Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Can We Derive Aesthetic Norms from Biology?

Suppose that X is an evolutionary adaptation. Can one infer, prima facie, that it is good? The consensus in philosophy is that one cannot. Reflecting on Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct made me reconsider.

Here, in very schematic form, is the argument that cuts against the consensus:

1. Suppose that X is an adaptation to circumstances C. (E.g: the heart is an adaptation to the need for oxygenated blood throughout the body.)

2. From a scientific account that shows why X is an adaptation, we can (usually?) derive a function-attribution of the form: F is a function of X. (E.g.: oxygenation and pumping of blood are functions of the heart.)

3. If F is a function of X, and A is an X that does not perform F, then A is a bad X. (E.g.: a heart that doesn’t pump and oxygenate blood properly is a bad heart.)

Suppose that some human practices are adaptations. Specifically, suppose that art is one. Then by 2 above we may conclude that art has a function. Suppose that work of art A does not perform that function. Then, by 3 above, work of art A is deficient.

Dutton (who does not give the above argument) argues that an evolutionary account of art would be a source of critical norms. The above argument supports him.

I want to emphasize that the conclusion of the above argument is defeasible. It could be argued that art acquires new functions as human culture grows. If so, works that fall short of the evolutionary functions of art may nevertheless be good. My question is whether conclusions drawn from 3 are prima facie correct.

(Interactions with Dutton and Justine Kingsbury prompted this post.)


  1. I'm not sure that you can go from saying that art as a human practice has a function, to a work of art resulting from (or as a product of) that practice has a function. The function of the heart might be pumping blood, and a non-pumping heart might be bad. A result of the pumping heart is circulating blood, and a result of the non-pumping, bad heart is non-circulating blood. It does not seem to me that the non-circulating blood is bad; the badness attribution is exhausted by the badness of the heart.

    So producing art might have a function, and doing it poorly might be bad. But that doesn't speak to the works so produced.

  2. That is a useful distinction, Corey. Here is a way of making the point with your distinction in place.

    Treat art as part of the "extended phenotype". Say, for example, that the adaptive value of art production derives from its producing items that play a certain role R. Then, you could say that playing that role R is a function of art.

    Then from the argument above, you get both that the product is bad when it does not play the role R and that the act of production is bad when it doesn't produce something that plays the role R.

    One good thing about this way of looking at it is that it takes in both those cases where the artwork is distinct from the production (e.g., in classical painting) and cases where it isn't -- straightforwardly in the performing arts, less straightforwardly in Dada works such as Duchamp's "Fountain". (I include the latter, because some think that the urinal is not Duchamp's artwork; rather, putting it in a museum is.)

  3. Hi Mohan,

    Part II of Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology (Blackwell, edited by Ayala and Arp) takes up the question "Have Traits Evolved to Function the Way They Do Because of a Past Advantage." Mark Perlman argues yes, and Rob Cummins and I argue no. Much of our paper is aimed at criticizing premise 2 of the above argument. I'd be happy to send you a copy of the paper, if you're interested (and I would, of course, welcome your feedback).


    Martin Roth

  4. Hi Martin,

    Thanks for this. I'd love to see your paper.

    As I see it, premise 2 isn't committed to a yes answer to your question, though of course, it depends on what the question means!

    Forgetting about the past tense though, and forgetting also about issues that arise when 'function' is a verb, I would say that if X's performing F is what got X selected-for (past tense) AND continues to get X selected-for (present tense), then a function of X is F.

    I am wondering whether you would contest this rather conservatively worded thesis. (Conservative because it conjoins past and present selection, and acknowledges that a thing can have many functions.)

    As I understand his earlier works, Rob Cummins wouldn't contest it, though he would hold that it's not selection, but the causal contribution of X, that is relevant to making it a function. And on his view, such causal-role functions have no normative force.

    So he wouldn't question premise 2, on my interpretation of his line, but rather the inference to 3.

    What do you think?

  5. Hi Mohan,

    Thanks for your reply, and I will send you the paper shortly.

