The Seductions of Darwin
Art, Evolution, Neuroscience
The Seductions of Darwin
Art, Evolution, Neuroscience
“A thoughtful examination of the attempts to reduce aesthetics and art history to neurophysiology or evolutionary science. It provides a comprehensive survey and penetrating analysis of the efforts to impose biological models on the understanding of the arts that have proliferated in recent decades.”
- Table of Contents
- Sample Chapters
Taking a scientific approach to understanding art has led to novel and provocative ideas about its origins, the basis of aesthetic experience, and the nature of research into art and the humanities. Rampley’s inquiry examines models of artistic development, the theories and development of aesthetic response, and ideas about brain processes underlying creative work. He considers the validity of the arguments put forward by advocates of evolutionary and neuroscientific analysis, as well as its value as a way of understanding art and culture. With the goal of bridging the divide between science and culture, Rampley advocates for wider recognition of the human motivations that drive inquiry of all types, and he argues that our engagement with art can never be encapsulated in a single notion of scientific knowledge.
Engaging and compelling, The Seductions of Darwin is a rewarding look at the identity and development of art history and its complicated ties to the world of scientific thought.
“A thoughtful examination of the attempts to reduce aesthetics and art history to neurophysiology or evolutionary science. It provides a comprehensive survey and penetrating analysis of the efforts to impose biological models on the understanding of the arts that have proliferated in recent decades.”
“For decades, neuroarthistory, neuroaesthetics, and other biological approaches have been assembling a version of art’s history that is alien to the discipline of art history. Outlandish claims have been made about the significance of brain functioning to works of art, provoking defensive criticism about the pertinence of science to art history. Matthew Rampley advances and opens the discussion by taking up the same scientific criteria advocated by the writers he analyzes, including questions of evidence, hypothesis forming, and explanatory value. In that sense this book is not a polemic but an attempt to find ground for conversation. At its heart is a broad and widely informed concern with the sense of culture that art history might bring to bear in the coming decades.”
Matthew Rampley is Chair of Art History and Head of the School of Languages, Cultures, Art History, and Music at the University of Birmingham and the author of The Vienna School of Art History (Penn State, 2013).
Preface and Acknowledgments
1 Art, Biology, and the Aesthetics of Selection
2 Memes and Trees: Art History as Evolution
3 Brains, Caves, and Phalanxes: Neuroaesthetics and Neuroarthistory
4 Self-Organizing Evolution: Art as a System
Conclusion: On the Multiple Cultures of Inquiry
In 1959, the novelist and chemist Charles Percy Snow delivered a now famous lecture titled “The Two Cultures.” The cultures in question were those of the scientific community and the literary intelligentsia, and Snow’s lecture analyzed the polarization of intellectual life due to the estrangement and gulf of incomprehension between the two. Indeed, he argued, more than just incomprehension, there existed mutual hostility and suspicion: “Thirty years ago the cultures had long ceased to speak to each other, but they at least managed a frozen smile across the gulf. Now the politeness has gone and they just make faces.”
Snow’s lecture remains perhaps the best-known expression of what one commentator has referred to as his “technocratic liberalism,” an optimistic embrace of the idea of a meritocratic and technologically advanced society that he set in opposition to the “Luddite” tendencies of the artistic and literary community of the 1950s. It was the culmination of a larger debate in postwar Britain about the place of scientific inquiry, and, in the wake of the 1951 Festival of Britain, it drew on a wider process of introspection about the future of British society. Snow’s diagnosis focused on the specialization in education that occurred too early, and his consequent remedy was to broaden the educational curriculum. While he overstated the differences, his argument was to prove enormously influential, and it continues to be invoked as a point of reference in debates in this area. Indeed, the call for a dialogue between the arts and humanities and the sciences has become a recurring theme; national and international research councils and funding bodies frequently and actively encourage projects that cross the boundaries between the two.
