The Tasteful Ape: Darwinism and the Arts


by Mark Anthony Signorelli (October 2009)

Robert Fagan begins his course for the Teaching Company on “Human Evolution and Prehistory” in precisely the manner which would be expected of any good scientist nowadays – with an expression of contempt for religion, and an insistence that his account of man’s origins will be untainted by “mythology” and claims of the “supernatural.” True to his word, the immensely intriguing narrative he unfolds throughout the first dozen or so lectures, beginning from man’s primate ancestors, and continuing through the Australopithecines – robust and otherwise – to the various hominid migrations out of Africa, progresses with nary a hint of theology. But when he arrives at the topic of the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira, those beguiling phenomena, Dr. Fagan’s wonted empiricism fails him, and he can employ only the most unscientific terminology to express himself; he pronounces those works “a miracle.”

Not that anyone could believe Dr. Fagan was engaging in anything other than a rhetorical figure, or that he might allow such a public and lasting testament of faith to slip from his lips unawares – Lord knows how such a thing would go over at the meetings of the anthropological society – but whether he was cognizant of the fact or not, the word he used was the only one a man of his preconceptions honestly could use, for from the point of view of orthodox Darwinism – that is to say, non-teleological, materialist Darwinism – the phenomenon of aesthetic activity is quite simply inexplicable, and, insofar as it defies a biological account, may fairly be termed a miracle. Chesterton made this point nearly a century ago in Everlasting Man: “it sounds like a truism to say that the most primitive man drew a picture of a monkey and…it sounds like a joke to say that the most intelligent monkey drew a picture of a man. Something of division and disproportion has appeared; and it is unique. Art is the signature of man.”[ii] Darwinism posits survival and reproduction as the authentic ends of all biological – including human – behavior (a dubious enough claim, as is). There being no obvious survival or reproductive benefit to writing “Tintern Abbey” or composing the “Mass in B Minor,” it would appear that the only thing for a fair-minded Darwinian to do would be to admit that such phenomenon occupy a realm well beyond the explanatory boundaries of his theory.

Contemporary Darwinism, however, is committed to the proposition that there are no limits to the explanatory powers of the theory, that all human behavior, from the heroic to the quotidian, is explicable in adaptationist terms. It is a totalizing doctrine if there ever was one. Consequently, the movement has turned its attention of late to the subjects of art and literature, determined to stuff these unlikely things into the paradigm of “descent with modification.” Darwinian literary criticism and aesthetics have become all the rage, exemplified by the broad popularity of Dennis Dutton’s The Art Instinct, a kind of summa of the movement’s findings.

The enthusiasm for this new application of Darwinian theory is palpable; every book of its acolytes scintillates with awe for the wonderful things already revealed by evolutionary theory, and trumpets the unprecedented certainty which will be achieved by the critics of art and literature, once the theory is applied to their subjects. E. O. Wilson himself, the grand sachem of sociobiology, quivers with a millenial fervor, as he trills: “if they are right and not only human nature but its literary productions can be solidly connected to biological roots, it will be one of the great events of intellectual history.”[iii] Dutton declares that: “recent years have seen immensely productive applications of Darwinian ideas in anthropology, economics, social psychology, linguistics, history, politics, legal theory, and criminology, as well as the philosophical study of rationality, theology, and value theory. Underlying this Darwinian sea change in research and scholarship is evolutionary psychology.”[iv]

