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Esman, A.H. (2009). The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution. By Denis Dutton. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009, 278 pp., $25.00. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 57(5):1259-1263.

(2009). Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 57(5):1259-1263

The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution. By Denis Dutton. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009, 278 pp., $25.00

Review by:
Aaron H. Esman

The Art Instinct is Denis Dutton's ambitious effort to formulate what he calls a “Darwinian aesthetics”—that is, a theory of art and its origins founded on evolutionary principles. Dutton, professor of the philosophy of art at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, engages here with the burgeoning discipline of evolutionary psychology, buttressed by a wide-ranging grasp of art history and ethnology and an impressive aesthetic sensibility in his pursuit of a general theory of art in its historical and cultural contexts. Despite his respect for such predecessors as David Hume and Immanuel Kant, he is firm in his view that a lack of evolutionary concepts is a fatal flaw in earlier aesthetic theories.

Dutton's essential argument rests on the proposition that art—or, perhaps more properly, artistic expression—is ubiquitous, a universal element of human nature and thus to be construed as reflecting an innate drive or “instinct.” Like any such global disposition, artistic expression must be understood in Darwinian terms as having survival value, originating in early hominid adaptation to the conditions of life in the African savannas of the Pleistocene era from which, it seems clear, our species emerged.

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