A response to the immediate historical circumstances of postwar Britain, Snow’s lecture was also rooted in a longer debate over the relation between the social and natural sciences in Germany before the First World War. Occupying the attention of major thinkers of the time, including Max Weber, the debate concerned the status of historical and social knowledge. If empirical historical findings could not be generalized into normative statements comparable to the laws “discovered” by the natural sciences, how could the humanities defend their scholarly status? Famously, Weber’s response to this question was to assert the distinctiveness of inquiry in the humanities. They did not need to mimic the natural sciences in order to attain legitimacy. “There is no absolutely objective scientific analysis of culture,” he argued, for it consists of the “empirical science of concrete reality” and its aim is the “understanding of the characteristic uniqueness of the reality in which we move.” This purported difference was summarized by Weber’s contemporary, the philosopher Wilhelm Windelband, as the distinction between the “nomothetic” concerns of the natural sciences and “idiographic” approach of the humanities.
Both thinkers acknowledged that this difference was not absolute. Windelband noted that “one and the same object can be the subject of nomothetic as well as ideographic inquiry.” A language might be studied in terms of its grammatical, morphological, and syntactical structures and rules, but at the same time, “each language is a unique, temporary phenomenon in the life of human speech.” Likewise, Max Weber highlighted the use of the “ideal type” as a heuristic procedure in sociology. The ideal type, a “synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena . . . arranged . . . into a unified analytical construct,” serves as the basis for the identification of historical and social patterns against which individual cases can be contrasted. Despite such concessions, both men sought to mark out the distinctiveness and legitimacy of a domain of inquiry the objects of which could not be defined in terms of conformity to “objective” lawlike behavior. Linked to this, too, was the claim that the natural sciences are concerned with the objective, third-person explanation of observed phenomena, in contrast to the central role of understanding in the humanities, where actions and events are seen as the product of human agency and subjective intentions.
Knowledge of the details of the dispute among German scholars of the early twentieth century is now of limited resonance except to specialists, but it laid down the outlines of a debate that has continued to the present. Definitions of science still revolve around notions of the role of “covering laws,” as the philosopher Carl Hempel termed them. To quote Hempel, “Scientific explanations, predictions, and post-dictions all have the same logical character: they show that the fact under consideration can be inferred from certain other facts by means of specified general laws.” It is often assumed, Hempel suggested, that the historical and natural sciences are distinguished on this very point, that the former deal with singularities that cannot be accommodated within a framework of generalized rules.
Hempel formulated this distinction in terms of the opposition between the nomological and the idiographic. Rather than thereby dismiss history as lacking the objectivity of the natural sciences, Hempel tried to argue that it, too, operates in a similar manner. “Historical explanation, too, aims at showing that the event in question was not ‘a matter of chance’ but was to be expected in view of certain antecedent or simultaneous conditions. The expectation referred to is not prophecy or divination, but rational scientific anticipation which rests on the assumption of general laws.” Hempel’s formulation now belongs to the history of the philosophy of science, but the basic framework was taken up by scholars in the humanities.
Michael Baxandall, for example, used it in his analysis of art-historical interpretation. Recognizing that historians employ “soft” generalizations, Baxandall emphasized that art history is nevertheless a primarily idiographic enterprise. This is not only because “our interest as historians or critics is . . . towards locating and understanding the peculiarities of particulars,” but also, he argued, because of the distinct focus of art historians. Historians study actions and events that may or may not be subsumable under covering laws, but art historians are concerned with artworks as the deposits of those actions. The historian may be concerned with works of art and other historical artifacts, but “his attention and explanatory duty are primarily to the actions they document, not to the documents themselves.” In contrast, the art historian is concerned with the document itself—a work of art—even though it is the result of an intentional behavior.
Given the debated status of unanalyzed notions of intentionality, agency, and authorship, one may wish to be more cautious than Baxandall, but he has nevertheless captured something important that distinguishes art history both from the model of scientific explanation advanced by Hempel and others and from what might be seen as the nomological dimension of historical inquiry. To take one of Baxandall’s examples, we may be able to explain certain aspects of Piero della Francesca’s Flagellation of Christ by reference to “antecedent or simultaneous conditions” such as patterns of church patronage, iconographical traditions, theological doctrine, and the like. But this only manages to identify the painting as an instance of a certain type, rather than capturing something about the specificity of this image in contrast to all the other versions of the flagellation.