Yet there is little indication in such effusions that sociobiology – the theory of totalizing Darwinism to which these authors are raising their immoderate paeans – has already been subjected to quite thorough and trenchant critique by the likes of Philip Kitcher, Mary Midgley, and David Stove, among others, who have aptly demonstrated a variety of fatal problems with the theory – its wildly speculative nature; its blindness to explanations not evolutionary; its incapacity to distinguish between appearance and reality; its reliance on equivocation; its historical tendency towards grandiose, quasi-religious claims; its bizarrely counterfactual assertions and its grotesquely false conclusions about man, both his moral and intellectual nature. There is not the slightest hint at all of the controversial status of the theory; no indication that its leading proponents are men who are confused about such basic questions as to whether or not beliefs shape behavior,[v] or whether there is such a thing as purpose in the world.[vi] There is no acknowledgment from these authors of some of the more outlandish assertions of sociobiology’s founding doyens: that William Hamilton maintained that “we expect to find that no one is prepared to sacrifice his life for any single person, but that everyone will sacrifice it for more than two brothers or four half-brothers or eight first cousins,”[vii] that Robert Trivers attempted to explain homosexuality as a reproductive strategy,[viii] or that Richard Dawkins confessed himself perfectly perplexed at the fact that mothers, in general, do not wish their infants to be kidnapped and raised by other women.[ix] There is no acknowledgment that sociobiology, as applied to ethics, has ushered forth such unlovely ideas as Matt Ridley’s assertion of the rationality of theft,[x] or M.T. Ghiselin’s pyschopathic reflections, recorded in Mary Midgley’s Evolution as a Religion

“No hint of genuine charity ameliorates our vision of society, once sentimentalism has been laid aside. What passes for cooperation turns out to be a mixture of opportunism and exploitation….given a full chance to act in his own interest, nothing but expediency will restrain (an animal) from brutalizing, from maiming, from murdering – his brother, his mate, his parent, or his child. Scratch and ‘altruist’ and watch a ‘hypocrite’ bleed.”[xi] 


There is no admission that contemporary Darwinism’s vision of man was most infamously summed up in the claim that “we are survival machines – robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules known as genes.”

Indeed, the aesthetic Darwinians betray everywhere a sort of amiable ignorance of the authentic character of the theory they are purporting to extend, and refer to evolutionary theory in terms wholly unrecognizable to anyone familiar with its most orthodox manifestations. Dutton begins The Art Instinct by alleging that “it is evolution – most significantly, the evolution of imagination and intellect – that enable us to transcend even our animal selves,”[xii] though he might very well have learned from Joseph Carroll, his comrade in the struggle, that “within the paradigm of scientific materialism, no human faculty or passion is invested with transcendental status.”[xiii] Similarly, Brian Boyd tries to silence the disquiet of Darwinian doubters by writing: “many needlessly fear that evolutionary explanations of the human imply ‘genetic determinism’…If evolution can help explain art – human behavior at its freest and most creative – any fears that it implies determinism or denies culture should be dispelled once and for all.”[xiv] Noble sentiments, to be sure, and ones which Mr. Boyd ought perhaps to share with his fellow traveler, Jonathan Gottschall, who assures us that all of the characters in the Homeric poems are “striving to accomplish, conquer, and possess, all in unconscious obedience to life’s prime directive: be fruitful and multiply.”[xv] The aesthetic Darwinians remind one of nothing so much as those credulous merchants of the Middle Ages, plunging recklessly into the ports of some long-rumored kingdom, only to carry back in their voluminous holds all the vile, corrosive, vermin-born plagues of abused science, wherewith to infect the happy realm of letters.

We would do well to remind ourselves of the history of the university English department over the last forty to fifty years. From its embrace of Marxism and Freudianism, to its advocacy of feminist theory and French nihilism, the English department has proven itself the welcoming haven for every played-out and discredited ideology of the decadent West. For over a generation, the halls of the literature professors have been an intellectual hospice, where ideas go to die. So when a band of ecstatic English professors proclaims the advent of a new ideology, and all the wondrous benefits it is to confer on literary studies, we are not without precedent to help us estimate the value of such claims aright.

