In Newsweek, Jeremy McCarter tackles an interesting claim: that the arts serve an evolutionary purpose.
McCarter is reviewing a new book called The Art Instinct, in which evolutionary psychologist Denis Dutton says that art has played a role in both natural and sexual selection. Dutton argues that storytelling abilities helped our ancestors imagine the possible consequences of their actions, thus making them more likely to survive the various challenges of their lives. Storytelling also helped them get laid. McCarter paraphrases: "a big vocabulary and a creative streak would have improved a man's chances of wooing a lover (and thereby passing on his genes to a child) — just as an amusing woman would have been more likely to entice the guy to stay (thereby boosting the child's odds of survival)."
If this seems kind of reductive to you, you're not alone. McCarter quotes biologist Jerry Coyne, who says, "The fact is, you cannot give me a human behavior for which I can't make up a story about why it's adaptive." Ooh, let's play! Twittering probably evolved from early humans' tendency to update others on their status, so someone would notice if they got eaten by a bear. And my mom's habit of leaving used tissues everywhere probably has its roots in some primordial territory-marking.
Silliness aside, assigning an evolutionary purpose to every activity ignores the fact that, as Stephen Jay Gould said, many activities may arise by chance. It also ignores the complexity and variety of the human race. McCarter writes,
Much of evolutionary psychology deals with universals. It works backward from some shared trait to puzzle out an underlying cause and help us to understand ourselves better. But when a human activity doesn't lend itself to universals, evolutionary psychology begins to sound dubious. And no field of human endeavor has less to do with universals than the arts.
Actually, many fields of human endeavor are poorly explained by universals, when you get right down to it. Evolutionary psychologists love to talk about the biological roots of gender differences and sexual behaviors (or at least the media loves to report on it when they do). But people vary widely within each gender, and not everything we do sexually is procreative or even adaptive. Chalking everything up to our caveman roots may seem elegant, but human behavior really isn't elegant at all. Evolutionary psychologists could learn something from literature: people are unpredictable, and we don't always do things for a reason.
Rage Against the Art Gene [Newsweek]