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Reviews

  • An essay review of The Artful Species written by Noël Carroll has appeared in Philosophy and Literature 38 (2014): 578–86 as “Aesthetics, Art, and Biology.” He writes: ” The publication of Stephen Davies’s The Artful Species: Aesthetics, Art and Evolution is an important event for aestheticians and philosophers of art. … Davies’s The Artful Species provides an indispensable service [by] surveying the various and many relations held to obtain between aesthetics, art, and evolution, engaging a formidable technical literature, and weighing hypotheses judiciously. … The organization of Davies’s book could not be more lucid. … Most of The Artful Species is dedicated to criticizing extant theories concerning its appointed topics. Davies is admirably comprehensive. … The research that has gone into this project is awesome. If nothing else, Davies has carved a path through a complex and tangled forest, making it easier for aestheticians and philosophers of art to join the discussion as informed participants.”

    In general, he thinks I neglect the important ways that the arts give rise to, engage, reinforce, and share the emotions, and he holds that it the effects of this on the group that are adaptive.

  • A symposium on The Artful Species appeared in the British Journal of Aesthetics 54 (2014): 467–98. The participants, against whom I defended my views, were all philosophers of science/biology, rather than aestheticians. They were Richard Menary (Macquarie University), Mohan Matthen (University of Toronto), Alva Noë (University of California-Berkeley), and Adrian Boutel and Tim Lewens (Cambridge University). Menary describes the book as “marvelously rich and detailed.” Matthen says it “sets a new standard of sophistication for investigations of the evolutionary origins of art.” Noë calls it “fascinating and important.” Lewens and Boutel characterize it as “sensitive to the complexities” of the topic, “even-handed,” and “scrupulously careful.” They observe: “It is an exemplar of how to occupy a reasoned middle-ground in a series of polarized debates, it shows the value of approaching aesthetic appreciation and the making of art from an evolutionary perspective, and it demonstrates an admirable ability to resist jumping to any simple conclusions.”

    Menary challenges the relevance to human action of the adaptation vs. spandrel vs. cultural technology categories. The distinctions between them blur, given the extent to which our species creates its own environment and given also the feedback loops between biology and culture and vice versa. I am very sympathetic to this outlook, though in The Artful Species I worked with the distinctions that most others writing in the field rely on.

    Matthen characterizes aesthetic pleasure as a response to the contemplation of an item. By contrast, I think aesthetic pleasure is a response to the beauty of the perceived object, and rather than regarding the response as always contemplative, I allow that it is often active. Sometimes, though not always, what we find beauty in also serves biological agendas by drawing us to what promotes our survival and reproduction.

    Noë thinks that I claim that art is a cultural technology that exhibits the biological fitness of those who make and use it. If it works, this argument proves too much, because it can be generalized to all cultural technologies, including writing. But rather than faulting the argument on this score, he suggests that it demonstrates the limits to what biology can help us to understand. It can account for art as one technology among many others, but it cannot measure the extent to which the power and significance of art goes beyond this. The view recommended does not match my own, however. Writing is more or less universal, as are art behaviors, but there are important differences between them. Because of the variety of the arts and of the skills they invoke, even if we all master some to some degree, there are subtle and complex fitness-relevant differences in how we do so. So it is art that the arts distinguish between us in biologically significant ways, even as art behaviors generally conceived are adopted like a successful cultural technology, as writing is.

    Boutel and Lewens think I underplay the role of culture in art, and they suggest that imitative learning drives the arts as it does cultural in general. I was seeking the biological foundations of art behaviors, but I hope that I was not guilty of ignoring the cultural diversity of the arts. And I think that, while imitative learning shows the importance of culture in the transmission of art competence and knowledge, that kind of learning rests on biological dispositions that are distinctive to our species.