This is not to say that the aesthetic Darwinians have failed to catch a few sparks from the original Promethean torch of evolutionary theory. Truly, they have succeeded at replicating some of the worst tendencies of their compatriots in the broader movement. Anyone who has dipped into the sociobiological literature has discovered its proponents’ habit of gravely asserting the most evident falsities imaginable, in order to support their arguments, no doubt, relying on the authority of science to cow their readers into acquiescence. So for instance, in order to defend his selfish theory of morality, Matt Ridley claims we ought to be suspicious of those who act in seemingly altruistic ways, such as donating blood.[xvi] R.D. Alexander wrote “we are programmed to use all our effort, and in fact to use our lives, in reproduction.”[xvii] I have already referred to William Hamilton’s preposterous “expectations” regarding man’s willingness to sacrifice for “two brothers, four half-brothers,” etc. In conformity with this ludicrous habit, the aesthetic Darwinians have ginned up their own set of outlandish lies. So Ellen Dissannayake, as evidence of art’s biological advantageousness, tells us that “what feels good in most cases is what is good for us.”[xviii] Eckart Voland, who wishes us to believe that artistic production is always a response to sexual selection, states that “only what is expensive is perceived as being beautiful.”[xix] Dennis Dutton tells us that a large vocabulary is a key element of a man’s attractiveness to women,[xx] which insight of course helps to explain why the boys in Model U.N. were always snagging the pretty girls away from the schlubs on the basketball team. He goes on further, at some length, to maintain that artistic excellence confers a fitness advantage on peoples among whom it flourishes, a wildly ahistorical claim which is perfectly exploded by the defeat of the Athenians at the hands of Spartans, or the subjection of the Florentine republic by Charles VIII, just to cite two counterexamples. Doesn’t history more familiarly reveal that societies which grow too fond of aesthetic pursuits lose vigor, and become a ready prey to their less refined enemies?

Typical also of sociobiology is the habit of playing fast and loose with the efficacy of genes. To hold that any trait is an effect of selective processes is to entail a genetic causality of some sort for that trait; this is a necessary implication of the vaunted “evolutionary synthesis.” Yet sociobiologists constantly refer to behavioral traits as the effects of natural or sexual selection, without so much as hinting at the experimental evidence for the genetic rootedness of such traits, all the while pretending that what they are doing is hard, empirical science. When called out on this vice of theirs, they like to respond by claiming that, of course, no one can discount the environmental factors which trigger gene activity, that, after all, contemporary molecular biology has revealed the efficacy of gene sequences, rather than individual genes, and so on, and so forth, with a number of other technical irrelevancies. But the fact remains that if there is a real genetic component to forms of behavior, then these theorists ought to be able to point to the specific portions of the genome which correspond to those forms, and provide the experimental data which confirms this correspondence, the way scientists are now able to demonstrate how particular genetic codes increase the likelihood of certain diseases.

The aesthetic Darwinians have perfected this reticence about genes. Reading their works, one would hardly gather that genes play any significant role in the full explanation of human aesthetic practice, though on any Darwinian account, they must play the central role. We have all read of the breathtaking discoveries in human genetics over the last decades, perhaps most astonishingly, the mapping of the entire human genome. Certainly, it is not too much to ask these authors to point to the specific place in the genome which correlates to a proficiency at story-telling, or a susceptibility to emotional reactions to landscapes, and to provide for us the experimental data which confirms this correlation. This is the least these theorists need to do in order to justify their constance pretense of scientific empiricism, yet most hardly even seem aware of the decisive place such data holds in their theories. None, most certainly, provide it. Perhaps they are anticipating the discovery of such a genetic link in the future, as molecular biology progresses, but surely it is no surly or superstitious reluctance on our part, who have not caught the “furore Darwiniensis,” if we demur in our assent to their theories until they produce the only sort of evidence which could actually support those theories in any authentically compelling manner.

