio presentation available HERE.

Choice magazine has named The Art Instinct as one of its "Outstanding Academic Titles" for 2009.

According to Margaret Atwood, there are ten gifts you might want to give to a beginning novelist. These include a notebook, a large box for holding papers, a thesaurus, an exercise or stretching manual, and.... The Art Instinct. As she puts it: "News just in: Art not a frill! Built in!"

Now in Spanish! El Instinto del Arte: Belleza, Placer y Evolución Humana, is published by Ediciones Paidós in Madrid. It is a beautifully produced book with a striking cover. The translator is Carme Font Paz, a faculty member of the Filologia Anglesa i Germanística, Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona. More information HERE. Here is a comment by Arcadi Espada. An interview with Solidaridad Digital — “un magnífico libro” — can be read HERE. And there is a nice notice for the book in the Literary Supplement of El Pais HERE, and a comment from Elvira Lindo HERE. Lovely review from El Boomeran(g) HERE. The latest discussion of the book is from Carlos Salas ("fascinante libro"), writing in El Mundo. Read it HERE. Sixto J. Castro of the Universidad de Valladolid reviewed the book for Estudios Filosóphicos: page 1 and page 2. Most recently, a review by Santiago Navajas has been published HERE.

The new Portuguese edition, entitled Arte e Instinto: Beleza, Prazer e Evolução Humana, is a beautifully produced book. The open leading and elegant font choices have made it an impressively large 446 pages long (did I write all that? — only in double spacing). The translator is João Quina based on an edit by Pedro Ernesto Ferreira. The book is published in the Temas e Debates series of Círculo de Leitores in Lisbon. This translation has been described in Critica: Revista de Filosofica. Here is an excerpt: "Dutton defende que devemos fundamentar a crítica da arte no conhecimento da evolução humana, e não numa "teoria" abstracta. Espirituosa, culta e profundamente humana, a sua abordagem apresenta-nos uma novíssima forma de interpretar a criação artística. Será mesmo possível que exista uma predisposição genética nos seres humanos para apreciar uma escultura polinésia ou um romance de Jane Austen, uma canção de Sinatra ou um quadro de Seurat? Dutton propõe um encontro entre a arte e a ciência evolucionista, num livro ousado que irá transformar a nossa visão das artes e das letras."

For readers of Dutch, Nieuw Amsterdam has an edition of The Art Instinct. Their decision to stick with the English title for the Dutch translation is a mystery to me (I'd have thought Het Kunstinstinct would be the proper choice), but they must know their audience. I'm honored that the translator is Dr. Pim Lukkenaer, who is a scholar of Dutch literature as well as a poet. He has many translations to his credit, including Goethe, Rilke, Hermann Broch, Heinrich Böll, Bruno Walter, Charles Murray, and Philip Pullman. Click on the image for more information about the book. An interview about the book by Stefan Kuiper has been published in Vrij Nederland. You can read it HERE. Arnold Heumakers has reviewed the book in NRC Handelsblad.

Larry J. Feinberg, Director and CEO of the Santa Barbara Art Museum arranged what are called "Director's Dialogues" for the evening October 21, 2009. Writer, actor, and art collector John Cleese and I spent the evening before a full house discussing The Art Instinct and the issues it raises.

John listened attentively as I droned on about the meaning of life, art, love, and...uh...
everything. What a surprise to learn that people don't wear socks in Santa Barbara.

In truth, things were not nearly as earnest as the slightly silly photo above makes it look. We were able to mount an entertaining evening, made all the more lively by many incisive questions and challenges coming not only from John, but from a sharp and well-informed audience.

The discussion and the reception following brought out many old Santa Barbara friends, including Noel Fleming, the UCSB philosophy professor who first introduced me to aesthetics and the writings of Clive Bell, and Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, the great pioneers of Darwinian psychology. Thanks to Jill Finsten of the Museum for her expert organization.