    Actually, we don't have a problem with 3 (or something close to it)--in the paper we argue that causal-role functions (in the paper, we call this the 'systematic account' of functions) do have normative force. What we deny is that the normative force to be found has anything to do with selection (being adaptive, or being fit) per se.

    I very well may have misunderstood your argument. What role is adaptiveness playing here? I'd be happy to grant that we can sometimes infer function from adaptiveness (as long as adaptiveness is not necessary or constitutive of function). But is the adaptiveness supposed to be what gets you 3? In other words, is the view here that some functions are adaptive (though some may not be), but only adaptive functions generate norms?



    P.S. I liked you remark that "it depends on what the question means". Our paper begins by asking what the question is asking!

  6. Oh good. I don't think we'll end up disagreeing.

    My view is quite a weak one. It says simply that if F is the function of Xs, then an X that doesn't perform F is a bad X, and an X that does is, to that extent, a good X. That's all that is needed for a critical norm in aesthetics. I don't need to say that these Xs are bad per se, or good per se.

    I also don't restrict this view to adaptive functions -- agent functions (as of artifacts) have the same norm-making force. I am not entirely clear how causal role functions have normative force, but obviously I don't want to alienate you by taking you on on that score.

    Assuming that you can agree with all of that, then all that you have to give me is this: if X is selected for because it performs F, then F is a causal role function of X. This will enable me to board your boat and sail with it.



  7. I'm with Corey on this, and I find the response to him unconvincing.

    First, I'm not sure what adaptive role "the practice of producing" art is plausibly supposed to have had in evolutionary history. But I'll set my skepticism about this aside. Surely whatever role R such a practice played when this "phenotype" was being selected for (if there was one) cant _possibly_ be the same role that contemporary works of art play and in virtue of which they count as good art.

    Think about the kinds of roles that works of art play in modern society in virtue of which we might plausibly think of them as good works of art. "Guernica" is, in part at least, a great work of art because of the stark way in which it drew attention to the oncoming brutality of modern warfare and fascism. But surely the practice of producing art was not selected for because of its ability to play such a role.

    Second, its does not seem correct to me to say "the product is bad when it does not play the role R". If "guernica" had somehow been confiscated by Franco's secret police, and no one had had a chance to see it, it would still have been a great work of art.

  8. Hi Eric,

    I did want to allow that both works of art and art production could have culture-endowed functions, and I said that this was one reason why the argument was defeasible. (When this is the case, I said, "works that fall short of the evolutionary functions of art may nevertheless be good.")

    So, I don't think I need to be bothered by your point about Guernica being a great work of art (in part) because it drew attention to the brutality of the Fascists. And a good thing too, since you are absolutely right about this.

    That said, it is not my claim that all critical norms are provided by evolution, just that evolution can provide some of them, if it were to show that art-production is adaptive -- and let's set your scepticism about the latter aside, as you generously agree to do. To reiterate: my primary interest as far as this post is concerned, is to test out a bridge to norms. (Maybe it's a bridge from nowhere, to coin a phrase.) Not that I am NOT interested in testing the argument that art and its production are evolutionary adaptations -- far from it.

    Finally, I don't contend that all critical norms are based on function, just that function does determine some critical norms. Your argument about the premature destruction of Guernica shows rather aptly that such a stance would be mistaken. Or just consider this: the function of a building is to shelter people. Nevertheless, an overly expensive, or ugly, building might be a bad building even though such buildings might be functional. But still: a building that doesn't shelter people is (prima facie) a bad building because it is non-functional.

  9. Hi Mohan,

    I guess I should have been more clear that I meant the Guernica example as an illustration, not as a counter-example. In other words, its not just that I think here is one example of a work of art that plays a role which is not an adaptive one. It's that, in general, I find it implausible that _any_ role that the practice of producing art might have been selected for could be the sort of role that a contemporary work of art could be judge aesthetically good in virtue of which.

    I suppose, in other words, that I would like an example of a work of art that is judged good because it plays some role R, where R is also something in virtue of which playing it made some trait evolutionarily adaptive to humans during the period during which it was selected.

    Absent that, why should we think any norm established its adaptive role is actually an aesthetic norm?

  10. Hi Eric,

    I think that this is where the thesis actually could get surprising.

