August 21, 2012

Can art be explained by evolution?

Recently, there have been increasing attempts to explain the human ability to create and appreciate art in purely evolutionary terms, e.g., as an adaptation that is advantageous for our survival. In this fascinating essay/review, Adam Kirsch looks at several books that support these attempts, and finds the whole enterprise less than convincing.

…earlier theorists of evolution were reluctant to say that art was an evolutionary adaptation like language, for the simple reason that it does not appear to be evolutionarily adaptive. After all, every moment and every calorie spent carving a canoe, or building a cathedral, or writing a symphony, is one not spent getting food, evading predators, or reproducing. Not only is it not obvious that art and “high culture” help human fitness; as we have seen, there is a long tradition holding that the artist is peculiarly unfit for life, especially family life.

To avoid this contradiction, Stephen Jay Gould suggested that art was not an evolutionary adaptation but what he called a “spandrel” — that is, a showy but accidental by-product of other adaptations that were truly functional. Gould, Dutton writes, “came to regard the whole realm of human cultural conduct and experience as a by-product of a single adaptation: the oversized human brain.” Having a large brain was useful to our ancestors, allowing them to plan and to forecast and to cooperate and to invent; and it just so happens that a large brain also allowed them to make art. Stephen Pinker suggested something similar, if more disparagingly, when he described the brain as a “toolbox” which, in addition to promoting survival and reproduction, “can be used to assemble Sunday afternoon projects of dubious adaptive significance.”

The new Darwinian aesthetics is motivated by a desire to defend the honor of art against this kind of dismissal. In a strictly Darwinian nature, of course, there is no such thing as honor, value, or goodness; there is only success or failure at reproduction. But the very words “success” and “failure,” despite themselves, bring an emotive and ethical dimension into the discussion, so impossible is it for human beings to inhabit a valueless world. In the nineteenth century, the idea that fitness for survival was a positive good motivated social Darwinism and eugenics. Proponents of these ideas thought that in some way they were serving progress by promoting the flourishing of the human race, when the basic premise of Darwinism is that there is no such thing as progress or regress, only differential rates of reproduction. Likewise, it makes no sense logically for us to be emotionally invested in the question of whether or not art serves our evolutionary fitness. Still, there is an unmistakable sense in discussions of Darwinian aesthetics that by linking art to fitness, we can secure it against charges of irrelevance or frivolousness — that mattering to reproduction is what makes art, or anything, really matter.


The problem, for Boyd as for Richards before him, is that there is not the slightest plausibility to the claim that art renders us more “organized” or more “fit,” and there is considerable evidence to the contrary. To prove that art is directly adaptive, one would have to show that people who write symphonies or listen to symphonies have more children than people who do not. Or else one might devise a neurological test to show that an hour of Wagner renders your reflexes a millisecond or two quicker. If both these ideas are preposterous on their face, it is because our actual experience of art points so far from these conclusions. As Kant famously taught, the very definition of the aesthetic is that it is disinterested, that it has meanings but not utilities, that it suspends our involvement with practical and goal-oriented life, that it puts life at a distance so that we can judge it and escape it and even reject it. A truly Darwinian account of art would have to embrace this phenomenological reality, rather than simply positing what its premises compel it to posit, which is that art is essentially useful because it serves the biological cause of reproductive fitness.

The great irony of Why Lyrics Last is that in Shakespeare’s sonnets Boyd has chosen one of the supreme statements of the inferiority of physical life, and specifically of biological reproduction, to art. This is dramatized in the structure of the sequence, whereby the poet moves from urging his “fair friend” to become a father to boasting that his own poems will be his friend’s posterity: “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,/So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.” Boyd is aware of this, of course, and he addresses Shakespeare’s treatment of death and immortality, but he does not seem aware of how deeply it undermines his own Darwinian analysis of art. When Shakespeare tells us repeatedly that it is better to write and be written about than to live and have children, he is positing a value directly opposed to biological necessity.

August 19, 2012

Jesus Christ, now with rocket launcher

Jesus Christ, now with rocket launcher

If this is real, then you all now know what to get me for Christmas.

August 16, 2012

Nobody likes Five Guys as much as this guy

Nobody likes Five Guys as much as this guy

I like Five Guys well enough: they make a mean cheeseburger, and their fries are pretty solid. But my appreciation absolutely pales in comparison to Daym Drops’. Listen to him, my friends, as he explains the difference between a weak burger and a burger that has strength.

And here’s the (inevitable, it seems) remix, courtesy of The Gregory Brothers (the folks behind “Auto-tune the News” and “Bed Intruder Song”).

Cheeseburger and fries photo via

The Power of Negative Thinking

Now this is some psychology I can get behind:

Consider the technique of positive visualization, a staple not only of Robbins-style seminars but also of corporate team-building retreats and business best sellers. According to research by the psychologist Gabriele Oettingen and her colleagues, visualizing a successful outcome, under certain conditions, can make people less likely to achieve it. She rendered her experimental participants dehydrated, then asked some of them to picture a refreshing glass of water. The water-visualizers experienced a marked decline in energy levels, compared with those participants who engaged in negative or neutral fantasies. Imagining their goal seemed to deprive the water-visualizers of their get-up-and-go, as if they’d already achieved their objective.