Santa Barbara Museum of Art is a superb institution, and well worth driving out of your way to see, if you're in Southern California. Its collection, much better than you'd normally expect for a town the size of Santa Barbara, includes some lovely Monets, such as the one at right which I know you'd enjoy if there weren't two men standing in front of it. One of these men, you will note, is very tall, which was fodder for a discussion of sexual selection and the differential height demands of women and men in the Darwinian scheme. (See chap. 6 of The Art Instinct: the female desire for taller men is much more pronunced than the male desire for shorter women.) Of course, John Cleese has other charms as well in the list of courtship variables: wit and intelligence, for starters....

Many thanks to Paul Guyer and the ASA program committee for opportunity to present a pleanry address to the American Society for Aesthetics in Denver in October 2009. In February I appeared at the TED conference in Long Beach. The video of that presentation will eventually be available HERE.

Scroll down this column for further links to see The Colbert Report, the Google speech, the Bloggingheads video, and other appearances that came out of the January book tour.

Of all responses to The Art Instinct, perhaps the most sophisticated and probing was that from Mohan Matthen, pictured at right. He is Professor of Philosophy and senior Canada Research Chair at the University of Toronto. Prof. Matthen likes the book, but he also has some very interesting criticisms of it. I've learned much from discussing these issues with him. His analysis was first presented last October at the Central Division meeting of the American Philosophical Association in Chicago.

Prof. Matthen finds an "unresolved tension" in The Art Instinct: "Evolutionary accounts are functional, and have normative consequences. Cluster-concept definitions attempt only to capture extension, and don’t have normative consequences. Why give a cluster definition, when the evolutionary account suggests a functional approach?"

He regards reflexivity as a key to understanding the issues my book raises: "Art arises not just from its effect on evolved responses, but from the conjoined human ability to adopt higher level intentional attitudes – to speak about words, to think about thoughts, and generally to represent representers. It is these recursive abilities that gives the symbol its power. This ties the emergence of art to the emergence of recursive thinking and language."

I highly recommend reading Prof. Matthen's discussion HERE.

"Showing that some human tendency is an evolved tendency has no bearing on the question of whether we should give in to that tendency or fight it," says Justine Kingsbury, writing in Biology and Philosophy. "This is not to say that the evolutionary explanation of how we come to have the tendency is false: rather, it is to say that the evolutionary explanation is irrelevant to questions about how we should behave (as opposed to questions about how we do behave)." Dr. Kingsbury is bothered by what she takes to be the way in which acknowledgement of the evolved basis of aesthetic tastes gives us a normative warrant to wallow in easy or low-brow works instead of demanding, high-brow ones. I don't agree about the warrant, and say so, particularly in chapter 7. Nevertheless, her interesting discussion of The Art Instinct makes vivid many of the issues raised by the book. Read it HERE.

Further remarks and responses...

Talking to John Brockman for Edge, I mentioned a widely-quoted anecdote about Ravi Shankar giving a concert to a Western audience. This urban legend has been used to support the idea that Westerners do not understand Indian music. In disputing this, I described the standard (false) version thus:

Shankar comes out on stage and tunes the sitar. Now the sitar is a very complicated instrument to tune, and he works on it for about ten minutes. When he's finished, he nods to the audience and everybody applauds thinking that was actually the first piece of music on the program. Ipso facto, people cannot really understand foreign cultures. (The Edge interview is HERE.)
Ravi Shankar. A sitar may have
twenty or more strings.

I had heard the story as taking place in San Francisco, but Steven Pinker, I discover, refers to it in How the Mind Works as something that had "mortified" George Harrison at a London concert for Bangladesh (p. 529). Of course, something like it may well have happened any number of times to Shankar. One correspondent tells me he heard Shankar make the same joke at the beginning of a concert in Sydney in the 1960s.

Again: no one who sits through the tedious tuning of a sitar would think they were hearing a piece of music. Rather, the tension built up in the waiting audience will seek release in a round of applause when the sitarist nods silently at last, indicating he's finished, to his expectant audience. (In the Albert Hall, the audience will even applaud the chaps who move the piano around on stage.)