This issue lies at the center of many of the attempts to overcome the division between the arts and the sciences, and it will be discussed again in this study. But before going further into methodological reflection, it is useful to consider more recent attempts to implement Snow’s call for an integration of knowledge. Perhaps the most high-profile instance can be seen in the growing calls for “consilience.” Its leading advocate has been the biologist Edward O. Wilson, who has attempted to summarize the ideal of consilience as a systematic and coherent approach to the production of knowledge. Envisioning himself as heir to such philosophes as Condorcet, Voltaire, and Diderot, Wilson sees consilience as picking up the tradition of Enlightenment thought that was interrupted by the French Revolution and the rise of romantic irrationalism.
Many of Wilson’s arguments have a pertinence and force that is difficult to deny. He claims, for example, that one of the reasons for the failure of governments (and societies) to respond adequately to the challenges of environmental degradation is the fragmentation of knowledge. Biology, ethics, economics, environmental policy, and social science occupy different domains of knowledge, when there is an urgent need for them to be combined. A leading entomologist, Wilson has been particularly preoccupied with how the biological sciences can be deployed to explain facets of human culture. His first major foray into this area, the book Sociobiology, sought to ground human social behavior in inherited biological traits. Although much disputed, not least because of its political and ideological implications, sociobiology became a substantial field in its own right, and it is currently enjoying renewed interest.
The idea of a dialogue between, or even a convergence of, different domains of inquiry may, at first sight, appear a largely positive goal; few dispute the value of interdisciplinary thinking. Yet it raises a host of questions that will be the focus of this book. Wilson’s example of environmentalism is initially persuasive, except that the real object of criticism is the failure of government to take into account insights from numerous domains in the formation of policy, rather than the epistemological problem of the unity of knowledge. Wilson’s argument, moreover, is based on an undeclared realist epistemology that assumes the world as a single object of knowledge, when there are many more constructivist positions that would cast into doubt the a priori possibility of a unified field of knowledge.
Aside from such theoretical issues, there are other reasons to be wary of the new “consilience,” for in many cases the calls for such cross-disciplinary activity have been prompted less by a search for a dialogue of equals and rather more by a desire for intellectual imperialism, in which the proponents of the natural sciences lay claim to superior explanatory powers. Wilson provides an illustration when he states, “Without the instruments and accumulated knowledge of the natural sciences—physics, chemistry, and biology—humans are trapped in a cognitive prison. They are like intelligent fish born in a deep, shadowed pool. Wondering and restless, longing to reach out, they think about the world outside. They invent ingenious speculations and myths about the origin of the confining waters, of the sun and the sky and the stars above, and the meaning of their own existence. But they are wrong, always wrong.” The arts and humanities, lacking the tools of the natural sciences, are lost in a world of delusional mythologies. A similar opinion is expressed in Creating Consilience, a recent collection of essays that examines how the humanities and the sciences might be “integrated.” The nature of such integration is apparent, perhaps, in the first sentence of one of the essays in this collection, by the anthropologist Pascal Boyer: “Why is most cultural anthropology irrelevant?” For Boyer, it is because anthropology has written itself out of the concerns of most importance to contemporary society. His upbeat solution is that it should embrace the biological sciences, since, he asserts, “the traditional concerns of cultural anthropology are currently being given a new lease of life and often a much more lively public relevance by evolutionary biologists and economists, suggesting that there may be such a field as the ‘science of culture.’” Boyer is himself closely associated with a program of evolutionary anthropology that has claimed to identify the inherited biological roots of a wide range of cultural and social practices. Yet of course the use of the term “irrelevant” invites the question: for whom? Boyer and his colleagues never answer this question, but it is a recurring theme in this study, which starts from the premise that the construction of knowledge is a function of the interests of the inquirer, which, in turn, determine the questions to be asked.
One of the principal causes of the “two cultures divide” is, it is alleged, the emergence of conflicting ontologies. Scientists are ontological monists, whereas exponents of the humanities hold on tenaciously to a dualism of mind and body and to the mystifying concepts of Verstehen (understanding) and Geist (spirit) inherited from the German hermeneutic tradition. Once such dualism is overcome, it is argued, the humanities and the sciences can be properly integrated, and more rational accounts produced of cultural practices and representations. Criticisms of such proposals are, it is claimed, little more than an unreflective response to their counterintuitive implications. “Because of our innate folk dualism, human level realities—beauty, honor, love, freedom—strike us as pertaining to the ontological realm entirely distinct from the blind deterministic workings of the physical world, and we are always ready to trot out the emotionally fraught charge of ‘reductionism.’” This trivializes, of course, the philosophical stakes involved. While some defenders of the specificities of the humanities may fall back onto unanalyzed notions of mind, subjectivity, and intention, such breezy dismissal makes no serious attempt to understand and engage with the philosophical underpinnings of the humanities.
