The Seductions of Darwin: Art, Evolution, Neuroscience | Leonardo/ISAST

The Seductions of Darwin: Art, Evolution, Neuroscience

The Seductions of Darwin: Art, Evolution, Neuroscience
Matthew Rampley

Penn State University Press, University Park, PA, 2017
200 pp. Trade, $34.95
ISBN: 978-0-271-07742-0.

Reviewed by: 
Amy Ione
May 2020

It is not surprising that Mathew Rampley’s book, The Seductions of Darwin: Art, Evolution, Neuroscience, caught my eye since the volume touches on a number of topics covered in my own Art and the Brain: Plasticity, Embodiment, and the Unclosed Circle. [1] What did surprise me is that, despite analyzing many of the same subjects (cave painting, evolutionary psychology, art history, neuroaesthetics, neuroarthistory, etc.), the two books are worlds apart, even as we share similar goals. Both of us state that we seek to encourage humanistic thinking and voice reservations about the scientific and philosophical research surrounding art, neuroscience, and evolution. Yet, while I agree with Rampley’s premise that efforts to construct a “unity of knowledge” theory are misconceived, I found that his book read like a polemic, with arguments more along the lines of “not this, not that” than a humanistic probing of the contours of art, evolution, and neuroscience. This reaction is one the author himself acknowledges as possible, writing: “[m]uch of the discussion will come across as polemical in tone” (p. viii) and “[i]t would be reasonable to conclude, given the polemical tone adopted in this book, that I see neo-Darwinian approaches as having little value” (p. 140). Thus, my principal take-away was a humanistic-type question: Why is it that two people who review much of the same range of information can come away worlds apart? He is clear that, “It might be objected that I am relying on a reductive and overly empirical notion of inquiry, one based on the testing of hypotheses, and that this approach is particularly problematic when applied to the humanities” (p. 139); consistent with this statement, I take a more dialogical humanistic type of approach to the issues.

The Seductions of Darwin itself consists of an informative introduction, four chapters, and a conclusion. The bulk of the book outlines what Rampley sees as persistent weaknesses in theories of art that assume (presume) a Darwinian or neuroscientific perspective. What was most prominent within this is that he is looking for a unifying explanatory methodology (despite his claim that efforts to construct “unity of knowledge” theories are flawed). This paradoxical strategy lands him in a space that largely mirrors the theoretical problems inherent in the arguments he rejects.

It is also important to note that the impetus for the volume is his belief that we cannot ignore the research relating to art, neuroscience, and evolution, which he sees as unconvincing. Given its ascendancy, he tells us, we must scrutinize what he calls Neo-Darwinistic approaches and how the authors in this area aim to explain fundamental questions about art. The questions he cites include the nature of artistic creativity, the character and purpose of aesthetic experience, the process of artistic transmission, art’s social purpose and its origins. Rampley never actually delves into these “fundamental questions” himself, and it wasn’t clear to this reader why he rejects them or finds them uninteresting.

The first chapter, “Art, Biology, and the Aesthetics of Selection” examines arguments that attempt to locate art in a model of historical time. This research revolves around the idea that art emerged as an evolutionary adaptive behavior and evokes atavistic responses.

“[E]volutionary aesthetics relies on a self-contradictory view of aesthetic experience, positing a putative ancestral Pleistocene environment as the ground zero of human nature, as if all human history in the intervening 2.5 million years were a superficial cultural overlay and as if evolution had suddenly come to a halt.…the adaptionistic principle central to Darwinian accounts of art does not explain why an image — a landscape painting, for example— that depicts an environment once conducive to survival should become the object of aesthetic pleasure.” (p. 134)

Essentially, this section tries to tell us that the basic tenet of evolutionary psychologists is that the capacity of making art and the corresponding aesthetic sensibility are a transcultural phenomenon grounded in evolved human and biological dispositions. A range of research is presented (Richard Dawkins’ ideas about memes; Ellen Dissanayake’s view of artmaking as evolutionarily adaptive because it enhanced social cooperation; philosophical and social scientific theories proposed by Denis Dutton, Leda Cosmides and John Tooby, Steven Pinker, Steven Mithen, Geoffrey Mithen, and Ellen Spolsky, etc). He also interjects notations from art historians (e.g., Panofsky, Kemp, Baxandall) to explain art historical time before concluding that the arguments that art arose from adapted behaviors are self-contradictory because they imply the evolution in effect stopped at a particular point in time. At the end of the chapter Rampley says it remains an open question what Darwinism and this type of aesthetic framework means for the analysis of art.

As I read, I realized that it didn’t matter much that his art historical notations didn’t seem to correlate with the points made by the evolutionary psychologists because his primary reservation about the proposed models is that all of the evolutionary aesthetic models of adaptation are equally defensible (or indefensible) because a person’s choice, he tells us, is ultimately dictated by extrinsic criteria. Then, noting that one can make similar criticisms of the humanities in general, he punts, pointing out that art history often seems to use a similar nomothetic type of framework. Thus, while Rampley states that the adaptive arguments offer little insight when tracing art’s subsequent historical course, his points register as philosophical concerns rather than a building blocks for something better. He does, however, allow that “it may be premature to dismiss the evolutionary aesthetics” project entirely (p. 43).