Thanks now to a helpful correspondent, you can hear the 1971 London episode HERE. Note that the audience is huge and excited, roaring with appause when Harrison steps into view, with some in attendance doubtless under the influence of recreational drugs. Shankar gives a heavy, school-masterish introductory speech, and then concludes his final tuning of a mere 30 seconds with a cadence. The silence that follows this is naturally filled by some members of the audience with more applause. (I once participated in a similar silence-filling round of spontaneous, added applause at an Arthur Rubinstein recital in Avery Fisher Hall in New York.) Shankar then makes a joke that he had used on other occasions, which is greeted by yet more general cheering. No evidence here that the excited audience thinks they have heard a piece of music; they've heard the tuning plus a few rather pretty strummed notes, and they are ready for the music. Cue the applause!

For the record, I have myself played the sitar on and off for forty years, having learned it in Hyderabad Deccan from a student of Ravi Shankar, Pandit Pandurang Parate. My audiences and I both know just how tedious the tuning can be.

The Art Instinct presents a new and complex argument unlikely to achieve easy agreement. One of the first reviews, by Robert Fulford of Canada's National Post, said the book "bluntly argues with fashionable theorists and the reviews of his book will not be uniformly favourable. Some will be offended and angry." I have been frankly surprised by the agreement, even acclaim, up and down the columns on either side of this page. But there have been a few pans that are worth responding to.

In the Financial Times, Jackie Wullschlager's treatment put me in mind of the Rev. Sidney Smith's adage, "I never read a book before reviewing it; it prejudices a man so." Wullschlager finds The Art Instinct "deeply flawed," "inflammatory,"and "reactionary" "an intellectual dead end." She serves up her counter opinions to mine in a way that is ever reviewer's right until she gets to the matter of my personal tastes.

Luke Fildes, The Doctor (1891). Clive Bell denied
this was even a work of art. See his Art, HERE.

Anyone who has read the book will know that Wullschlager's claim that Duchamp's Fountain "gets a chapter of abuse" is flat-out nonsense. Fountain is an important work of art on the criteria adduced in the book (pp. 196-200), even "a work of genius" (p. 197) and Duchamp himself is described as an artist of "wit and style." Fountain is nowhere abused in the book.

Then, just to make sure FT readers are left in no doubt that I am a complete idiot, she says the following: "Dutton’s own list of great works across the arts, recommended in contrast, is hilariously middle-brow: Luke Fildes’s sentimental 1891 portrayal of a dying child, The Doctor; Disney’s Fantasia; the children’s novel Charlotte’s Web."

Wullschlager knows that The Art Instinct is peppered with references to works of art: Jane Austen, Hokusai, Brahms, New Guinea art, Jackson Pollock, The Simpsons and so on. She cannot have missed the fact that as a contrast to genuinely great art, I discuss the banality and essential dishonesty of kitsch, referring to The Doctor (1891), a painting mocked by one of my intellectual heroes, Clive Bell. I also ridicule as kitsch Khalil Gibran’s pseudo-biblical cadences, Hermann Hesse’s pretentious mysticism, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s cheesy extravaganzas.

I then add a caveat: we ought not to dismiss in the same way children’s works such as Charlotte’s Web, which is an honest work of simple storytelling. Nor should we be too hard on something like the Pastoral Symphony episode from Disney’s Fantasia, with its baby Pegasus and so forth. To adults, I explain, “that sequence may be corny, but for many a young mind, it was a first thrilling view of Mount Beethoven" (p. 242).

I regard Wullschlager's claim that The Doctor, Fantasia and Charlotte’s Web are on my personal list of “great works” as a serious falsification of my book. Thanks to the Financial Times for printing in full my letter to the editor. You can read that HERE. The original rview is HERE.

Newsweek arts critic Jeremy McCarter, perhaps irritated by the earlier Newsweek review by James Q. Wilson ("Read Dutton's book: his masterful knowledge of art and his compelling prose make it a thing of beauty" — read it HERE), decided to have a second, rather longer go at The Art Instinct (read it HERE) He begins with a friendly, attractive summary of my argument. Concluding the first part of his review, he writes, "All in all, it's a lovely vision. I just wish somebody could convince me that it's true."

Then the complaints: what I say about Schoenberg is plausible, he admits, but a lot of people enjoy Schoenberg, who in fact has 2,500 Facebook fans. But hang on: I praised Transfigured Night and Moses und Aron: I'm talking in the book about the failure of atonality to attract an audience. It's not clear those Facebook fans signed on because they like atonality. Besides, Beethoven has 57,000 fans on Facebook.