And everywhere, of course, in the pages of the aesthetic Darwinians can be sensed that eerie, cult-like aura which is the distinctive feature of contemporary sociobiology. It is only in light of this bizarre sectarian spirit that we can accurately comprehend the purport of passages like that found in Dutton’s article on “Aesthetics and Evolutionary Theory” in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics,[xxi] in which he considers, in the light of the theory of inclusive fitness, Aristotle’s recognition of the tragic aptness of family dramas. Obviously, Aristotle did not rely on the theory of inclusive fitness to arrive at this insight, so no predictive power is being claimed here for Darwinism. Nor is greater certainty afforded to the proposition by resting it on speculations about what men thought and felt tens of thousands of years ago in the Pleistocene. More to the point, no additional knowledge about tragedy, beyond what is contained in the original claim of Aristotle, is offered by Dutton’s disquisition; such theorizing does nothing to enhance our understanding or appreciation of art and literature. Why then write such things at all? Why, for the very obvious reason, that it serves to demonstrate how many forms of human endeavor may be made amenable to a Darwinian explanation. This is all that Dutton wanted to do; this is all that any of the aesthetic Darwinians want to do – promote the dogma. Fundamentally, these authors are not practicing literary or art criticism, or philosophical aesthetics. Fundamentally, they are practicing Darwinism. They are not interested primarily in discovering truths about art, as much as in proving how far the application of adaptationist explanations may be extended, thus lending additional credence to their favorite theory. Consider the following admission from Dissanayake: “for an ethologist, the apparent absence of evolutionary purpose is a problem both for play and art. Because humans everywhere avidly engage in both playful and artistic pursuits, these must serve some purpose, even if it is not immediately evident.”[xxii] Or this from Dutton: “The relationship that these characteristics have to our evolved nature are murky at best, but it is real and it is worth meditating on.”[xxiii]Truly, this is a faith in search of understanding. 

How else does one explain the prevalence of the evolutionary argument regarding landscape painting? It is an argument that appears, or is referred to, in almost every book of Darwinian aesthetics; Dutton places it at the beginning of The Art Instinct, presumably on the basis of what he considered its extraordinarily compelling nature. According to this favorite argument of theirs, certain universal preferences in the composition of landscape painting are discernible across cultures, and include a taste for things like fertile vegetation, water sources, and signs of animal life. This prototype landscape matches quite closely with a description of the primeval African savannah, in places where the availability of food was most likely. Thus, the Darwinians conclude that this preference was shaped by selective forces operating upon tens of thousands of generations in the Pleistocene era; those who were attracted to the lush savannah went there and fed, and consequently survived to pass along their “savannah-loving” genes to the next generation, while those who felt no attraction to the savannah, and consequently no motivation to approach the savannah, wandered off into other barren regions, where they presumably starved to death, carrying with them into the realms of oblivion the legacy of their “savannah-indifferent” genes.

It is impossible to identify everything wrong with this sublimely awful argument, but consider only its most obvious demerits. First, as purely scientific objections, it is wildly speculative in nature, relying as it does on surmises about how men felt or didn’t feel, and acted or didn’t act, in precise circumstances, tens of thousands of years ago, for which there is not a shred of evidence. It rests on the perfectly groundless assumption that there is an experimentally verifiable connection between genes and the type of apprehension elicited by lush landscapes, or between genes and the type of apprehension elicited by any particular objects, or between genes and phenomenology generally. It assumes, as a corollary, that a portion of the then existent homo sapiens population lacked these fabulous genes, and became extinct, which too is perfectly unverifiable. On philosophical grounds, the argument is perfectly worthless to the art critic, since it offers no grounds to assert a qualitative difference between, for instance, a Poussin and a Rotary Club calendar, so long as both include the requisite number of foliating trees and gurgling streams. For that matter, the argument offers no grounds to distinguish between painting and photography.