  • In a review in Philosophy in Review (2014), Theodore Gracyk writes: “It will come as no surprise to anyone with prior knowledge of Davies’s previous major works … that The Artful Species is a careful, clear, and thorough dissection of the existing literature concerning the full range of possibilities here. … Davies shows that the literature is cluttered with weak reasoning and dubious philosophical assumptions about aesthetics and the nature of art. At the very least, this book moves the debate forward by demonstrating that the prevailing level of argumentation about the link between the arts and evolution is shamefully slack.
  • In a review published in Mind (2014), James Grant writes: “Davies convincingly demonstrates that much work in this area has the flaws he ascribes to it. His criticisms of other theorists for overlooking the many forms art can take and the many functions it can have (e.g., pp. 125, 133, 163) are especially effective. He states clear and plausible criteria of adequacy for an evolutionary explanation. He raises several interesting issues that many aestheticians are unlikely to have thought about, notably in his discussions of the aesthetics of animals and humans. The book is also a valuable resource for those researching this topic.”
  •  Two discussions of The Artful Species appeared recently in Literature and Aesthetics, 23 (2013): 111-127. John Powell observes: “What sets this new book apart from most of his earlier published work is the impressive grasp it shows Davies has of [the literature in] fields such as evolutionary psychology, evolutionary biology, neuroscience, anthropology, and ethology. .. it is an achievement increasingly rare in an environment where narrow specialisms are the norm and a working knowledge across more than one or two disciplines the exception.” He continues: “Davies’ style is personable and he writes with a simple clarity and grace. An impressive feature of his writing is the (apparent) ease with which, while presenting, summarising and assessing complex arguments from a wide range of sources, he maintains a lively, straightforward prose that is balanced, economical, authoritative, generally free from hyperbole and, for the attentive reader, not without touches of humour.” And Elizabeth Burns Coleman writes: “The Artful Species is important for two reasons. Firstly, it analyses ideas that have become such unexceptional, celebratory, motherhood statements about the relationship between arts and humanity, like the idea that we would not be fully human without art, and gives such claims substance. This work of scholarship enables us to assess the available evidence. Secondly, by providing an account of aesthetics that is not hedonistic, he saves the idea from complete triviality. Despite its lack of conclusion regarding whether art is an adaptation, or a product of other adaptive features, Davies does provide reasons for believing that art is connected to human biology and to the universality of aesthetic concerns. This book reminds readers of the breadth of artistic forms, and it is convincing in suggesting that while not all people may be skilled artists, the knowledge of an art or the competence that most people have in at least some art form suggests that the appreciation of art and the practice of art is fundamental to our humanity.”
  • In a review in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, the philosopher Susan L. Feagin writes: The Artful Species examines various ways the aesthetic, art, and the individual arts might be related to the evolution of human beings. It is carefully researched, clearly written, meticulously argued, packed with information, filled with wonderful examples expertly described, and informed by what is clearly a passion for the subject. … To organize and streamline the debates in such a clear, rational manner is a major achievement. Davies’s examination of important issues in these ongoing debates is both thoughtful and engaging and incites a virtually irresistible urge to position oneself within them.
  • In an extended review for Journal of Literary Theory Online, Stefan Descher writes: “The Artful Species stands out for its exceptionally clear style, carefully crafted arguments and the author’s familiarity with a massive body of relevant literature from various areas of research … The Artful Species is an important contribution to evolutionary aesthetics, accessible for both newcomers in the field as well as experts. Newcomers will benefit from its remarkable readability, the introduction and careful evaluation of a vast range of competing accounts, and the fact that all pivotal concepts and theories are introduced, explained and often illustrated by examples. Specialists will profit from the great clarity, the detailed criticism of numerous theories, and the emphasis laid on the requirements that theories about the connection between art and evolution must meet in order to count as justified.”
  • In a review for Choice Reviews Online, J. R. Couch describes The Artful Species as a “thorough and engaging exploration.” “The book is well structured, having three parts that move readers from certain foundational concepts through a consideration of how aesthetic preferences are more than a way to ensure gene survival, and ultimately to the determination that art is neither a biological adaption nor a result of it–nor merely a cultural technology. Academic, but not overly so, this book will appeal to those interested in a well-argued, multidisciplinary examination of the role of art in human evolution.”
  • Mohan Matthen of the University of Toronto has posted (August 2013) a “nearly final review” that will come out in the British Journal of Aesthetics.
    “Stephen Davies’ new book The Artful Species sets a new standard of sophistication for investigations of the evolutionary origins of art. Up until now, these investigations have had two main pivots. It has been debated, first, whether the “art instinct” is an evolved capacity and, if so, how it could have evolved. … Davies’ approach to these questions is bold and highly nuanced.”
  • Peter Godfrey-Smith of CUNY Graduate School has published a review in Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews (August 2013).
    “What sort of human product is art? Is it an expression of our biological nature, or a cultural overlay? Does it have a core function, in a strong sense of that term that stems from art’s evolutionary history, or is what we call “art” just a set of practices that people find rewarding for various disparate reasons, and a minor player in the pre-history of our species? Stephen Davies’s The Artful Species is a clear, judicious, and valuable treatment of these questions.”
