Saturday, February 2, 2013

Stephen Davies's "The Artful Species"

Stephen Davies teaches philosophy at The University of Auckland. He writes mainly about aesthetics and the philosophy of art, and has written extensively on the definition of art, the ontological character of artworks, cross-cultural aesthetics, the expression of emotion in art, and the interpretation and evaluation of art. His books include Musical Works and Performances, Themes in the Philosophy of Music, The Philosophy of Art, Philosophical Perspectives on Art, and Musical Understandings.

Davies applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Artful Species: Aesthetics, Art, and Evolution, and reported the following:
My book The Artful Species examines views seeking a connection between our evolved human nature and both our interest in the beautiful or awesome (our aesthetic sense) and our predilection for behaving artistically.

The section on the aesthetic covers the many forms of humans' aesthetic appreciation of non-human animals, landscape aesthetics, and the prickly subject of human beauty, a topic that unfortunately is often reduced to the discussion of youthful female sexual attractiveness. Page 99 falls in the chapter on landscape. To this point I have allowed that their aesthetic tastes probably were instrumental in guiding our ancestors to congenial habitats. And that we inherit many of those preferences: enjoyment of habitats with lakes or streams, with natural vegetation and animals, and with sites offering prospect and refuge. But I reject the more specific thesis that we retain a vestigial preference for savanna, the environment of our African forebears.

Page 99 sets out the ongoing course of the argument: "In this section I will outline three alternative stories about our taste in landscape: that its basis is purely cultural, that we've adapted at different times to multiple habitats, and that, rather than being adapted to one or more habitats, we are adapted to respond flexibly to the affordances that a variety of habitats offer. I reject the first two in favor of the third." Among other things, the ensuing discussion compares human behavior with that of deer mice, mentions adaptations in humans to extremes of temperature and altitude, and provides information about ancient climate instability and how this affected our hominid forerunners.

The later section on art, which construes that notion broadly, examines whether the arts, either as a group or singly, were (and remain) adaptive in allowing our ancestors to reproduce more successfully than those who lacked them. Or if they were incidental by-products of other propensities that happened to be adaptive. Or, alternatively, if they were so far removed from biology as to be purely cultural in their explanation and effects. I conclude that artistic behaviors (creating, performing, appreciating) are rooted in our human nature. They are universal and are costly in skill, time, and effort to master. They provide subtle, complex, and variegated measures of many qualities that are relevant to mutual assessments of biological fitness.
Learn more about the book and author at The Artful Species blog.

--Marshal Zeringue