Still, even if all of these objections were met (an unlikely prospect, that), we would not yet have even raised the most serious defect in the argument, for it obviously implies that there is some sort of fundamental identity between the sensations one experiences at the prospect of satiety, and the sensations which constitute aesthetic pleasure. On this account, I will feel by and large the same sensations, entertain the same thoughts, as I pore over the Lorrain’s during a slow perambulation of the Louvre, that I would feel and entertain upon arriving at my favorite Italian restaurant. The stupidity of such a notion speaks for itself, but I am more concerned with the question of how so many persons came to hold such a notion, and publish it repeatedly, with no apparent shame. Would anyone conceive such an opinion (I will not even say, become convinced of it) who was not under the influence of Darwinian theory, or who was not deeply desirous to see that theory promoted, by whatsoever means? Would anyone, in the course of the common observation of life, and the common reflections on that observation, ever perceive, in a thousand years, any sort of identity between the pleasures associated with a good meal, and the pleasures imparted by the masterpieces of art? Quite clearly, no. Such ludicrous ideas only occur to men fervently entranced by a dogma, and their brazenness in reiterating this nonsense in every one of their books demonstrates how confident they are in the spread of that dogma, or at least the spread of the deference it inspires, among the reading public.

This, as I indicated, is the favorite argument of the aesthetic Darwinians, and we can infer from its character the character of their other arguments. But in fact, there is only one claim of these theorists which needs to be considered, for it is the claim on which they value themselves most highly, and from which they derive all their great hopes for their fledgling movement.

Fully aware of the miserable legacy of the university humanities department over the last several decades, the aesthetic Darwinians have identified, quite rightly, the various strands of post-modern, multicultural theorizing as the source of this decrepitude. Almost all of their works express some sort of lamentation of this situation. In their analysis, the fundamental error of post-modernism is a quasi-behaviorist conception of the human animal: endlessly plastic, wholly determined by cultural forces in action and belief alike, and finally, without any steady and universal nature of his own. From such a conception spring the well-known doctrines of academically fashionable nihilism: the rejection of standards of taste as mere impositions of politically dominant forces; the exaltation of the transgressive and perverse (in art, as well as morals), as serving to reveal the fallaciousness of essentialism, applied to the human person; and a dispensing with all notions of form and genre, as the remnants of that same fraudulent essentialism.

Against this welter of bottomless theorizing, the aesthetic Darwinians have set their faces. Armed with a conception of man which they regard as scientifically verified, they assert that natural and sexual selection has endowed the human organism with certain basic, observable, and universal characteristics, which place definite limits on the range of his behaviors, as well as his predilections. Among these characteristics is a propensity for artistic creation. More precise examination of the legacy of selective forces uncovers more detailed knowledge of this evolutionarily conceived human nature, which in turns provides the basis for more exact inferences about man’s artistic tastes and talents. In this way, a body of data is amassed which, taken as a whole, undermines the post-modern dogma of man’s perfect malleability, and all the catastrophic implications which follow from it.

This, in admittedly abbreviated form, constitutes the great claim of the aesthetic Darwinians. On the basis of its verity rises and falls the success of the whole movement. Their antipathy to the post-modern infection of the academy certainly does them credit, and their analysis of its failure is accurate in a number of material points. But in the end, their exaltation at the prospect of discrediting post-modernism is wildly misconceived, for the theory which they are wielding as their prime instrument in this endeavor inevitably replicates the very worst features of post-modernism, with, if anything, an even greater intensity.

