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Evolutionary psychology: Didn’t you know that this stuff is supposed to “rile” you?

Michael O’Donnell’s Barnes and Noble book review of Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct does its best to make the case for evolutionary psychology in the arts, a book that will supposedly “rile” many readers – but will probably make far more wonder why they don’t just watch the afternoon soaps.

It offers a paean of praise to Dutton (and Steve Pinker) who “know” that great tenors could “spot the savanna with little Pavarottis” by catching the ear of ladies:

Natural selection is one thing, but the stronger, and more entertaining, basis for Dutton’s case for an evolutionary aesthetics is sexual selection, which Darwin explored in The Descent of Man. A clear tenor voice wouldn’t help Pleistocene man outrun a jaguar, but it might ingratiate him with the ladies — remember the guitarist on the stairs in Animal House? — allowing him to spread his genes widely and spot the savanna with little Pavarottis. Dutton describes the possession of artistic talent as “an ornamental capacity analogous to the peacock’s tail” — or to a florid vocabulary. These traits signal a certain robustness or intelligence, which are attractive qualities in a potential mate.

This stuff is so terminal that it is hard to believe that the people writing it believe it. I bet they don’t. Perhaps they think they must write it, in order to ingratiate themselves with the powers that – they think – rule the world.

First, if Pleistocene man (with whom Katie Couric has never booked an interview, no matter how passionately she believes in him) couldn’t deep-six a jaguar, his sweet tenor voice would be at best a happy memory for his forlorn ladies. And worse for them, the tone-deaf dullard – whose aim with a projectile is unerring – must then be their companion.

But who knows?

Evolutionary psychology is a discipline without a subject. We really do not know what went on among humans in the Pleistocene era – assuming that we agree they were humans. In other words, that they could think about things the way we can. And if they couldn’t, no direct comparison is possible.

O’Donnell notes, re Dutton,

He also makes important concessions, acknowledging, for instance, the confounding resistance of music to natural selection theory: pitched sounds are elusive in nature, so the ability to decipher or deploy them would not help anyone survive. In the tradition of all pathbreaking scholarship, The Art Instinct is therefore an invitation to further study rather than the final word.

I am glad to hear that Dutton is not setting himself up as the final word. That cuts down on the mess to clean up later.

Note: In any event, it is not clear that the peacock’s tail attracts mates. But why let facts get in the way of a good story about the cavemen.

So go ahead, get “riled.” Oh, okay … yes, getting riled by this is pretty far down on my list too.

Just thought I should note this story in passing. This is, after all, the year of ridiculous Darwin hagiography. And, in fairness, O’Donnell doesn’t write like he really believes it, as a true worshipper of Darwin’s toothbrush or sidewalk:

Ah, but there’s no accounting for taste. If sexual selection shaped human character by favoring high artistic talent, why does the average young woman spend her evenings watching clumsy footwork on Dancing with the Stars rather than attending the symphony on the arm of a clever sculptor?

Well, that could be because the theory of sexual selection is utter nonsense, and sometimes malignant, racist nonsense.
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3 Responses to Evolutionary psychology: Didn’t you know that this stuff is supposed to “rile” you?

  1. Hi Denyse,
    I’ve always appreciated your pro-life stance and would like to applaud you on that. I have always been pro-life but I don’t think it was ever quite as real to me until my wife had twins (a boy and a girl) 5 years sgo. Now, after knowing Chance and Sophie the way I do, abortion seems like one of the vilest crimes imaginable.
    I viewed the video you mentioned and I was struck by the situation that Katie asked about (a 15 year old raped by her father), which, it seems to me, is mabye the most extreme example she could think of. I think Palin should have asked her what percentage of abortions would fall into that category.

  2. 2

    I enjoy watching O’ Leary rip into evo psych. As she points out, even their pet example of sexual selection, that of female peacocks choosing especially elaborate males, is highly dubious. As Remine points out in his work, Haldane’s dilemma makes sexual selection extremely problematic…I’m willing to bet that Dutton conveniently overlooks that.

  3. First, if Pleistocene man (with whom Katie Couric has never booked an interview, no matter how passionately she believes in him) couldn’t deep-six a jaguar, his sweet tenor voice would be at best a happy memory for his forlorn ladies. And worse for them, the tone-deaf dullard – whose aim with a projectile is unerring – must then be their companion.

    Some of what is written in evolutionary psychology does read very much as a speculative account of what might have happened. That is not necessarily a problem – Popper encouraged scientists to be bold in their conjectures – provided it does not pretend to be anything other than speculation. If it does then, of course, the author is bound to set out the evidence on which the hypothesis is based.

    In the case of our Pleistocene hunters, if the female could choose between several males, all equally adept at skewering jaguars with stone spears, she would have to make her choice on some other basis, like one dude is wearing a much cooler set of skins than the rest. It’s not that a more prominent display improves the chances of survival for that individual, it’s just that, all other things being equal, it will tend to win out over drabber competitors when it comes to attracting the attention of a female. And whatever the trait is that the females find attractive will tend to become more widespread in the population over time. That seems fairly straightforward.

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