One of the shrillest voices of all in this debate has been that of Richard Dawkins. Having written a number of groundbreaking works in evolutionary biology in the 1970s, Dawkins has since become the advocate of an increasingly fetishized and reified notion of science. Taking particular aim at religious belief, Dawkins has tended to dismiss anything other than “scientific method.” It is not the goal of this book to defend religions against his polemics, but it is legitimate to express concern at Dawkins’s wish to monopolize the field of inquiry in the name of a simplistic, philosophically and historically uninformed image of “science.” The voices calling for consilience or for a dialogue between the sciences and the humanities therefore often seem to be aiming at anything but an open conversation. They envisage not a meeting of equals but, instead, an encounter in which the purported illusions motivating the humanities are shown for what they are and replaced with a properly rational program of research.
This book is concerned with the attempts to apply such an outlook to the study of art. It examines questions to do with theories of aesthetic response as well as issues relating to the historical understanding of art. There are some obvious examples of the interaction between scientific research and art-historical inquiry. Technical art history, for instance, is a by-product of modern chemistry, and its relation to the natural sciences is not in question. However, this study focuses less on that well-defined subfield of art history and more on the particularly prominent role that the biological sciences have played in the project of rethinking art and aesthetics. The theory of evolution has been of central importance in this context, and one might even argue that the call for consilience amounts to little more than an attempt to create a neo-Darwinian framework for the analysis of art. Indeed, evolutionary aesthetics has become a recognized field, and much of this book is devoted to the critical appraisal of the claims of neo-Darwinian accounts of art and aesthetics. Other, related approaches have also gained prominence, however. These include neuroarthistory and the attempt to analyze artistic creativity, as well as the response to art and architecture, using techniques devised in brain science. This book also examines systems theory. More usually seen as a product of the interest in management and computerized systems in the 1960s, systems theory has a much wider set of conceptual roots, and in the writings of its most important representative, the social theorist Niklas Luhmann, the theory of evolution is a central organizing theme. It has gained particular traction with theorists of contemporary art.
Almost as soon as art history emerged as a modern discipline, art historians expressed anxiety about its status. This anxiety related not only to its assumed role as a mere auxiliary discipline to history but also to its status as a “scientific” enterprise. At the first-ever international congress of art historians, held in Vienna in 1873, the convener, Rudolf Eitelberger, declared that “art history was created through scientific work—and it is only through scientific work that it has a future.” This claim, as much a defensive plea as a confident assertion, reveals the fear that art history might be vulnerable to the charge that it was little more than an exercise in dilettantism, its exponents pursuing personal aesthetic preferences when writing about art. It was to counter such suspicions that Eitelberger proclaimed its scientific status, a view that was repeated by his successor as professor of art history in Vienna, Moritz Thausing, who in his inaugural professorial address of the same year declared that taste and aesthetic value had no place in art-historical scholarship.
The term Kunstwissenschaft, used by Eitelberger and Thausing to denote art history, suggested not only “science” but also “scholarship.” It had a less restrictive set of meanings than the English term science would suggest, and German Kunstwissenschaft embraces a broad spectrum of practices, from positivistic and archaeological documentation of factual information to iconological interpretation and formal and technical analysis. Nevertheless, almost from the inception of their discipline, art historians showed a lively interest in the natural sciences. Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, first published in 1859, played an important part in influencing the thought of art historians across Europe and North America in the late nineteenth century. For many, the overall shape of art’s history could be conceived of as an evolutionary process; Gottfried Semper, Alois Riegl, Franz Wickhoff, and Max Dvořák all espoused this concept. This not only informed the understanding of forms; Riegl and Heinrich Wölfflin also saw art as an index of the evolution of vision. The meaning of this concept remains much debated, but it reveals the clear influence of Darwinism. Wölfflin’s and Riegl’s contemporary Aby Warburg mapped the history of art onto the evolution of human emotional and aesthetic response, with the constant possibility of the reemergence of atavistic impulses from a primitive past. Warburg’s interest in the representation of bodily gesture, for example, was indebted to his repeated reading of Darwin’s study The Expression of Emotions in Animals and Man (1872). In Britain, too, Darwinian thinking was marshaled to provide an explanatory framework for the development of artistic forms; the anthropologists Alfred Haddon and Henry Balfour, for example, both described the history of artistic decoration in evolutionary terms, mapping out the genealogy of a wide range of artifacts.