This is because, of all the doctrines that have ever sprung out of the turbid head of man, none has ever been more perfectly anti-essentialist than Darwinism. The most prominent figures in the movement harp on this fact repeatedly, insisting that evolutionary theory justifies at last the doubts of Heraclitus, by revealing the ineradicably contingent and transient character of all things, or at least all biological things.[xxiv] If the post-modernist dismisses human nature as a mere collection of cultural influences, the Darwinian dismisses it as a collection of genetic and environmental influences. The one regards man as indefinitely malleable by society, the other regards him as indefinitely malleable by selective processes. Because we can perceive the emergence and effects of cultural influences, while the effects of selective pressure for the most part take place over spans of time which defy our apprehension, it appears to us that post-modernism presents the more ephemeral notion of human nature, but theoretically, it is not so. It is one of the great ironies of their system that The Origin of Species allegedly demonstrated the insubstantiality of the concept of species. On such principles, human nature can be nothing other than a wholly contingent assemblage of morphological and behavioral traits, among which a tendency towards artistic productivity, and a predilection for such productions, may in fact take place. But from this, nothing at all can follow of a prescriptive tenor. This is the great obstacle in the way of erecting a Darwinian ethics, which one evolutionary moralist after another acknowledges, before stumbling over it. But the problem is no less grave for presumptive Darwinian aestheticians, since such a conception of human nature gives no more warrant for a set of critical standards than for a code of ethical norms. Just as an observed biological tendency towards polygamy cannot establish the practice as morally justified, an observed taste for savannah-like landscapes cannot establish such scenes as beautiful. To move from the set of relevant data regarding man’s aesthetic habits to a set of critical standards by which he may judge art would require us to make selections among that data as to what we choose to value most highly, but by the time we are employing concepts of value, over and above raw data, we have already entered a realm of inquiry in which we can gain no assistance from biology. Nothing is more chimerical than to expect to derive a set of critical standards from Darwinian theory; the adaptationist conception of human nature does not do anything that a critic wants a conception of human nature to do. But it is the erosion of critical standards that, after all, has been the most deleterious consequence of post-modern theory. More generally, the need for created standards is of the most urgent order for our decadent age, but as to addressing this need, Darwinism is just as impotent as the French nihilism which has dominated the humanties departments for nearly half a century.

Still, the fundamental impotence to generate critical standards is only the least unpleasant trait which aesthetic Darwinism mimics from post-modern theory. Anyone who has had the misfortune of sitting through an undergraduate survey course, led by a deconstructively minded professor, and listened to her “unmask” the class and gender bigotries in a Tolstoy or a Dickens, knows what is truly repulsive about that set of ideologies. Anyone who has watched a room full of snot-nosed illiterates condescendingly rate the insufficient racial sensitivities of Shakespeare understands the catastrophe wrought upon American culture by post-modern dogma. The violent cynicism, the sneering refusal to accept as sincere any expression of a moral or theological ideal, the arrogant assumption that all reading is done to belittle or condemn, rather than to enlighten or ennoble – these are the hideous fruits of post-modernism, and it requires little reflection to perceive how Darwinian theory replicates each one of these grotesque tendencies to the last degree.

It is simply false to assert – as a number of aesthetic Darwinians are keen to assert – that evolutionary theory is not a physically reductive theory. Indeed, the whole of academic scientific speculation presents a vision of man which is radically reductive to material causes, as evidenced by the prevalent model of brain function in the cognitive sciences, the so-called “computational” model, which renders all mental states in terms of patterned neuron activity. Sociobiologists have a favorite word – “merely”- and their books are peppered with the word, recurrent testimony to the ineluctably reductive tendency of their thought. So when a sociobiologist claims that the qualia of beauty are the product of neurochemical processes, what he means is that the qualia of beauty are merely the product of neurochemical processes; the qualia are fundamentally illusory. The experience of beauty, as understood by Plato or Bonaventure or Kant, is oriented towards a realm of truth transcending the imperatives of physical law, evolutionary or otherwise. Since a Darwinian cannot consistently accept any such set of truths not deducible from scientific law, the concept of beauty understood in this traditional sense must be illusory. And yet, when we have an aesthetic experience, we all do experience exactly what Plato and Bonaventure and Kant described, an insight into something irreducibly transcendent. The Darwinian can account for this phenomenon in no other way than by denying its reality, by maintaining that what seems like an aesthetic experience – an experience oriented towards a realm of transcendent truth – is merely the consequence of an agitation of the limbic system, a release of dopamine, or what have you. For this reason, it is profoundly misleading for Dutton to cite, at the beginning of his article of The Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, the theories of Aristotle and Kant, and suggest that sociobiology would return aesthetic inquiry to something like their positions, since there remains an impassable gulf between the traditional concept of beauty and the Darwinian concept of beauty – the gulf between reality and resemblance.