Newsweek couldn't resist
the chimp-artist cliché.

Most important, however, is McCarter's Argument from Authority. Jeremy McCarter, it turns out, was a student of Stephen Jay Gould, and since Gould thought the kind of thing I do in The Art Instinct was misguided, the case is closed. McCarter recounts his teacher's views on spandrels, insisting that "evolutionary psychology doesn't answer the questions that matter most." And what are they? Just read:

"In an example cited by Gould," McCarter writes, "the really pressing question isn't what makes composers compose, it's what made Handel a composing genius; not why people listen to orchestral music, but what complex bundle of reasons makes an individual listener (Gould himself) swoon over Handel's Old Testament oratorios."

Think about that one. What makes composers compose is not a pressing question. Why people listen to orchestral music isn't important. What matters most is why Gould himself loved Handel's oratorios! I knew the professoriate took themselves seriously at Harvard, but this is over the top.

As I remarked in my letter to the editor of Newsweek (kindly published HERE), we can each of us only begin to understand our personal tastes, our particular "bundles of reasons," by seeing them in the context of others' tastes, as well as our cultures and our innate psychology. Darwin thought evolution would one day help explain the deep satisfactions of beauty. Gould wanted to rule these question out of order before they could even get asked.

The Art Instinct is about why Handel, or any other artist, might feel pleasure (even a sense of compulsion) in artistic creation, and well as why Gould or McCarter or Dutton might take intense pleasure in experiencing those creations — from Lascaux to Handel to Ren and Stimpy.

My message to Jeremy McCarter: anyone who could describe Arts & Letters Daily as "the go-to site for the world's procrastinating intellectuals" (nice line!) has got enough wit to see through Gould's dogmatic, know-nothing refusal to allow Darwin to say anything about the evolved psychology of the human mind. Come on Jeremy, science has moved on since you were an undergrad. However valuable his other contributions to science, however wonderful his essays on baseball, Gould's take on the question of our evolved psychology is in retrospect sheer piffle. You should have signed up with E.O. Wilson. (And it's not too late for you to read Wilson's Consilience.)

THE COLBERT REPORT on Comedy Central ("The Curious Case of Denis Dutton"). It's not easy to be grilled on the topic of art by a manic work of art himself — in front of an incoherently hysterical studio audience as well as gazillions (well, 1.3 million) of home viewers. At least I understood a little better than my warm-up act, Paul McCartney, who this Colbert character is. Judge for yourself HERE.

Apologies to the unlucky gawkers who waited in the rain, hoping to see Sir Paul step out of that limousine on 54th Street. It turned out to be a philosophy professor from New Zealand. I'd be as disappointed as you.

And thanks to various publicists for that weird selection of new products stuffed in that big "Colbert Report" tote bag that was waiting in my dressing room. (My name and a star on the door was a nice touch.) I appreciated those cans of Starbucks Mocha Espresso with Mongolian bat guano, or whatever it was. And while I can understand the Wrigley Corporation's desire for my celebrity endorsement, I'm sorry to report that I do not blurb chewing gum.

By the way, out of character, Stephen Colbert is quite simply
a lovely guy. He's lovely in character too, so long as you
don't have to share a stage with him.

Intellectual history of Homo sapiens, Ayn Rand
version. First fire, then stone tools, cave painting,
writing, Aristotle, and finally, out there with
Saturn, the lady herself. Painting by
Sylvia Bokor, who has a website HERE.

So what do the Ayn Rand followers make of The Art Instinct? I could have predicted the result. They may approve of the objections to postmodern relativism implied by Darwinian aesthetics, but that's about as far as the assent goes. I always have the feeling that nothing short of bowing and scraping before the hallowed image of St. Ayn will ever be enough.

In the case of Louis Torres's review, the main fault of the book is that I have not given a definition of art that fits the criteria of "definition" as described in the tenth edition of Patrick Hurley's A Concise Intrroduction to Logic (Wadsworth). Of course, I do actually defend the use of a cluster concept in the case of trying to account for such a large a difficult concept as that of art, cross-culturally understood. My entire argument is ignored in favor of an appeal to a student logic text.

