Review: Art Instinct by Denis Dutton

Has humans’ esthetic sensibility played any role in their evolution? Is art “merely the by-product of an oversized brain,” as Stephen Jay Gould and others have held, so that it should be “excluded from the natural selection rulebook”? Or is it the case, as author Denis Dutton argues in The Art Instinct, that “aesthetics are linked at the profoundest level to our biological and cognitive prehistory, and that our ‘tastes’  emerged in the Pleistocene, and haven’t changed in essentials since then.”

Brian Morton’s short review of the book sets up this conflict of interpretations, but Morton spends most of his time sketching Dutton’s argument and supporting it. A quote:

Like our remotest ancestors, we take delight in virtuosity, we admire personal expression and novelty, we enjoy intellectual challenges that give pleasure in being mastered, and we benefit immeasurably from the sense of communion and intimacy these experiences bring us. This is art: then, now and always.

Hat tip to Arts and Letters Daily, where I found mention of the review.

Review: Art Instinct by Brian Morton | Books | The Observer .

“We can’t do this anymore.”

This is an excellent commentary from Thomas Friedman on the vain and vacuous consumptionism that has characterized the American economy increasingly during the past several decades. We’re talking about a vicious cycle that seems now to have brought our economy to its knees – to say nothing of the harm that it’s doing to our planet.  There’s a theological point to be made about this, of course, but it’ll just have to wait.  Crux of the critique:

We have created a system for growth that depended on our building more and more stores to sell more and more stuff made in more and more factories in China, powered by more and more coal that would cause more and more climate change but earn China more and more dollars to buy more and more U.S. T-bills so America would have more and more money to build more and more stores and sell more and more stuff that would employ more and more Chinese …

We can’t do this anymore.

Op-Ed Columnist – The Inflection Is Near? –

Religion: Biological Accident, Adaptation — or Both | Wired Science from

An article by Brandon Keim from Wired discussing recent brain function investigations that raise tantalizing questions about the neurology of religious belief:

Whether or not God exists, thinking about Him or Her doesn’t require divinely dedicated neurological wiring.

Instead, religious thoughts run on brain systems used to figure out what other people are thinking and feeling.

The story summarizes an article by Dimitrios Kapogiannis and others that appeared in the March 9, 2009, issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Religion: Biological Accident, Adaptation — or Both | Wired Science from

A bicycle for … the farm?

Our theology reading group is working our way through Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America, a robust and challenging critique of consumer society and industrialized farming. In chapter 3, “The Ecological Crisis as a Crisis of Agriculture,” Berry insists on the critical importance of how land is used, and proposes “kindly use” and “humility” as the touchstones by which our agricultural practices should be measured. (Is it necessary to say that Berry, writing in 1977, finds modern agriculture lacking in both these regards?)

The use of land cannot be both general and kindly—just as the forms of good manners, generally applied (applied, that is, without consideration of differences), are experienced as indifference, bad manners. To treat every field, or every part of every field, with the same consideration is not farming but industry. Kindly use depends upon intimate knowledge, the most sensitive responsiveness and responsibility. As knowledge (hence, use) is generalized, essential values are destroyed. As the householder evolves into a consumer, the farm evolves into a factory—with results that are potentially calamitous for both.

Nolan, whose brother farms a 550-acre area in northwestern Iowa, developed the study questions for this session. They include the following information:

The fields of modern day farms are divided into relatively small grids … soils in the grids are tested for nutritional needs…with the use of GPS and other technologies manure and artificial nutrients are added to the soil in the grids as needed to avoid using too much or too little for peak production.  Wet “sour” areas are tiled for drainage. Much hilly land is contoured or strip-farmed. “Rippers” are used, rather than moeboard plows, to prevent soil compaction from heavy machinery…and to reduce wind erosion. Some farmers are planting this year’s crops between last year’s rows to lessen wind and water erosion. Farmers are paid to plant thick, tall grasses as buffer zones along creeks and waterways. Some small or “marginal” plots of land are seeded and left untilled. When possible many farmers are moving away from the use of petroleum-based fertilizers (probably mostly due to high cost!) toward more use of manures produced by food animals grown in confinement units…etc., etc…you get the point! 

So, Nolan asked us, “[D]o these types of behaviors meet Berry’s criteria for ‘intimate knowledge,’ ‘sensitive responsiveness,’ and ‘responsibility’ in land use?”

Somehow, one suspects that Berry would not be in agreement. Yet the juxtaposition of modern farming assisted by sophisticated technology with Berry’s injunction to kindly use somehow brought to mind Steve Jobs’ notion that a personal computer is “a bicycle for the mind.” In the same way that a bicycle multiplies human accomplishment through the creative application of simple machines, a personal computer multiplies human mental accomplishment by “leveraging” our ability to organize and adapt.

Jobs said this in 1981, four years after Berry published the first edition of The Unsettling of America. It seems highly unlikely that, even had Berry experienced personal computers, he would have grasped their transformative potential or believed them to be a force for good. Similarly, the earliest deployment of satellite navigation technology, which eventually became GPS technology, happened in 1979, after Berry’s book came out.

I wonder, though, whether the availability of cheap, powerful, ubiquitous information-processing technology combined with satellite navigation and software to manage the two offers the possibility for something like Berry’s “kindly use” of the land, but on a much larger scale than Berry can have imagined. If so, it would mean that large-scale, rationalized approaches to farming need not inevitably become exploitative, as Berry seems to assume. What Nolan describes as his brother’s approach to large-scale farming seems to recognize that exploitation is inevitably self-destructive, as Berry charges. So it takes an approach that is much more like nurture that can be seen at first blush.

Berry is surely right that an approach to agriculture that ignores the destructive effects of exploitation will lead in time to the ruin of the environment and the impossibility of human life on this planet. At the same time, small-scale farming of the sort that Berry seems to favor cannot feed the planet.

But perhaps a technology-mediated “kindly use”—a bicycle for the farm—where the nurture of the land is aided by the application of science and technology, offers hope for both preserving our planet and feeding our people.

Born believers: How your brain creates God – science-in-society – 04 February 2009 – New Scientist

Another interesting review article on the psychology of religious belief, this time from New Scientist. Of particular interest here is the assertion of a connection between hard times and authoritarian religious forms:

[H]uman beings have a natural inclination for religious belief, especially during hard times. Our brains effortlessly conjure up an imaginary world of spirits, gods and monsters, and the more insecure we feel, the harder it is to resist the pull of this supernatural world. It seems that our minds are finely tuned to believe in gods.

Worth reading.

Born believers: How your brain creates God – science-in-society – 04 February 2009 – New Scientist.