Thursday, January 06, 2011

Meaning of art and music not found in genes, says philosopher

Writer and philosopher Roger Scruton hasn’t much use for the lit crit fad known as “literary Darwinism”, popularized by the Denis Dutton. At Big Questions Online, he asks, “Only Adapt: Can science explain art, music and literature?” (December 9, 2010).

My sense is that a respectable science would not try, and the evolutionary psychology he quite properly deflates is not a science anyway, it is an artifact of a materialist culture and fully understandable as such. Scruton notes,
Over the last two decades, however, Darwinism has invaded the field of the humanities, in a way that Darwin himself would scarcely have predicted. Doubt and hesitation have given way to certainty, interpretation has been subsumed into explanation, and the whole realm of aesthetic experience and literary judgement has been brought to heel as an “adaptation,” a part of human biology which exists because of the benefit that it confers on our genes. No need now to puzzle over the meaning of music or the nature of beauty in art. The meaning of art and music reside in what they do for our genes. Once we see that these features of the human condition are “adaptations,” acquired perhaps many thousands of years ago, during the time of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we will be able to explain them. We will know what art and music essentially are by discovering what they do.

[ ... ]

... the whole “adaptation” approach to human phenomena is topsy-turvy. It involves a mechanical application, case by case, of the theory of natural selection, as supplemented by modern genetics. It tells us that, if a trait is widespread across our species, then it has been “selected for.” But this means only that the trait is not maladaptive, that it is not something that would disappear under evolutionary pressure. And that is a trivial observation. Everything that exists could be said to be not dysfunctional. That tells us nothing about how the thing in question came to exist.
The expression “selected for” is thus emptied of meaning. Natural selection can usefully explain animal survival where the link between the adaptation and the survival are obvious.. It’s not at all obvious that art and music aid survival; that is not what they are for.

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