    Suppose it could be established that art evolved because the production of art increased the sexual attraction of the artist. (That's Dutton's thesis, by the way.) A big supposition, but grant it for the sake of argument.

    Then the argument would imply that if Guernica was not (other things being equal) such as to increase Picasso's sexual attractiveness -- false, ha ha! -- then it was (at least in that way) a bad work of art. (Note that I said "such as to" -- we need to get away from whether it actually did or not, or whether it did so accidentally.)

    Well, that conclusion might make you suspicious of the argument. But where has it gone wrong?

    Of course, one could take the line that you hint at in the last sentence. The argument would correctly imply that Guernica is bad in some way, but not that it is aesthetically bad.

    I am not sure that this adequately recognizes the boldness of Dutton's view, tied to my function argument. He is saying that art is essentially a product of evolution, and I am saying that if this is so, we would have a certain way to criticize it AS ART. If we are criticizing it as art, then we are criticizing it aesthetically, are we not?

    That could be taken as a refutation by modus tollens of Dutton. But that would be as methodologically surprising as my argument. For then you would have a purely art-critical position refuting a view about evolution!

  11. "He is saying that art is essentially a product of evolution, and I am saying that if this is so, we would have a certain way to criticize it AS ART."

    But why should we think this follows?

    Suppose there were two equally empirically supported scientific hypotheses:

    H1: art evolved because the production of art increased the sexual attraction of the artist.

    and, I dunno:

    H2: art evolved because the production of art increased the ability of the artist to kill more antelopes.

    But then if you inference were correct, then we would be in a state of not being capable of deciding which works of art were aesthetically good or bad, until we knew which of H1 and H2 were correct.

    We would have Guernica on the one hand, which would turn out be a great work of art if H1 is true, but aesthetically worthless if H2 is true. And we would have little maps of the forest showing where all the antelopes are that would be aesthetically worthless if H1 is true, and great works of art is H2 is true.

    But what reason is there for thinking this is how aesthetic norms operate? What reason is there for thinking our aesthetic judgments depend on knowing the truth value of hypotheses like H1 and H2 (which are probably, pace Dutton, epistemically inaccessible to us anyway.)

  12. Interesting and challenging points that demand a response. I am beginning to see how the argument needs to be defended -- if indeed it turns out to be defensible. We seem to be getting somewhere.

    First, we don't have to say, do we, that we appreciate good art because we know what makes it good? No more so than we have to know that sugar is an energy-booster in order for sweet things to taste pleasant. Similarly, Guernica might appeal to us in all sorts of complicated ways related to H1 (or H2, for that matter) without our knowing the source of the appeal. It could even be that we have a complicated set of aesthetic norms, none of which appeal to H1 or H2, but which are collectively or individually explained (genetically) by H1 or H2. (Dutton thinks they are explained by H1, though he admittedly doesn't give adequate consideration to H2.)

    I also want to repeat that the argument above doesn't pretend to give necessary or sufficient conditions for goodness or badness of art. It doesn't because the claims it supports are defeasible. Guernica might be good, even on H2, because of culturally introduced norms. Antelope maps might be bad, even on H2, because of the same.

    The example of food appreciation actually provides a good model of how we should think about evolutionary stories about art. We have a complex aesthetic of food, but at some basic level, our tastes have an adaptive origin. Can we say that food is bad when it is nutritionally excellent, or good when it is deficient? From a foodie's point of view, yes, but these claims have some force prima facie, and we do have to provide good reasons why such food is good (as food) despite its failure to nourish, or conversely bad despite its success in nourishing.

  13. I guess I'm ok with that, but it seems to me the conclusion has been significantly weakened.

    the original claims were along the lines of:

    "Can one infer, prima facie, that it is good?[yes]"


    "an evolutionary account of art would be a source of critical norms"

    But now all we seem to have is that an evolutionary account might explain [in part!] why we have some of the norms that we have. That seems to me to be quite different than be a "source of norms" or something "one can infer goodness from" (paraphrasing).