Alongside their interest in the theory of evolution, Wölfflin, Riegl, and others responsible for the development of modern art history sought to explain style and aesthetic response in terms of physiology and the psychology of perception. Younger scholars, such as Yrjö Hirn (1870–1952), Wilhelm Worringer (1881–1965) and, later, Ernst Gombrich (1909–2001), continued this interest. But the subsequent identification of art history as one of the humanities entailed the marginalization of attempts at such integration. Edgar Wind may have attempted, in Experiment and Metaphysics, to draw parallels between scientific experimentation and art-historical inquiry, but this work fell stillborn from the press. Gombrich attempted to explore the psychology of perception, but his work was effectively ignored by the art-historical establishment. The occasional eccentric publication, such as Patrick Trevor-Roper’s attempt to explain the work of a range of artists by reference to the defects in their vision, has done little to alter the larger general pattern.
It is therefore all the more striking that in recent years there has been a renewed effort to bring scientific (read: biological) methods and concepts to bear on the understanding of art. This book proceeds on the premise that despite the often unhelpful tone of their aggressive and triumphalist rhetoric, the exponents of consilience cannot be simply ignored or dismissed; their claims require critical scrutiny. This is especially so given that neo-Darwinian approaches aim to explain some of the most fundamental questions to do with art, such as the nature of artistic creativity, the character and purpose of aesthetic experience, the process of artistic transmission, art’s social purpose, and, ultimately, art’s origins.
Speculation as to the origin of art is coterminous with the history of writing about art; Pliny the Elder’s account of painting in the Natural History opens with a comment not merely on who the first artists were but also on how painting first emerged. Every subsequent major writer on art, from Vasari to Winckelmann, Hegel, Riegl, and Gombrich, includes an account of art’s origins, and the discovery of Paleolithic artifacts and rock art in the nineteenth century gave added impetus to such conjecture. Nevertheless, the question of origins has been taken up again with renewed vigor in recent years, encouraged by neo-Darwinian theorizing about art and culture. Authors with otherwise disparate theoretical and ideological commitments, such as Ellen Dissanayake, Denis Dutton, Steven Mithen, and Winfried Menninghaus, have all advanced evolutionary theories of art, with an emphasis on its adaptive function. In the absence of other satisfactory metanarratives, evolutionary theory has also been used as the underpinning of “world art studies.”
The first chapter of this book examines and critiques the argument that art emerged as an evolutionarily adaptive behavior, not only by questioning the strength of its claims, or indeed of its politically problematic assumptions (heteronormative models of sexual and social behavior are frequently inserted into descriptions of the Paleolithic primal scene), but also by interrogating its value as a statement about art and art behavior. It may be persuasive to assert that art was the product of some adaptive mutation, but there is no way of knowing, and it is difficult to identify evidence for such a claim, or even to agree on what might count as evidence. In other words, I argue that such theories are underdetermined—one might even add “unscientific”—and an indicator of this might be that the meaning of the term adaptive remains markedly uncertain. Some authors have pointed toward parallels in the mating rituals of other species to suggest that art was primarily directed toward reproduction. In contrast, others have suggested that art emerged out of a reservoir of behaviors that were reinforced by, and crucial to, human cognitive development. Still other commentators have suggested that art’s representational function, its ability to evoke virtual and fictional realities, built on and enhanced the ability to weigh up possible worlds, a capacity that underpins deliberation on different courses of action and their possible consequences. Finally, some have argued that art was adaptive inasmuch as it enhanced the sense of communal identity and thereby ensured the reproduction of the group. Each of these arguments is equally plausible, but the difficulty is that there is very little evidence for which might be more plausible. This touches on a wider debate over the concept of underdetermination.