I've correponded with Mr. Torres, who has sent me a chapter from his and Michelle Kamhi's book on Rand's theory of art that has this defintion: art is "a selective re-creation of reality according to an artist’s metaphysical value-judgments.” As examples of things that are not art, he happens to mention "dolls, toy cars, model ships, billboard advertisements, magazine illustrations, children’s play-acting, and celebrity impersonations." I would happily include any of the items on that list as potentially art. Does anyone think that Meryl Streep's acted version of Julia Child in the movie, Julie & Julia, is not art? Personally, I find Rand's definition of art absurdly limited. By the way, exactly what reality is "re-created" in a Bach fugue? The questions multiply.

Artists arrest and hold the attention of their audiences in endless ways, through any number of media. The skilled, expressive work of artists might now and again show up in toy shops or magazine illustrations; art isn't something found only in art galleries. I frankly don't know what Meryl Streep's "metaphysical value-judgments" were in her Julia Child performance, but I doubt if anyone needs to know them in order to appreciate her virtuoso artistry. I regard the idea that artists go around making "metaphysical value judgments" in their day jobs as so much pretentious tosh.

Denis Dutton's 2009 American book tour

My book tour began in Los Angeles in the ALOUD series at the downtown Public Library on Wednesday, January 7th. Thanks to the lively capacity audience and Michael Shermer for his gracious, informed hosting. The podcast is posted HERE.

Diesel Books in Brentwood is a very friendly and well-stocked shop. It was a pleasure to see again customers of brother Doug's late, lamented bookstore. Diesel still has copies.

Thanks to the CFI West for bringing out what turned out to be a standing-room only crowd at the Steve Allen Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. Who says you can only sell pop entertainment in Hollywood on a Saturday night?

It was a swell group at UCSB — intellectually engaged grad students, plus John Tooby, Leda Cosmides, and their lively daughter, Nike. Thanks to you all.

Philosophy and Literature Program, Stanford University.

Stanford University provided a most interested, indeed, provoked audience for my provocative talk. The grad students were splendid at dinner. Thanks to Blakey Vermeule for her gracious introduction and to Josh Landy for engineering the whole visit. Information on his program is HERE.

Google headquarters in Mountain View was so much fun. Need I say that the audience consisted largely of bell-curve outliers? They were very exciting people to address. Ann Farmer and Hal Varian (who introduces me) were generous hosts. So is Google in how it feeds its employees: free dining at all hours in the various cafeterias. The food was excellent. The Google webcast is now available HERE.

You'd look happy too, if you had a job at Google.

It was a memorable occasion to speak to two very large audiences at the Houston Museum of Fine Arts. Big surprise: a student of the pianist Abbey Simon asked me to inscribe a copy of The Art Instinct that she had bought for her teacher. I did so with great pleasure — a thanks for all the enjoyment his recordings have given me over many years. He's in his eighties and still at it.

Most at the AEI liked the talk, but not the chap at the front.

Addressing the W.H. Brady Program in Culture and Freedom at the American Enterprise Institute was both an honor and a pleasure. Thanks to Chris and Susan De Muth for putting me up during a inauguration week, when it was impossible to get a hotel room in Washington.

The Friends of The New Criterion, meeting at the Knickerbocker Club in New York, gave the ideas in my book a warm reception. Thanks to Roger Kimball for his lovely introduction and Callie Siskel for the fine photograhic record HERE

The audience on hand was a lot younger than the books at the
Knickerbocker Club. (That's Fifth Ave. in the rain below.)

The New York Institute of Philosophy provided an engaged, standing-room audience that had lots of probing questions about evolution and art. Critic Art Ravels was in the audience and blogged about the talk. She also wished she'd asked a question; I was able to respond to it under her blog entry. Read it HERE.

At WNYC, Brian Lehrer's questions showed
that he had actually read the book.

One of the most pleasant and rewarding occasions of my trip was a discussion on Darwin and aesthetics with science journalist, John Horgan. John also had a further comment HERE, responded to by me.


