Tom Sutcliffe: Why art exceeds evolution

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The evolutionary theory of art and literature continues to simmer nicely, the latest bubble to reach the lip of the pan being Brian Boyd's book On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition and Fiction. And if you haven't been following this development at all, here's a very crude synopsis of the backstory. Dismayed by the grip of Post-Modernist theory on the academy – a discipline of almost medieval scholasticism – some students of literature cast around for something that might replace its sophisticated relativism with a different kind of approach. And they didn't want to restore the wine-sipping connoisseurship that it had replaced. They wanted a fresh territory of their own.

Evolutionary theory looked promising. It was a growth area in other fields of study, such as psychology and social sciences, and it promised a way of restoring a sense of the inherent and universal to the pleasures of art. Denis Dutton's The Art Instinct was an early attempt to build the discipline, alluding to Steven Pinker's book The Language Instinct and suggesting that it might be promising to speculate about the evolutionary origins of our passion for painting, music and literature.

Pinker himself famously dodged sideways from the issue, suggesting in a much-quoted phrase that music (and by extension other expressions of creative imagination) was "auditory cheesecake" – a luxury not likely to be directly explained by evolutionary forces in our pre-history but piggybacking on other instincts that had helped us to survive. Those hoping to elaborate an evolutionary theory of art go a little more directly to first principles. And that's often where they run into trouble. Dutton, for example, argued that fictions – saying the thing that isn't, to use Ricky Gervais's construction in the film The Invention of Lying – proved useful because they offer a preparation for life and its surprises, an argument that sees the adaptive advantage as lying in the story itself. Others have argued that the ability to come up with a gripping yarn in the cave conferred a sexual advantage on the teller, thus ensuring that the storytelling gene would spread into the next generation.

Hardly surprising, really, that these approaches are dismissed as reductive by sceptics, or that they sit a little unhappily with works of any literary sophistication. Crudely speaking (again), any evolutionary theory of aesthetics is going to have to start with primitive hominids who respond to sex and a good supply of nuts. And it's somehow going to have to link that with works that are about a lot more. Even the "rehearsal of dilemmas" theory doesn't get us far. Do we read Madame Bovary because we think, "I might find myself torn between duty and pleasure one day and this might help me avoid ending up on a mortuary slab"? Or do we read it for Flaubert's prose style, a subject on which "evocriticism", to use Boyd's coinage, has much less to say?

There's a bigger catch-22 as well. Among the theories that do seem more promising is the idea that imaginative invention or mental play is both a marker of fitness and something that hones it. The hominid that goes into sleep mode when it isn't hunting or gathering is less likely to have a mind that makes an imaginative leap when it really matters. And it's possible that literary theory itself is an example of such play... a story told about stories, that is no more susceptible to scientific analysis than Aladdin is. I don't doubt that our interest in the latest novel has its roots in our ancient prehistory (where else could it have come from, unless you believe that God popped back at some point to retrofit the human species with a narrative drive?). But if evolutionary literary criticism is restricted to dull and reductive truths, it's going to find itself far less fitted for survival than enchanting complexities, however fanciful they might be.

Cast the net wider

Asked on the Today programme why she had cast Keira Knightley in her new production of The Misanthrope the director Thea Sharrock said this: "We needed an actress in her early twenties and simply... girls of that age... there aren't many who have had enough experience professionally to be able to carry that off." It struck me as a strange answer for two reasons. Firstly, the character Knightley plays in this updated version of Molière's play is a spoilt American movie star, and so there's a perfectly good reason (apart from the true but embarrassing one of box-office calculation) for casting someone with a bit of silver-screen glitter to them. Secondly, does Sharrock seriously mean to suggest that directors aren't spoiled for choice when it comes to filling a classic ingénue role? If so, it is a grave indictment of our acting schools, which yearly turn out scores of actresses who would leap at the chance to play in the West End. It might be noted too that if their inexperience is a problem, the situation is hardly likely to be improved by the fact that Hollywood A-listers get first refusal when parts do come up.

I experienced a paradoxical spasm of paganism the other day, wandering around the Victoria and Albert's new galleries of Medieval and Renaissance art. It happened in front of a beautiful small ivory carving – the Symmachi Panel – which, the caption explained, had probably been made in a kind of defiance of the growing dominance of Christianity. And reading this I thought "well at least someone was fighting back". The panel itself has a lovely simplicity, but it was its stubborn dogmatism that appealed; the fact that the grip of Christian iconography had been excluded from this narrow space. The paradox lay in the fact that I don't care for pagan religion any more than the Christian kind, and because if the caption had suggested that it was a classicised vision of Mary Magdalene I wouldn't have been any the wiser. It did crystallise a regret I often feel in medieval galleries, though, which is the fruitless wish that less artistic time over the past two millennia had been spent on reliquaries and crucifixions, martyrdoms and Virgin Marys. I can never quite quell the "what if" thought of all that talent unleashed on its own inspirations and impulses.