The philosopher of science Larry Laudan has argued that the critique of underdetermination is not necessarily decisive, inasmuch as a weaker criterion of rational defensibility may be all that is required to sustain an argument. This may be the case, but the difficulty with evolutionary aesthetics is that the models of adaptation advanced are all equally defensible, and the decision to select one over another is ultimately dictated by extrinsic criteria. One might thus begin to dispute the claim that the biological sciences provide a superior interpretative approach. Instead, it turns out that a central aspect of evolutionary theories of art lacks any “logical” or “scientific” basis.
One can, of course, make similar criticisms of the humanities in general and art history in particular. Even the most descriptive account of a work of art is a selective interpretation of what the commentator is observing; “close” reading, a much-repeated trope in recent years, is anything but close, since it is a selective attention directed by the wider interests of the interpreter. Moreover, as James Elkins has argued, although art historians have frequently drawn on “nomothetic” frameworks, from iconography to semiology and cultural materialism, there is nothing objective or nomological about their application to specific instances. The difference, however, is that art historians are all too aware of the contingent, interest-driven, and ideological nature of their work. In other words, they make few of the claims on behalf of their practice that the exponents of consilience make in relation to their own.
The difficulties mount up when one interrogates the issue further. Even if it is accepted that art emerged as an adaptive behavior, this is of little help when tracing art’s subsequent historical course. For example, certain types of landscape painting may perhaps evoke primal ancestral memories of a Pleistocene natural environment to which humans were adapted, as various authors suggest, but this helps little when trying to analyze the history of landscape as a subject of artistic representations. How does this help when trying to determine the historical relationship between a classical landscape by Claude and a transcendentalist vision of northern Germany by Caspar David Friedrich, for example? How does it help when trying to determine the relationship between individual paintings of the same subject, Friedrich’s The Oak Tree in the Snow (1829) and Gustav Klimt’s Tree of Life (1909), if they are both expressions of the same atavistic impulse?
This type of criticism can be applied equally to the subject of the second chapter of this book, namely, the use of evolutionary theory to describe artistic diffusion and the development of artistic traditions. Aby Warburg was the first to attempt such a project, using the biologist Richard Semon’s theory of memory to describe artistic reproduction and variation. Comparing artistic images to mnemic traces imprinted on biological organisms, Warburg envisioned the Renaissance as a process of mnemic recall, in which the retrieval of classical symbols was a reactivation of latent memories imprinted on the collective memory. Semon saw mnemic replication not only as a repetition of the same but also as a process where mutation could introduce variation, leading to the production of new lines of descent. This opened up the possibility that artistic tradition was not merely doomed to an eternal recurrence of the same, but rather could subvert the meanings of ancient memories buried in the inherited stock of visual imagery. Artistic tradition could thus be as much about the sublimation of primitive inherited impulses as about their repetition.
This model clearly bears similarities to Darwinian notions of evolution and descent, in which genetic lineages are either passed on and reproduced unchanged to subsequent generations, or are passed on in mutated form and even confer reproductive advantages on their bearers. Warburg focused his study of artistic transmission on dynamograms—those visual symbols that were charged with cultural memory. More recently, in his book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins took up the idea with the concept of the meme, the unit of cultural transmission that could be compared to the gene in biological evolution. For Dawkins, memes are handed down, repeated, and transmitted because of one of a range of qualities that bestows success on their ability to reproduce. A melody may be highly memorable; an image may be particularly moving or striking in the specific context in which it is produced. In other words, it will be better “adapted” than others in that it has features that render it more likely to be passed on. Other authors have attempted to construct similar theories of cultural and social adaptation. Of these, the most ambitious is Walter Runciman, whose wide-ranging historical sociology is founded on notions of social evolution and adaptation. This is so not only in the case of larger-scale theories of social adaptation but also in more specific claims about the adaptational function of art. It is possible to see almost any social (and cultural) phenomenon as either adapted or maladapted, depending on the perspective chosen. Given that historical phenomena come into existence for a certain time, it is possible to assert their superior adaptivity over what preceded them, but, equally, since nothing lasts forever, it is also possible to argue that everything is maladapted, since all eventually comes to an end. As the biologist John Maynard Smith has admitted, the claims often advanced “become irrefutable and metaphysical, and the whole program merely a test of ingenuity in conceiving possible functions.”