Darwin Day in Australia

February 2009

I greatly enjoyed to have the opportunity to speak to the 200+ people who showed up at the Supreme Court of New South Wales for my Darwin Day address to mark the 200th anniversary of the great man's birth. The audience was informed, aware, and totally alive to the themes of my talk. Thanks to Greg Lindsay of the Centre for Independent Studies for sponsoring the event and Chief Justice James Spigelman for allowing the use the Court facilities. The Darwin Day address was recorded by the ABC and can be heard HERE.

Thanks also to the Oceanic Arts Society in Sydney for allowing me to address their first meeting of the year.


Denis Dutton is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. He edits the Johns Hopkins University Press journal, Philosophy and Literature and the website Arts & Letters Daily.

His personal website is:


Philosopher of art Denis Dutton "combines a magisterial command of the history of aesthetics back to Plato and Aristotle, a total commitment to clarity and verve in writing, and an up-to-the-minute grasp of almost every trend on the contemporary cultural scene. Result? A philosophy of art for the ages." Those are the words of Carlin Romano, writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer. Read the whole review HERE.

Hannah Burgess of the University of Otago writes that The Art Instinct "marks a turning point in the literature on aesthetics and art. The originality and incisiveness of thought, lucidity of style and cogency of argument all clearly signal that this book is, and will remain, a significant contribution to the history of thinking about art and our experience of it." Her review for The Journal of New Zealand Art History is HERE. She also, yes, makes some quite telling criticisms of the book.

Writing in Metapsychology, Joe Saunders finds The Art Instinct "a witty, engaging, and enjoyable read from cover to cover, [one] that has deservedly received wide readership." Saunders has an incisive criticism or two of the argument as well. Read the review HERE.

"Creative, nimble, and entertaining, Dutton discusses landscape art, pottery, Aristotle, forgeries, and ready-mades," writes Donna Seaman in Booklist. "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?

Writing in The Wilson Quarterly, John Onians calls The Art Instinct a "tour de force," a "peacock's tail of a book." Read his review HERE.

The Royal Society for the Arts now has a magazine called RSA Arts & Ecology. Writing there, William Shaw says the idea behind the book is "brilliant and insightful." But somehow, though I'm right in a hundred different little ways, I'm wrong in a hundred little ways too. Something like that. Go figure HERE.

The book is "full of observations that again demonstrate [Dutton's] uncanny ability to collect complex arguments and present them as thought-provoking statements," says James Panero in City Journal. The Art Instinct presents an idea "that deserves exploration through the historical evidence, both what we have on hand and what remains to be uncovered." His review is HERE.

Sir Peter Stothard, editor of the TLS, kindly introduced their review of The Art Instinct by saying, "Roger Kimball hails his new book, The Art Instinct, and the 'scientist’s sobriety' and 'connoisseur’s enthusiasm' that he brings to 'explaining art in Darwinian terms'." The review is HERE.

Taking a second go at the book, Newsweek lets Jeremy McCarter list reasons why I just have to be wrong. Read it HERE, as well as my letter to the editor HERE. I discuss this piece in the middle column at your left (scroll down).

The Art Instinct is "both cogent and exhilarating," says the Atlantic Monthly, a "punchy tract, a hard-hitting amalgamation of critical theory and evolutionary science." The review goes on: "Tempering his contentious passion with winning doses of empiricism and good cheer, Dutton — the essayist, academic, public-radio enthusiast, and founder and editor of Arts & Letters Daily — seeks a way around 'the hermetic discourse that deadens so much of the humanities.' Treading a path strewn with evolutionary psychology, prehistoric extrapolations, and other cross-cultural interpretations — and interpreters like Pinker and Gould — that he deems outmoded, the author takes a cluster-concept approach, arguing fluently that artistic creation, apprehension, and appreciation (like language, sexuality, and religion) are largely, if not wholly, chromosomal; that they are far more innate and biological than absorbed or accidental."

In Commentary, Kevin Shapiro calls the book "an ambitious first step in trying to bring art, and art criticism, into communication with the emerging science of human nature." His review is HERE.