    Obviously, our morality, our aesthetic norms, and our taste in food have roots in our evolutionary history. that's a very weak claim. The strong claim is that being adaptive MAKES something (even if its ceteris paribus) good, or beautiful, or tasty, or whatever.

    the point can be drawn by responding to this claim:

    " and we do have to provide good reasons why such food is good (as food) despite its failure to nourish, or conversely bad despite its success in nourishing"

    if by the above you mean that, as scientists, we might want to give explanations of why we sometimes like food that fails to nourish, whereas the tastiness of food that does nourish, is, in some sense, already explained, then absolutely.

    but if the claim is that, as food critics, we have a higher burder of justication when we claim that a food which fails to nourish is tasty, then I havent seen the argument for this.

    if the claim is the later, then genuine art criticism will be impossible until we know whether H1 or H2 is true.

  14. I am with Winsberg on this. But I think you have not been pressed enough on what you wish to do with the claim "that if F is the function of Xs, then an X that doesn't perform F is a bad X, and an X that does is, to that extent, a good X." Here you use moralized language (good/bad) quite strictly in the context of functional statements.
    But when you move to more general, further claims, e.g., "that you get both that the product is bad when it does not play the role R and that the act of production is bad when it doesn't produce something that plays the role R." In the second quote the way you use "bad" has a far wider scope than in the first.(For now it looks like in virtue of not functioning properly it [the thing with a function] has acquired a substantial (im)moral trait...but that would be begging the question against all kinds of moral theories (if one is not already some kind of virtue-theorist). No doubt this can be repaired each and every time, but.. the way moralized terms work it is always a temptation to read/hear the wider scope. (This is why philosophers think it is so hard to be relativist about moral truth.)
    So, rather than good/bad, I think one is much better off with sticking to the language of "proper functioning" and "broken."

  15. Eric W, Eric S,

    Thanks for your comments.

    OK, let's shift gears a bit.

    Suppose that some phenotypic trait P is encountered in all cultures. I would suggest that the default position with respect to P is that it is an adaptation.

    It doesn't follow that it IS an adaptation. It might be a spandrel; it might have evolved through drift. Still, the prior likelihood of it having evolved by adaptation is higher than the other options. (This is a fact overlooked by fans of spandrels, I think.)

    So taking this on board, since art is present in all human cultures, the null hypothesis is that art (derivatively) and art production are adaptations. Here, one might want to include cultural evolution as well as biological evolution.

    Next point: art production is part of the great explosion of hominid evolution that started roughly 1.5 million years ago. It is one of those features of that evolutionary explosion that involves a behavioural, but not an anatomical, innovation.

    These facts suggest to me that Dutton is right to treat art production as an evolved phenotypic trait with a genetic basis, and I would conclude that it is an adaptation, unless there is a reason to think not -- Dutton does not agree, by the way, since he appeals to sexual selection.

    That's the basis for premise 1 of my original argument. Racing through the rest, we conclude that art that fails to produce adaptive value is bad for that reason. So I think that my response to Eric Winsberg is to say: yes, we do have a higher burden of justification when we claim that food which fails to nourish is good food (not 'tasty'). Moreover, the argument does lend support to the EW's "stronger" conclusion that producing adaptation, or contributing to it, is (partially) constitutive of being a good thing of its sort.

    As I have indicated in earlier posts, I don't as yet feel certain that this argument is sound. However, I do think it has some pretensions to providing a rationale for precisely the claim EW dismissed -- that evolution might be a source of norms. That's why it's surprising (to me). For in the past, the standard line on this has been that such a position straightforwardly commits the naturalistic fallacy. Precisely because I am presenting the argument as surprising, I don't think it is a criticism to say: the conclusion is unacceptable.

    Eric S thinks that I am using 'good' and 'bad' in a specifically moral sense. This is not what I intend -- and maybe I have to guard against the temptation that others may feel of interpreting my words in that way. Specifically the 'good' and 'bad' have to be attached to the kind of thing it is: good art in this case, or good art production. As we know, the inference 'This is a good F, therefore this is good' is invalid.

    I am surprised enough to have weak forms of constricted norms fall out of evolutionary accounts. I would be positively gobsmacked if moral norms came out of evolutionary accounts.