  • A review in Italian by Matilda Bonate (July 2013) has been published in Universa. Recensioni di filosofia. “Davies chooses not to limit his research to a single disciplinary area, but to indulge the interdisciplinary nature of the question explored, enriching the philosophical perspective with the problems and hypotheses that have their roots in biology, anthropology, psychology, neuroscience, musicology, and literature. These forays into other research areas beyond the boundaries of philosophy, rather than simply providing support for his established thesis, continuously intersect with each other and furnish the material  that constitutes the concluding hypothesis of the book; it is precisely the care with which Davies searches for and identifies how these diverse disciplinary approaches rather than clashing with each other mutually sustain each other that constitutes the most  interesting aspect of his work.” (B. Luciano trans.)
  • In a review in the July 2013 edition of Lab Times, Alejandra Manjarrez writes: ” This book is wonderful for anyone seriously interested in the studies and hypotheses that have been offered about art as a result of biological or cultural evolution. It is clearly supported by an incredible amount of research and careful and intensive analysis.”
  • Denny Kinlaw reviews The Artful Species in Transpositions (June 1, 2013): “Drawing upon work in psychology, neuroscience, archaeology, evolutionary biology, philosophy of the arts, and even English Literature, Davies structures his text in an approachable and easily understood manner that remains engrossing without becoming overwhelming. … In sum, Davies book represents a rare achievement of lucid explanation and fair-minded analysis in an interdisciplinary field too often entrenched within dogmatic camps.”
  • In a review forthcoming in the Australasian Journal of Philosophy, Justine Kingsbury (Waikato University) writes: “In The Artful Species, Stephen Davies explores the relationship between art behaviours – creative, interpretive and appreciative – and evolution. This has been done before, but never so well. Davies carefully sets out the possible connections, and the arguments for and against each. His discussion is interesting, nuanced, and very even-handed. His main conclusion is that the evidence currently available does not warrant the acceptance of any of the hypotheses canvassed. In a field in which wildly speculative hypotheses abound, Davies’ measured approach is refreshing. … Questions about how art behaviours arose, and whether or not they have contributed to biological fitness and if so how, are of great interest in their own right. In The Artful Species, Davies provides a rigorous and immensely informative analysis of the range of possible answers to them.”
  • Noël Carroll (CUNY Graduate School). Commentary at the American Philosophical Association (Pacific Division) conference, San Francisco, CA, March 29, 2013.
    “The publication of Stephen Davies’ new book, The Artful Species: Aesthetics, Art and Evolution, is an important event for aestheticians and philosophers of art.  As cognitive science, neuroscience, and especially evolutionary psychology become more and more influential in the broader culture – supplanting psychoanalysis as the dominant model of the mind and even making occasional appearances on best sellers list – it is important that aestheticians and philosophers of art, not to mention humanists in general, don’t jump on the band wagon mindlessly.  Davies’ The Artful Species provides an indispensable service in this regard, surveying the various and many relations held to obtain between aesthetics, art, and evolution, engaging a formidable technical literature, and weighing hypotheses judiciously.”
  • Marek Kohn, in his review in  The Independent, March 15, 2013: writes: “In a field dense with hobby-horses and portentous musings, philosopher Stephen Davies does sterling work for clarity as he outlines the concepts, the problems and the difficulties with all the available explanations.”
  • In a 7000-word essay review of The Artful Species, titled “The arts and human nature: Evolutionary aesthetics and the evolutionary status of art behaviors”, pre-published in March 2013 by the journal Biology and Philosophy, Anton Killin writes: “Those working in this area comprise an interdisciplinary bunch including philosophers, neuroscientists, archaeologists, anthropologists, cognitive scientists, evolutionary psychologists and art theorists. In his latest monograph, The Artful Species, distinguished philosopher Stephen Davies offers a welcome synthesis and a sensible critique of many of these theories, as well as a contribution to debates surrounding aesthetics and human nature; it is an interdisciplinary critical review, distinct from some other literature on this topic which can be more political or theological than scientific. … My few criticisms aside, The Artful Species is an outstanding contribution to evolutionary theorising about the arts and a refreshingly rigorous book. Its primary claims are very well supported. Davies is right to argue that some of our aesthetic sensibilities have a connection with evolution. Davies is also right to warn us to be wary of claims about the evolutionary status of the arts, as a whole and taken individually. Moreover, Davies’ enthusiasm for the subject is likely to be contagious. He has written a truly laudable monograph, not to be missed by any reader interested in this field.”
  • Troy Jollimore – Boston Globe Jan 20, 2013. “comprehensive, well-organized, and cogently argued”
  • Books in brief, Nature 492, 183 (13 December 2012). This spare and elegant treatise by philosopher of aesthetics Stephen Davies posits that art is part of human nature, and is tied in a number of ways to human evolution. Moreover, he argues, the evidence could stretch back at least 400,000 years — to a blood-red quartzite hand axe dubbed Excalibur by the archaeologists who dug it up. Davies marshals findings in disciplines ranging from neuroscience, ethology and evolutionary biology to the arts, musicology and literature. Ultimately, he says, our artistic behaviour is both “puzzling and magnificent”, as we shoulder the heavy costs with perennial zeal.
  • Helen De Cruz: A puzzle for evolutionary aesthetics: the evolutionary basis for our appreciation of the sublime. “A wonderful book.”
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