To read evolutionarily, then, is to read cynically, to read with disbelief; it is to see behind every form of artistic production the hidden impulses of an organism thriving under the dominion of sexual selection, and to see in the motives of every character nothing but an unconscious yielding to the drive for competitive and reproductive advantage. To read as a Darwinian is to “unmask” as relentlessly as the most committed deconstructionist, the two differing only in the type of unacknowledged imperative – not economic or cultural, but biological – one pursues behind the incorrigibly deceptive facade of the text. Roger Kimball, in his review of The Art Instinct for the Times Literary Supplement, astutely recognized this implication of Darwinism: 

Superficially, at least, Darwinian explanations share something with Marxist, Freudian and Nietzschean explanations. They are systematically cynical about appearances, instances of what Paul Ricoeur called the “hermeneutics of suspicion”. How often have you heard it said that really, at bottom, all human relations are a matter of (take your pick) economic exploitation, unconscious libidinal impulses, or the Will to Power? Or, if you are a Darwinian, that they are all coefficients of natural and sexual selection?


The prominent aesthetic Darwinian Jonathan Gottschall gives the game away, introducing his evolutionary account of the Homeric epics, The Rape of Troy, by dismissing those critics who “trusted the words of the warriors themselves,”[xxvi] that is to say, those critics who misread the poem by actually accepting the expressions, not demonstrably ironic, of characters as sincere, rather than piercing through this hypocritical membrane with the syringe of Darwinian theory, to expose the red, raw product of selection and selfish genes lurking beneath. Cynicism does not present more unambiguously than this. One can envision the scene, a decade hence, when some aesthetic Darwinian has usurped the station of his post-modernist predecessor at the head of that same undergraduate survey, as the class works its way through the Vita Nuova

To weigh the value of this new Darwinian endeavor, in might be helpful to compare two critical efforts, one the work of a theorist applying the new evolutionary paradigm, and the other the work of a thinker at home in the old “realist” or “essentialist” tradition of philosophy, which the Darwinians so casually disregard. Specifically, I wish to compare the interpretations of Homer on offer from two authors, Jonathan Gottschall in his Rape of Troy: Evolution, Violence, and the World of Homer, and Alasdair MacIntyre in both After Virtue and Whose Justice? Which Rationality?

The exclusive purpose of Gottschall’s book is to demonstrate how susceptible the Homeric texts are to a Darwinian reading. His prevalent thesis is that the fighting in Homer is fundamentally over reproductive access to women; this is the drive that gives rise to all of their passions, and this is the end that shapes all their decisions. All the apparent concern for things like honor and duty in the speeches of the Homeric heroes (and recall, Gottschall has expressed his distrust for their own words) are mere pretense, disguising from themselves and from their readers, their common, genuine, genetically determined goal – reproduction. As he puts it: “For Homer’s heroes, as for ordinary men, women are not a proximate route to the ultimate goal of honor, political power, and social dominance. On the contrary, honor, political power, and social dominance are proximate routes to the ultimate goal of women.”[xxvii] The expedition to Troy was occasioned by “acute shortages of available women relative to young men,” which itself resulted from “high-status men monopolizing the reproductive capacities of multiple women,” though no where in his book does he provide an adequate explanation of why that expedition was led most enthusiastically by the chiefs of the various Greek poli, precisely those “high-status” men who presumably might have stayed at home, enjoying prolific reproductive means, without risk of death. Consequently, the greater portion of his book is devoted to demonstrating how the Homeric heroes are motivated in various passages of the epics by the evolutionarily dominant compulsion to procreate, interspersed with tedious digressions into the realms of anthropology, sociology, and the usual sociobiological speculations about game theory and inclusive fitness.