The second chapter, “Memes and Trees: Art History as Evolution,” turns from models attempting to locate art and aesthetic experience in historical time to models of lineage that capture a sense of time through mapping the development of artistic traditions. Rampley here discusses Darwinian notions of variation and speciation in terms of how they have been used to map out the development of art history itself. He tells us there was a sustained fascination with evolutionary theory as a model for the historical development of art from the mid-nineteenth century through the first World War. This chapter reviews many who are connected to this thinking (e.g., Semper, Riegl, Dvořák, Foillon, Kubler, Gombrich). Aby Warburg (a recurring voice in the volume) receives significant attention, as does Richard Dawkins, who serves as a scientific counterpoint. For example, Warburg’s account of social memory and his work on artistic transmission in terms of dynamogramms (visual symbols charged with cultural memory) is discussed, as are other evolutionary trees, for example Alfred Barr’s classic lineage map. In large part these people are not specifically relating art movements to species or their growth and extinction in terms of Darwinian selective pressures because any kind of cogent Darwinian linkages are missing, replaced by models drawn to the idea of evolution, which is expressed through philosophical tenets and/or cultural genealogies. Admittedly, I had difficulty following this chapter, perhaps because, as the author puts it, his examples may seem distant from the concerns of art historians. In any case, his claims are that these types of evolutionary accounts too often offer positivist tautological accounts and that certain artistic and cultural practices gain greater influence because they were selected for inclusion in someone’s model.

“The evolutionary model overlooks the point that while a view of history focused on events (in art historical terms: individual works of art) is myopic without a concept of structures, giving due place to those structures cannot come at the price of erasing the singularity of the individual event or practice.…[it] remains to be proven that the evolutionary approach can or should displace traditional research in art history…the most significant reason is that the evolutionary model does not address the kinds of questions that are of interest to scholars of the humanities in general and, more specifically, of art history.” (pp 70-71)

I thought chapter three, “Brains, Caves, and Phalanxes: Neuroaesthetics and Neuroarthistory,” would be the best section of the book given that the preface describes how John Onians’ Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki [2] led the author to explore the body of literature associated with evolutionary aesthetics, evolutionary theory, neuroaesthetics, and systems theory (because it is often coupled with evolutionary theory). In this chapter he doesn’t cogently expand on his comment (above) as to how those who seek an “evolutionary model” want to displace traditional research in art history with something else. Rather, the author asks two questions:

“The philosophical question concerns physicalism and the relation between the body — specifically, the brain — and the mind. The methodological question is whether, even if the physicalist thesis is acceptable — in other words, even if consciousness can be traced back to the brain — that knowledge can make an insightful contribution to the understanding of art.” (author’s emphasis, p. 74)

These questions again underscore that Rampley’s concerns are philosophical and do not center either on empirical research or the brain as a biological organ. Given this it was somewhat amusing to read that his intention is not an inquiry into philosophy of mind. Rather, he tells us that his goal in this chapter is to focus on the significance (his italics) of various theories of mind, and in particular those that include neuroscientific data to speak about aesthetics and the history of art. Rampley asks: “what changes in our understanding of artistic practices occur when we consider the findings of neuroscientific investigations of mind?” (p. 74). One shortcoming with this approach is that it seems the author perceives both the full functionality of the biological brain and artmaking as outside of the purview of his study. It is as if art objects are readymades. In any case, he concludes that work in this area merely adds an additional discursive layer to art-historical interpretations.

“[A]ll of the authors concerned [with neuroaesthetics]— Zeki, Skov, Ramachandran, Leder, and Belke—adhere to a view of art that is neither borne out nor contradicted by the neuroscientific data they can provide. As with the claims regarding evolutionary adaptation, there are limits to what empirical findings can reveal, especially because neuroaesthetics has no concept of art or representation.… [T]he serious point is that neuroaesthetics is not an aesthetic theory, and neuroarthistory is not a historical discourse of art. It is perhaps easy to critique these authors, for their arguments are crudely formulated, but similar ideas populate the work of considerably more sophisticated thinkers, among them Barbara Maria Stafford.” (pp 97-98)

Theories of mind fare poorly as well. Rampley offers six reasons for rejecting them (e.g., category errors, a focus on subjective experience, etc.). He sums up the chapter by again stating that contributions in this area are modest and difficult to identify owing to the inability of these theories to account for the cultural production, consumption, and circulation of art. In Rampley’s view, this research offers little more than an additional layer of commentary on artworks, one with little relevance. While I agree with him that useful commentary on art should include contextual information, his failure to conceptualize “layers” of ideas in multidimensional terms that speak to intersections of information baffles me almost as much as his failure to conceptualize a biological brain. Equally puzzling is his decision not to grapple with the human involvement with art making and affect in any kind of robust manner. Had he done so, he may have conceptualized why empirical research about the brain’s plasticity, for example, is insightful in terms of learning, cognition, and specialization.

