The Art Instinct, By Denis Dutton

An evolving portrait of the artist as a show-off

The explosively rapid evolution, during the Pleistocene epoch, of the first and only all-singing, all-dancing animal, with an endlessly ramifying culture transmitted by language and learning rather than instinct, is perhaps the greatest mystery of all. Darwin, in The Descent of Man, believed that sexual selection, rather than natural selection, was the answer - but this is the most strangely neglected aspect of his work.

Denis Dutton, a professor of philosophy in New Zealand and founder of the web portal Arts & Letters Daily, has picked up on Darwin's "other theory". From it he has woven a rich and persuasive argument for the centrality of art in our evolution. The story begins with the peacock's tail, a headache for Darwin because its magnificence is a lumbering liability, restricting its ability to evade predators. But Darwin reasoned that the male's tail proclaimed its fitness to mate, despite the handicap, and had been selected for ever more elaborate finery by the females.

Darwin surmised that similar selection according to fitness indicators was involved in human evolution. For a species for which language had opened the door to foresight, learning from history, and the introduction of novelty, these fitness indicators would have involved eloquence, song, drama – art.

Dutton expounds Darwin's thesis, as developed by the American evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in his The Mating Mind. Just as early man domesticated animals by preferring those that were docile, early man domesticated himself by selecting as mates those with agreeable traits. We are not peacocks: the gorgeous male-dowdy female syndrome does not apply in humans, in which sexual selection is a two-way process.

The Dutton/Miller thesis is in opposition to the "all-art-is-useless" theory upheld by most biologists since Darwin. In this view, the vastly expanded brain that evolved for survival in the tough Pleistocene ice ages today has excess capacity that we fritter away on Twitter, online Scrabble and celebrity tittle-tattle, as well as High Art.

Dutton's arguments are coherent and convincing but mostly as speculative today as Darwin's were 150 years ago. Evidence for the biological roots of cultural evolution is hard to come by. Men all over the world have a statistical preference for women with a waist-to-hip ratio around 0.7, which has been shown to correlate with high fertility. People everywhere seem to have a vision of the same Edenic landscape.

This is a wonderful, mind-changing book, although it builds slowly. Darwin and the theory of sexual selection doesn't appear till page 135. Until that point, we have Dutton's attack on the cultural relativism of most contemporary anthropologists and art critics. Dutton shows, again convincingly, that there are artistic universals in all societies.

More hard evidence is needed for Dutton's thesis but, along with Richard Dawkins, I believe the theory is highly likely to be true. Some reassessment of artistic shibboleths seems to be in order – such as Keats's dictum, "Beauty is truth, truth beauty". This has always seemed specious but, after reading this book: well, there might be something in it. And I look forward, one day, to reading the headline: "Poetry Made Something Happen After All".

Peter Forbes's 'Dazzled and Deceived, on mimicry and camouflage in nature, art and warfare', will be published by Yale in the autumn