The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution
by Denis Dutton
(Bloomsbury, 278 pages, $25)

Ask people around the world what kind of picture they like best and their answers will be surprisingly similar: Most want an open but varied landscape, with a visible body of water, signs of human and animal life, and lots of blue. Ask children and the consensus will be even stronger. Despite such evidence, some theorists have continued to argue that all preferences in art are taught. To them, kitsch calendar art is so ubiquitous today that no one can escape its influence. But isn’t it more likely, says author Denis Dutton, that each of us is born with a taste for calendar-ready landscapes? The vistas we yearn for, after all, match that of the African savannas where our ancestors first thrived.

Dutton’s argument is more provocative than it appears at first glance, said John Derbyshire in The New Criterion. In his engaging new book, the founder of the popular website Arts & Letters Daily is taking on roughly a century of opposing assumptions when he posits that the human urge to create art and the appetite for appreciating it are evolutionary adaptations. He can’t hope to win his argument outright. He’s working with evidence that is “at present largely circumstantial.” But he writes about the Darwinian origins of our tastes in music, fiction, and the visual arts “with fluency, wit, and wide erudition.” And he suggests paths for future research with “ingenious speculations” that may one day put to rest the preposterous modernist notion that human beings can be taught to like just about anything.

Our preferences in landscape paintings are easier to explain than our tastes in other fields of art, said Jonah Lehrer in The Washington Post. A grassy savanna has obvious evolutionary appeal because it “contains more protein per square mile” than any other habitat. But Dutton’s best theory about the origins of poetry and music is that a display of talent in either endeavor has probably always been attractive to the opposite sex. That’s like “using the bedroom exploits of Wilt Chamberlain” to explain why Dr. Naismith invented basketball. Fortunately, The Art Instinct is “animated less by its grand thesis,” said The New Yorker, “than by all the questions tossed up along the way.”