The issue of arbitrariness comes to the fore when more detailed studies of individual cultural and artistic practices are examined. Numerous authors, from Alfred Barr and George Kubler to more recent writers such as Mark Collard and Franco Moretti, have attempted to construct evolutionary trees, or “cladograms,” that map out the lines of ancestry, continuation, variation, and extinction of specified artistic and literary objects. A common difficulty in such accounts is that the features they use as the basis of such mapping—clues in the case of detective fiction for Moretti, geometrical figures in textile designs for Collard—are chosen arbitrarily. It would be possible to use other features, equally arbitrarily, to reach quite different conclusions.
Such evolutionary accounts ultimately run the danger, too, of offering a positivistic tautology: certain cultural and artistic practices persist or gain greater influence than others—in other words, are “selected”—because they are more successfully adapted. This weakness is evident in the work of Niklas Luhmann, the focus of the final chapter. Luhmann’s systems theory has had a growing impact on aesthetics and art history, initially in Germany, but now, gradually, in the Anglophone world as well. Evolution is central to Luhmann’s theory of social systems, according to which systems persist through time by means of the processes of self-reproduction, variation, and selection. But systems theory suffers from the same weakness as other evolutionary theories. Namely, while it observes such processes at work, it lacks a midlevel theoretical framework for identifying how or why certain variations are selected and others are not. This deficiency is especially significant given that in systems theory the environment is not seen as a constraining factor (against which certain variations are better adapted than others), but rather as something that is itself defined by the system. In other words, the process of variation and selection is determined entirely within the system, but systems theory has no theory of the grounds for such determinations. It is limited to making two observations: there is variation, and there is selection.
The third chapter addresses what has become one of the most contentious and disputed areas in which biological insights have been applied to the study of art: neuroarthistory. Although associated with John Onians in particular, it has been promulgated by a number of authors, who have used neuroscience to explore familiar issues in aesthetics and the history of art. Subjects have ranged from the meaning and origins of Paleolithic art—it was the visual expression of a profound evolutionary leap in human cognition and neurological structure—to more detailed art-historical case studies, such as responses to modernist abstraction, classical Greek architecture, and the Renaissance invention of perspective. For such theories, the power of art is due to its ability to stimulate certain evolved neurological processes. Conversely, neuroarthistory claims that artists and architects derive their creative disposition from specific patterns of neural development; certain areas of the brain are overdeveloped, and these are the centers of creative activity.
Neuroarthistory has been the object of trenchant criticism, not least from researchers in the neurosciences, who have criticized its superficial understanding of neurological processes. Although some of these criticisms are outlined here as well, my main concern is, again, with neuroarthistory’s explanatory value. Arguably, even if reactions to artworks can be correlated with observed patterns of neural activity, it is open to question whose interests this insight serves. Does neuroarthistory generate findings that address the disciplinary concerns of art historians, or does it merely use artistic raw material to provide “data” that are primarily of interest to those researching the operations of the brain? What would it mean for the results of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans of the brain to be of significance for art-historical investigation? How might it shape the course of the discipline? What answer might there be to the suspicion that neuroarthistory merely uses the vocabulary of neuroscience to describe commonplaces about the formative role of social and natural environments? What does neuroscience add to conceptions of aesthetic experience? The limitations of this approach are all the more apparent when it is used to account for individual episodes in the history of art; it turns out to be unable to provide any method for distinguishing between responses to individual artworks, much less for considering their aesthetic, cultural, or other value and significance.
Critics of the new Darwinism in the humanities are often accused of a blinkered attitude, of an ideological and willful blindness that interferes with the possibility of genuine and meaningful dialogue with the natural sciences. In some cases, this accusation may be justified, but it should not be allowed to distract attention from the serious issues that attend the attempts to apply neo-Darwinian and neuroscientific ideas to the analysis of art. C. P. Snow’s original complaint was about the lack of meaningful engagement between the two cultures, which had become both socially and intellectually estranged. Overcoming this division may undoubtedly be an important objective, but, as stated earlier, many proponents of consilience aim at something more ambitious: the wholesale subordination of the humanities to a scientific paradigm. Yet even advocates of a “naturalization” of the humanities have recognized that this is impossible. Neurology can, at best, describe individual brain states, but this is far from explaining the cultural and artistic objects that are of interest to the humanities. As Jan Faye puts it, “Cultures, norms and meanings supervene on numerous brains and their interactions, as mediated by language and other cultural symbols, which are themselves not neurophysiological states. . . . Individuals who share a common culture or communicate via some communal symbolic medium do not share some common brain state.”
