Barnacles, finches’ beaks, art

Cirripedia, the barnacles, occupied Mr. Charles Darwin for many years, even though his extensive studies of the class are not what he’s famous for (except among cirripedists). The average layperson knows Darwin as the man who came up with the theory of evolution–though that is not strictly what he did, and none of his books bear that title. After the publication of On the Origin of Species and The Descent of Man, and the subsequent and ongoing controversies that followed, pretty much everything in the world could be–and has been–examined “under an evolutionary lens.”

The original “lens” involved finch beaks, pigeon-breeding, and early geology studies. It was fueled also by taxonomy, anatomy, and barnacles, by a member of the landed gentry who stayed at  home, more or less, for 45 years after his five-year journey on the Beagle. A scholar, an “armchair naturalist” by today’s standards; a genius.

finch beaksMany people who interpreted what evolution suggested went off the deep end one way or another, which is what happens with ground-breaking ideas. Both critics and supporters re-interpreted and often misinterpreted Darwin and the implications of his work, as well, all of which means he accomplished something truly significant. Why not, therefore, examine fundamental human traits to see whether evolutionary currents can be discerned? Certainly Darwin and a few of his contemporaries speculated that altruism might have an evolutionary basis, a concept that was taken up, debated, and temporarily dismissed in the 1960s-70s; recent neurobiological and genetic studies have brought the possibility of a biological basis for kindness back into discussion (see also Damasio).

There is also the question of art (and aesthetics, though taste seems more likely to be social than biological–but who knows?), which brings me to Denis Dutton’s delightful book The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution.

Rather than summarize my responses to his thought-provoking and rather convincing arguments, I’m posting some quotes. These are ideas I find juicy to consider; perhaps other readers will feel similarly.

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Wondrous aesthetic experiences are possible in the absence of a sense of larger community: the response of an individual to a beautiful landscape, for instance, …or to a recording of the Goldberg Variations heard in solitude. If the arts were intrinsically social in the way that social-cohesion theory claims, people…would prefer standing in a crowd to see a painting in a museum, rather than standing alone.

Because of sexual selection, the arts retain an incorrigible sense of being made by one individual person for another…the motives of art, as even Darwin knew, are ancient and complicated–directed toward a community perhaps, but also created to captivate an audience of one.

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The artist…probes the content of human emotional life with an eye toward articulating, or making clear, a unique emotion, an individual feeling.

Can you imagine taking [a] pill to save the expense of concert tickets, or even the time spent in listening to a recording of the piece? The answer is very likely to be no, and the reason tells us something about the nature of artistic expression. It is not just the emotion as bare feeling we want from art, it is the individual artistic expression of emotion–how emotions are revealed in the art, through technique, structure, balance, and the blending of sounds….Yes, we want feeling from art, but not as an end for which the art is a means: with art, the means is the end itself.      [italics mine]

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Extending Darwin’s original suggestion, I believe this intense interest in art as emotional expression derives from wanting to see through art into another human personality: it springs from desire for knowledge of another person….talking about art is an indirect way of talking about the inner lives of other people.

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All of the above excerpts are from Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct, 2009.

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2 comments on “Barnacles, finches’ beaks, art

  1. Dutton’s book sounds wonderful–absolutely in sync with my experiences as writer and reader.

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