The Art Instinct is “an important book that raises questions often avoided in contemporary aesthetics and art criticism… [Dutton] has woven a powerful plea for the notion that art expresses a longing to see through the performance or object to another human personality.” This from Michael S. Roth, writing in the Los Angeles Times. Read the complete review HERE.

Writing in the New Scientist, Martin Kemp says, "In his new book, [Denis Dutton] has bravely proposed a coherent notion of the 'art instinct' as a product of evolution in the strictly biological sense. It is a substantial contribution to the debate we ought to be having." Read the whole review HERE

"Exhilarating," writes Robert Fulford in Canada's National Post. The Art Instinct "offers fresh and liberating ideas while demonstrating Dutton's profound sense of curiosity and his willingness to take risks in dealing with puzzling and largely fragmentary pre-history." Read more HERE

The Art Instinct is "pugnacious, witty, and entertaining," says the late and much-lamented Kirkus Reviews, in one of the last reviews it published before going under: "even those who disagree with these opinions will find his manifesto scintillatingly written and not to be missed — even the end notes are indispensable." This review is reprinted in full on Bloomsbury's webpage for the book.

In the Washington Post, Jonah Lehrer writes, “As Dutton observes in his provocative new book, The Art Instinct, people the world over are weirdly driven to create beautiful things…. Dutton is an elegant writer, and his book should be admired for its attempt to close the gap between art and science.” Read the whole Sunday Book World cover review HERE.

Jeremy Lott, in a magazine called Young American Revolution finds a lot to praise in the book, but in the end he seems mostly unconvinced. You can read his meditations at his personal website HERE.

In the search to understand art, writes John Derbyshire, "we need informed speculation to inspire us, data in which to hunt for patterns, and hypotheses that future researchers may be able to test. The Art Instinct gives a comprehensive survey of the field, written with fluency, wit, and wide erudition." His New Criterion review can be read HERE

A patsy review? You might suspect it, seeing that Brian Boyd has reviewed The Art Instinct for the journal I edit, Philosophy and Literature. But you'd be wrong. Turns out that Brian is very annoyed by my use of sexual selection as an principle to explain some aesthetic values. Read his complaints HERE.

RA Magazine, the publication of the Royal Academy of Arts in London , says that I am "neither reductive no philistine, believing passionately in the value of the greatest, most lasting art. Matching such a refined sensibility to the explanatory demands of Darwinian biology makes The Art Instinct a riotous — and irresistably followable — marriage." The brief review is HERE.

Lucy Randall, a senior at Dartmouth College, has a review in The Dartmouth. You can find it HERE.

Troy Camplin has produced a worthwhile review of The Art Instinct for the website of the Emerson Institute. Read it HERE.

The Discovery Institute does not like The Art Instinct. Creationist Jonathan Wells writes, "Materialism reduces art to lust; that’s why evo-psycho regards the Messiah as nothing more than high-end erotica. And that’s why the philosopher’s stone of Darwinism turns gold into lead." Read the whole discussion HERE.

Darwin deniers! Creationists don't like Darwin, me, or my book since they think God created us and our aesthetic tastes. Social constructionsists, such as Rochelle Gurstein, don't like my book because they hold that history and culture determine aesthetic values. I argue that art is produced by culture, individuals, and their evolution in a complex interaction. Still, Ms. Gurstein, writing in Bookforum, does not seem to think I've written a stupid book, even if she appears to disagree with every word in it (including "and" and "the"). I don't regard her review as stupid, either. Decide for yourself by reading both the book and review, the latter HERE. Don't how she managed to so misread the section on greatness in the arts, but there you are.

"The Christian view of the arts agrees with Mr. Dutton about humankind’s inherent bent toward aesthetics, but explains this not by a repertoire of behaviors deriving from a need to reproduce and survive, but from the image of God in which all humans are created, and the gift of God of artistic ability and appreciation." So says M.T. Moore from a Christian (not creationist) perspective, writing on the website of the Center for Faith and Science International. Mr. Moore is trying to be fair and his take on the book is worth considering. You can find it HERE.

