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See The Artful Species put to the p. 99 test.

February 3, 2013

The Page 99 Test

“Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” –Ford Madox Ford

The following was published on the page 99 blog at http://page99test.blogspot.co.nz/2013/02/stephen-daviess-artful-species.html

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.

 

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2 Comments
  1. Having the author gloss his p. 99 and set it in context is to miss the point of Ford’s test, which is to present the reader with the author’s p. 99 unframed.

    • The full test of p. 99 is
      Alternatives to the evolutionary psychologists’ account of landscape aesthetic taste
      In this section I will outline three alternative stories about our taste in landscape: that its basis is purely cultural, that we have 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.
      The role of culture in habitat preference
      I have emphasized how the successful negotiation of all environments requires a considerable degree of social cooperation and taught knowledge, skills, and technologies. This must have been so for at least several million years in our Hominin past. So we cannot deny the centrality of culture, construing that term broadly, in our interaction with the environment. And this point is dramatized further by the success with which humans have settled extreme environments.
      In addition, we should be sensitive to changing fashion in human attitudes to landscape. Whereas earlier untamed nature was regularly perceived as ugly and fearful, in the eighteenth century the British were drawn to the picturesque in nature; and European and American Romantics in the nineteenth century found rugged, wild land sublime. In the late twentieth century, what was suddenly seen as the negative impact of human actions on the wider environment played a major role in the rise of conservation movements and Green politics. Obviously there was a cultural impetus to these alterations in prevailing sensibilities.
      Yet the evidence suggests that, whatever the role of culture in channeling and directing our preferences, there is a strong undercurrent of widely shared responses to natural environments. By far the majority of the world’s human population live in sub-tropical and temperate maritime environments that, if they were not already of the parkland or farmland variety, have been extensively modified to conform to that type. I doubt that this is an accidental result of cultural bias. Most people want to feel the warmth of the sun on their back, to hear gently flowing water, to see trees and grass, to have open vistas that show the horizon, even if those who are born in deserts, equatorial forest, or on the arctic ice can accommodate themselves to their different environmental circumstances. Although they are variable and malleable, I do not think that everyone’s landscape preferences are entirely and arbitrarily cultural in origin.
      Have we adapted to different kinds of habitats?
      Consider the deer mouse. Deer mice occupy different kinds of habitats: those raised in fields prefer fields, whereas those raised in woods prefer woods, though fields are a more favorable habitat other things being equal. If young born in fields are moved to pens in woods, they retain a strong preference for fields. Indeed, the preference persists through twenty generations of their descendants, so the basis for the preference must be

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