Niklas Luhmann’s approach to systems theory frames the final chapter, “Self-organizing Evolution: Art as a System.” After reviewing a number of figures commonly associated with systems (Humberto Matuana and Francesco Varela, Gregory Bateson, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, etc.), Rampley tells us he decided to focus on Luhmann (1927-1998) because his ideas are gaining traction in the Anglophone world. According to the author, Luhmann provided systems theory with a greater conceptual depth, including a definition of the basic operations of social systems and their elements. Luhmann’s understanding of art is that “the artwork directs the beholder’s awareness toward the improbability of its emergence. If attention is drawn to poetic constructions then it is only because they do not seem likely” (p. 112). According to Rampley, this speaks to the primary role accorded to selection in Luhmann’s theory of meaning, and it is what makes the theory of evolution a central issue in his work. In other words, Luhmann insists on the primacy of basic elemental communicative events. As Rampley explains it, individual psychic systems are separate from social systems, and it is only by means of communication that individuals become participants in the social system. A key point here is that Luhmann builds his systems theory and art on the evolutionary pillars of variation and selection, stating unequivocally that “the evolution of art is its own accomplishment. It cannot be caused by external intervention— neither the spontaneous creativity of individual artists nor a kind of' ‘natural selection' by the social environment, as Darwinian theories would have to assume” (p115). This admittedly strikes me as a false dichotomy. Natural selection operates on the “creative” variations generated by genetic mutations. It does not create something from nothing, as implied in his statement. Nor is it clear to this reader how the social environment plays a primary role for Darwinian selection, particularly in relation to art.

The Seductions of Darwin ends with a page and a half explaining that it is important to maintain a constructive attitude, and Rampley uses the work of the Austrian art historian Alois Riegel (1858-1905) as the explanatory touchstone of where we might look for a starting point. According to Rampley, in the 1890s Riegl and others recognized that the theory of evolution may be significant for the understanding of art-historical time in terms of periods and monolithic political and geographical spaces. He then tells us that Riegl’s Problems of Style mapped out this transnational and spatial evolution argument in terms of the acanthus motif. (The acanthus is one of the most common plant forms used for foliage ornament and decoration.)

Briefly, this Austrian art historian mapped out gradual steps whereby the acanthus leaf of ancient Egyptian art evolved into the arabesque in the art of the Islamic world, seeing aesthetic volition (Kunstwollen) rather than unconscious variation as the engine of art history. (I must have missed something because the example as outlined gave the impression that the author believes we can base his theory of artistic evolution on the description of one type of border element.) In any case, he goes on to tells us that Riegl’s account fits into the framework of continual evolutionary progress and his project showed that despite massive political disruption between the fifth century BCE and the eight century CE, there was remarkable continuity in the pattern used in the Roman Empire and the Islamic world. As such, Riegl’s work, to Rampley’s mind, was the most prominent exemplar of the “genetic method” that was a hallmark of art-historical scholarship at that time. Rampley’s larger point is not that recent artistic and cultural genealogies draw on this work, but rather that Riegl’s aim was to point out that “artistic forms that seem strikingly dissimilar might nevertheless be genetically related over time” (p. 140). (His use of the term “genetically” here underscores this book’s distance from biological concerns.) Moreover, Rampley fears that current art historians have discarded this type of Darwinian approach without thorough interrogation. Rather, since it is no longer possible to produce a linear narrative of art history, the author tells us they are instead in favor of notions of epochal, cultural, and political renewal. They embrace Kuhnian paradigm shifts, Foucauldian epistemological rupture, and Bourdieusian field theory. Some even attempt to create anachronic rather than linear time models.

As noted throughout this review, Rampley’s focus is on the weaknesses within the theories he critiques. Perhaps most intriguing within this is that rather than rejecting the evolutionary accounts as reduction, he asserts that these theories are not reductive enough because, in his view, they simply created an additional (his italics) descriptive layer. In summary, Rampley concludes that evolutionary epistemology must engage in some self-examination, but his overall goals seem ultimately self-contradictory to this reader. As to where he hopes this will leave the reader, as he puts it: “[T]his book is about choices. It is about the choices available when we consider the natural sciences as a possible source of ideas and approaches to be deployed in the interpretation of artworks in particular and of cultural practices in general.… [T]his book attempts to help illuminate a much larger philosophical and methodological preoccupation. In doing so, it overlaps with the recurring calls for greater dialogue between art and science. In one sense, it is sympathetic to these calls, except that it tries to distance itself from much of the discourse of ‘openness’ between different fields and paradigms of inquiry (p. ix).


[1] Ione, Amy. Art and the Brain: Embodiment, Plasticity, and the Unclosed Circle. Amsterdam: Rodopi Brill, 2016.

[2] Onians, John. Neuroarthistory: From Aristotle and Pliny to Baxandall and Zeki. New Haven, CT ; London: Yale University Press, 2007.