As if the art historical left weren't disgusted enough by my book, here comes an even more hysterical pan, from the religious and political right. In the Weekly Standard, Maureen Mullarkey accuses me of trying to be a "multiculturalist feminist" (terms of abuse for her) and quotes against me "St. Augustine's prayer, 'O Beauty, late have I loved Thee'." My book, she claims, has nothing to say about man's "quest for transcendent meaning, an enduring subtext of the study of beauty." The review is HERE. (Going over this one again, I must remark that it is really a disgraceful performance on Mullarkey's part, stooping even to ad hominem attacks over what she does not like about Arts & Letters Daily. And to quote Aristotle against me in that way: what ignorance!)

The Art Instinct is a book with "troubling implications" that leads the readers onto "dangerous ground," says Evelyn Juers in the Sydney Morning Herald. But how the hell does she know that Janis Joplin is not on my radar? Am I required to name Evelyn Juers's favorite singers? The SMH did not put this on their website, but my son Ben sent me a scan from Sydney. Read part 1 HERE and part 2 HERE.

Chicago Pride, gay newspaper of the Windy City (whoever named it that never lived in Wellington), has coverage of the The Art Instinct with some very apprciative reader reviews. You can find them HERE.

Roberto Casati likes the general idea of my book, I gather. It's just every detail in it that I seem to have wrong. His review for the website of the ICCI is HERE. Scroll down for some rather harsh debate. I finally reponded for myself HERE.

Blog Buzz

"This is an ambitious book, and covers a lot of ground, but although it is readable it does not sacrifice much rigor or clear-mindedness." Blogging at The Biology Refugia , Brandon has a review from a biologist's point of view. Read it HERE.

Avery Gilbert's splendid book on smell, What the Nose Knows, was something I relied in part for my discussion of olfactory art. He thinks I'm wrong in claiming that smells are not intrinsically connected with emotions. You'll find his critique HERE.

Michael Ruston is at Indiana University. His Arts Admin blog has a lovely short review of The Art Instinct, which he says "has new and interesting insights into art (old and contemporary), the mind, and criticism on every page....I highly recommend it." You can read the review HERE.

Nicole Perrin, of My Life in Books, has written an elegant little summary of my main themes HERE.

Literate blogger Geoff Arnold finds The Art Instinct "the best non-fiction book that I’ve read over the last year — and it's been a good year." Read his remarks HERE.

Among the bloggers weighing in with commentaries on The Art Instinct is by Charles Petzold. His excellent account is HERE.

Robert Genn of The Painter's Keys artists' community find The Art Instinct "one of the best books I’ve read in some time." I'm especially interested in his artist's view of my ideas. Read it HERE.

Novalis, in Ars Psychiatrica, has written a wonderfully accurate, elegant account of my book. Read it HERE.

Steve Sailer has a print of The Art Instinct's jacket painting, Frederick Church's 1859 The Heart of the Andes, hanging on his living room wall. He has other interests in common with the book as well.

Artist and theorist Ira Altschiller has some fascinating commentson the book. I much appreciate what he has to say about the Bloggingheads video made by John Horgan and me. (You can watch that discussion HERE.)

Andrew Goodwin, "Professor of Pop" at the University of San Francisco, is disappointed that I did not say more about popular music. Yeah, no one ever talks about pop music, do they. Prof. Goodwin also seems fascinated by the issue of how cool I am. The answer, Sir, is very, very cool indeed. I find his take on my book wild and a little eccentric. It is certainly worth considering. You may do so HERE.

Caite, from down the Jersey shore, has some intelligent observations to make about The Art Instinct. You can read them HERE.

Blogger Chris Navin has written an insightful commentary HERE.

"Respectful Empiricist" has some worthwhile comments HERE.

Writing in Nexus Magazine at the University of Waikato, Joshua Drummond has found much to like about The Art Instinct. Read here comments HERE.

Novalis, who blogs at the site Ars Psychiatrica, has some insightful comments on The Art Instinct HERE.

Robert Labossiere is not completely convinced by The Art Instinct, but finds it a worthwhile read nonetheless. His comments are HERE.

Daniel Allen has written a good summary review for Campus Report Online. Read it HERE.

Keith Oatley supplies a succinct and accurate summary of the book's thesis at his OnFiction blog. You can read it HERE. This blog links to important resopurces in the psychology of fiction.

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