Or take affirmations, those cheery slogans intended to lift the user’s mood by repeating them: “I am a lovable person!” “My life is filled with joy!” Psychologists at the University of Waterloo concluded that such statements make people with low self-esteem feel worse — not least because telling yourself you’re lovable is liable to provoke the grouchy internal counterargument that, really, you’re not.


Though much of this research is new, the essential insight isn’t. Ancient philosophers and spiritual teachers understood the need to balance the positive with the negative, optimism with pessimism, a striving for success and security with an openness to failure and uncertainty. The Stoics recommended “the premeditation of evils,” or deliberately visualizing the worst-case scenario. This tends to reduce anxiety about the future: when you soberly picture how badly things could go in reality, you usually conclude that you could cope. Besides, they noted, imagining that you might lose the relationships and possessions you currently enjoy increases your gratitude for having them now. Positive thinking, by contrast, always leans into the future, ignoring present pleasures.

I am definitely a worst case scenario kind of guy. And though there’s a teensy bit of a morbid element to it, I “like” to think of all of the things that could go wrong so as to better know what I’m up against, what I need to prepare for… just in case.

Being Social Is About Being Private

Kyro Beshay:

A lot of services seem to subscribe to the belief that the value of a person’s interactions is directly proportional to the degree of transparency with which they share their lives. But much of the value in our dealings with others is found in the privacy of the many decisions we make. This privacy is as essential a component in successfully participating in society as openness and honesty; and if services don’t start understanding that, people will eventually push back.

I hope people will start pushing back, but I wonder if exhibitionism will end up ruling the day.

The Animaniacs take on dubstep

I’ve never listened to a Skrillex track, and now I don’t think I ever need to. Oh, and Animaniacs were, and still are, awesome.

“Rock Bottom” by King Krule

“Rock Bottom” by King Krule

What I dig so much about this King Krule song is that it’s a such a study in contrasts. On the one hand, there’s the sprightly, silvery guitar tone that evokes sunny ‘50s-era pop, as well as the upbeat, propulsive beats. On the other hand, there’s Archy Marshall’s voice, arguably King Krule’s most distinguishable element. Sounding far older and more world-weary than his eighteen years might indicate otherwise, Marshall’s voice is rough, heavily accented, and sounds like he’s been on a two-week pub crawl. Bring all of it together, and it makes for a juxtaposition that remains invigorating listen after listen.

“Rock Bottom” will be released as a single on September 24. More of Marshall’s music can be heard on the Zoo Kid Bandcamp page.

Welcome to the new Internet

John Herrman comments on the recent releases of ultra-minimal publication and communication tools/apps like Branch and Medium:

So this is one, if not the, vision for the future of the internet, and a lot of people are dedicated to making it catch on. It’s an internet where every blog is Daring Fireball, where every post looks like Instapaper, where every discussion is led by its rightful leaders, and where ads are considered no better than spam. It’s barren but design-forward, and, at least at the moment, kind of elitist. It’s not clear how it’ll make money. Maybe it won’t! Maybe that’s part of the idea.

There’s a lot of merit to these ultra-minimal services, if only because they seem intent on cutting away much of the cruft that can be found on many websites today (ads, social sharing links, etc.). However, I do wonder how extensible they’ll be, and of course, how they’ll continue to survive without eventually including advertising and/or charging subscription fees (or some other revenue method). Choire Sicha wonders the same, particularly with regards to “native” advertising (i.e., advertising that is inserted alongside real content).

Most of these “apps” currently have a huge ton of money behind them, and a lot of resources, and this money-making idea will be a second-wave scheme for them. (If you look at the job titles at a place like Branch, you’ll notice that none of them have “business” or “revenue” in them.) I mean that’s kind of wonderful, that people get to grow and build like that! But when they get to it, if they don’t cook up some wacky subscription model or something surprising (I won’t rule that out!), they’ll likely be running advertising that has a high opportunity to be deceptive — or at least, intrusive in a way that no display ad could ever be.

August 15, 2012

Ranking the Cure’s albums from worst to best

Aaron Lariviere:

Fortunately for us, the Cure don’t really make bad albums, not by normal standards. At their worst, they’re merely strange — interesting diversions rather than life-changing experiences. At their best, they’re fucking brilliant. It’s hard to picture a band more evocative of unique textures and emotions than the Cure; the songs practically exist outside of time. There’s an intoxicating, tangible strangeness at work — the atmosphere sets you up for the hooks, which open the door for the lyrics to work their way inside your head. Listening, you’re pulled into a glimmering, twilit dreamscape: someplace imaginary, but almost real; the kind of place you’ve always known but never seen. The songs feel so specific and personal it’s hard to believe they work on such a universal level, but therein lies the magic.

The order here shouldn’t surprise anyone, and the “best” album should be obvious before you even read the article. Still, Lariviere’s point stands. Even The Cure’s worst albums — *cough* Wild Mood Swings *cough* — contain more interesting moments than most bands are able to pack into an entire discography.

Related: “12 of my favorite songs by The Cure”

August 14, 2012
Kids on the Slope

Kids on the Slope

ShinichirĊ Watanabe (2012, noitaminA)

That’s really the heartbeat of Kids on the Slope, the love and influence of jazz as it affects friendships, love affairs, and other teenage melodrama.