Roger Scruton - Can science explain art, music and literature?

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Big Questions Online

Roger Scruton

December 9, 2010


What method can be used to study art, music and literature — and how can we justify the process of selection that issues in a canon of Great Books and Great Works? Until recently one assumption has been shared among all who have discussed that question, which is that, if there is a method in the humanities, it is not the method of science.

We don’t understand the plays of Shakespeare by conducting surveys and experiments. We don’t interpret The Art of Fugue with an acoustical analysis, or Michelangelo’s David with the chemistry of marble. Art, literature, music and history belong to the ‘human world’, the world that is shaped by our own consciousness, and we study them not by explaining how they arose but by interpreting what they mean. Explanation has a method, and it is the method of science.

Interpretation goes in search of a method, but is never sure of finding one.

Since the early 19th century, strong claims have been made on behalf of " hermeneutics ,” “ phenomenology ,” and “ Structuralism ” — disciplines that promise the missing “method” through which meaning is discovered and explored. But the claims have a tendency to evaporate on examination, so as to become special pleading on behalf of a particular set of authorities, a particular cultural inheritance, or a particular aesthetic taste.

Over the last two decades, however, Darwinism has invaded the field of the humanities, in a way that Darwin himself would scarcely have predicted. Doubt and hesitation have given way to certainty, interpretation has been subsumed into explanation, and the whole realm of aesthetic experience and literary judgement has been brought to heel as an “adaptation,” a part of human biology which exists because of the benefit that it confers on our genes. No need now to puzzle over the meaning of music or the nature of beauty in art. The meaning of art and music reside in what they do for our genes. Once we see that these features of the human condition are “adaptations,” acquired perhaps many thousands of years ago, during the time of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, we will be able to explain them. We will know what art and music essentially are by discovering what they do.

Take music, for example. A mother singing to her child creates a bond through her singing. The two rock back and forth to its rhythm; the sound is internalized by the child as mother’s sound, the sound of safety. A woman who can bond with her child in that way gives the child an added source of security, and the two cling to each other more firmly when the moment of crisis arrives. So the singing mother confers, through her singing, a tiny reproductive advantage on the genes that produced her music — just enough to ensure that, over a few hundred generations, the singing humans prevail over their tone-deaf competitors.

Or take the sense of beauty. Why does it exist, and what does it do for us? The problem is likened to that of the peacock’s tail. Why does this bird squander its resources, encumber its flight and generally make a gift of itself to predators, just to show off a vast array of pretty feathers? The answer is that prettiness counts. It counts as a sign of reproductive fitness: superfluous attributes are carried by extra-energetic organisms. Hence if peahens distinguish peacocks through the size of their tails they will also, unknowingly but reliably, be discriminating on grounds of reproductive fitness. Their genes will be more likely to be passed on if they go for the cock with the tail, and evolutionary pressure will therefore make the tails get bigger and bigger until the wretched birds topple over from the weight of them. And just in that way, we are told, men tattoo themselves, make pictures, write poems, and so forth, advertising through these functionless pursuits the squandered biological resources that permit them. Women fall for artists for the same reason that peahens fall for glamorous tails.

Sometimes the story is refined by describing art, beauty, music and the rest as evolutionary “spandrels.” This architectural term, which refers to the functionless decoration enclosed by an arch, was introduced into biology by Stephen J. Gould and Richard Lewontin to denote evolutionary by-products: functionless traits that owe their existence to the functional whole of which they are a part. Melody, for instance, might be such a spandrel, supported on the arch of rhythm, which is an adaptation that confers the genetic benefit of synchronised movement.

Gradually the humanities are being invaded and disciplined by explanations of that kind, which purport to sweep away the mess of hermeneutics and replace it with clean, meaningful science. And the explanations really are as absurd as the two examples I have given — absurd precisely because they are looking to explain something that they have not defined. Until you define what music is , and how it differs from pitched sound, for example, you will not know what question you are asking, when you inquire into its origins. Until you recognize that the human sense of beauty is a completely different thing from the peahen’s sexual attraction, you won’t know what, if anything, is proved by the sparse similarities.

Worse, the whole “adaptation” approach to human phenomena is topsy-turvy. It involves a mechanical application, case by case, of the theory of natural selection, as supplemented by modern genetics. It tells us that, if a trait is widespread across our species, then it has been “selected for.” But this means only that the trait is not maladaptive , that it is not something that would disappear under evolutionary pressure. And that is a trivial observation. Everything that exists could be said to be not dysfunctional. That tells us nothing about how the thing in question came to exist. Nor does it tell us anything about its meaning or significance for us.

Consider mathematics. There is no doubt that this is not maladaptive. A creature with mathematical competence is not likely to suffer from this trait in such a way as to impair its reproductive chances. Does this mean that we have at last got a theory of mathematics — a theory of what it is, why it exists, and what it means for us? Of course not. And suppose that we came, in time, to think that mathematics is after all maladaptive: say because the spirit of inquiry that results from it, and which leads inexorably to an obsession with Mobius bands and transfinite cardinals , disables us from the immediacies of practical life. Would that do anything to undermine the validity of our proofs, or to cast new light on what they signify? Of course not. Mathematics is a realm which has its own internal procedures, and which is understood not by explaining its origin, but by applying its proofs.

Well, the same goes, it seems to me, for the humanities. The attempt to explain art, music, literature, and the sense of beauty as adaptations is both trivial as science and empty as a form of understanding. It tells us nothing of importance about its subject matter, and does huge intellectual damage in persuading ignorant people that after all there is nothing about the humanities to understand , since they have all been explained — and explained away.

Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher living in England. His many books include Beauty and The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope . Learn more about him at .