At the center of the debate over the value of the natural sciences for the understanding of art is the question of the unity of knowledge. The premise of this book is that the desire for such unity is at the heart of the problem, for it is a misconceived project. It is no small irony that one of the most forceful advocates of epistemological pluralism has been Niklas Luhmann, whose vision of a system-oriented modernity stresses its “polycontextural” nature. For Luhmann, there is no overarching form of knowledge that would encompass all insights generated by individual social, biological, and psychic systems. The perspectives of individual systems may interact (Luhmann speaks of “structural coupling” or “interpenetration”), and indeed they may sometimes depend on such interactions, but, in contrast to the proponents of consilience, this is far from constituting a single field of knowledge.
Cashed out in concrete terms, this means that insights from the natural sciences and the humanities may well converge on topics of shared interest, and that the possibilities of such convergence have to be examined. The argument, for example, that the emergence of representational art across the world at an approximately similar time is linked to crucial evolutionary developments in human cognition is compelling, unless one is committed to a nonnaturalistic theory of human mind. Equally, for all their contentious and problematic character, Darwin’s speculations as to the sexual origins of aesthetic experience merit serious attention. Likewise, through quantitative analysis it is possible to detect patterns of development that enable the reconstruction of evolutionary “trees” of artistic and cultural reproduction, variation, and selection. Nevertheless, in each of these cases the most striking feature is the limits of such explanations.
Even though an important cognitive evolutionary step may have been taken some forty thousand years ago that enabled the emergence of complex representational imagery, this can tell us little about the subsequent history of such imagery. A similar restriction besets the Darwinian reading of aesthetic sensibility. It may be that the sense of beauty is descended from earlier responses to visual display in mating rituals and is thus rooted in sexual selection, but such distant origins have long since been overwritten by layers of cultural meanings, which are precisely what concern art and cultural historians. In other words, evolutionary theory may provide an additional explanatory layer, but it does not easily replace more established discourses in the humanities. It is possible to map out patterns of cultural evolution, but the data generated require interpretation about the significance of such processes, which requires the application of a wide range of other methods and concepts from the humanities.
Such reservations do not entitle one to dismiss such initiatives out of hand, for they may offer important insights and, on occasion, lead to a reframing of established questions. As the individual analyses suggest, the use of the evolutionary framework poses questions about how one might formulate models of art-historical change and time, about the cross-cultural validity of the categories of art and aesthetic experience, about the relation between art and sexuality, about the use of quantitative information in art-historical analysis, about norms of evidence and argumentation. At the same time, they suggest that the proponents of consilience of the arts and sciences are less entitled to the confidence that has often been a hallmark of their interventions.
It may be objected that in concentrating on questions of value, i.e., whether such approaches offer a “difference which makes a difference,” as Gregory Bateson put it in another context, I have adopted an instrumental attitude toward inquiry. In response, I argue that in an important sense it is entirely pointless to debate whether Constable’s Hay Wain is as it is owing to the way in which his brain was formed in childhood, or whether we enjoy the landscape paintings of Albert Bierstadt because they evoke buried primordial memories of our Pleistocene past, or whether we find Myron’s Discus Thrower beautiful because his proportions signify his genetic and hence reproductive fitness. I am not in a position to adjudicate the truth-value of research into mirror neurons, or the evolution of the human mind, nor are any other art historians. My concerns lie elsewhere, with issues such as whether the claims to greater rigor advanced by the proselytizers of consilience are borne out by the examples of “scientific” approaches to art and culture, whether they offer decidable and compelling propositions, and whether the explanations offered provide answers to the kinds of questions that preoccupy art historians and critics, as well as theorists of art and culture in general. My aim is therefore to interrogate what is gained when the world is represented in this way rather than in others. The remainder of the book will explore what such an interrogation might consist of and whether it, too, has positive value.
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