MacIntyre turns his attention to Homer in two books which are devoted more broadly to the examination of traditions of ethical inquiry, and his interest in the epics is as origins of the Greek tradition: “there is no way to possess the virtues except as part of a tradition in which we inherit them and our understanding of them from a series of predecessors, in which series heroic societies hold first place.”[xxviii] To MacIntyre, the Homeric texts are most important for the conceptual legacy they have bestowed to Western ethics, and consequently, the chapters which he devotes to their examination are taken up most fully with pursuing definitions of key terms like “dikae” and “arete” or considering the way the Homeric heroes understand themselves – their duties, their proper claims, their righteous actions – in light of their conceptual knowledge.

In Gottschall’s book, the dispute between Agamemnon and Achilles which begins the Iliad is fundamentally a contest over “a sexually desirable young woman,” in support of which proposition, he offers the following argument: “It is hard to imagine that the disputes between Agamemnon and Achilles or between Menelaus and Paris could have been carried so far if the main points of contention were, instead of stunningly beautiful women, other things coveted by Homeric men, like beautiful armor or gleaming tripods.”[xxix] (In fact, considering the greedy alacrity with which Homeric heroes strip their bested antagonists of their armor in the midst of battle, it is perfectly conceivable that Agamemnon might have aroused an equal degree of furor in Achilles by staking a claim to his armor). Gottschall recognizes the apparent incoherence of his claim in light of Achilles’ rejection of Agamemnon’s offered compensation, which includes twenty-eight women: “Does not Achilles’ rejection of this Darwinian windfall count heavily against my case that the behavior of Homeric men complies with evolutionary logic?” But his attempt to extricate himself from this dilemma – “his (Agamemnon’s) conspicuous display of unmatched wealth and power, of arete in gift-giving, accentuates Achilles’ subordinate stature”[xxx] – implies that Achilles rejects the offer because considerations of honor take precedence with him over his desire to mate with the twenty-eight proffered women, which of course renders his entire thesis null.

According to MacIntyre, Achillles’ resentment cannot be understood apart from a larger grasp of how his conceptual universe shapes his psychology. Key among ethical concepts is dikae, which refers foremost to “a single fundamental order, an order structuring both nature and society…to be dikaios is to conduct one’s actions and affairs in accordance with this order.”[xxxi]

In this order, all men occupy their role, and to each role – and not, emphatically, to each individual – is due its proper respect, accorded in universally recognized ways. To kings and eminent warriors, such as Achilles, are due the very highest degree of respect. “To deprive another of what is due to someone occupying his role or to usurp the role of another is not only to violate dike; it is to infringe upon the timê, the honor of the other. And if I am dishonored, as Achilles was by Agamemnon, then I am required to seek redress.”[xxxii]

When Gottschall turns to Sarpedon’s famous address to Glaucus in Book Twelve of the Iliad, what he finds there is further evidence of the ineradicably biological nature of motives among the Homeric characteristics: “Sarpedon also suggests to Glaucus that heroic distinction has immense practical utility. In the war-torn Aegean, strong and valiant warriors are every society’s most valuable resource, and they are handsomely rewarded for their risk-taking.”[xxxiii]

According to MacIntyre, in the world of the Iliad, “the man who does what he ought moves steadily towards his fate and his death.” The exhortation of Sarpedon is evidence of this tragic fact: “Prosperity is thus a by-product of achievement in war and from this springs the paradox: those who pursue that course which entitles them to the happiness that is represented by orchards and cornfields, by life with Andromache or Penelope, pursue a course whose characteristic end is death.”[xxxiv]

Gottschall acknowledges the implausible application of the Darwinian paradigm to the Iliad, since, after all, the conscious decision of each protagonist to engage in warfare is made perforce at the expense of his likely survival and reproduction:

How can it be claimed that male conflict is an end result of reproductive striving when such competition, especially in warlike societies, is so apt to result in early death? Is not the male tendency towards competitive striving more accurately viewed as biologically maladaptive (in the sense that it militates against passing on genes) rather than biologically adaptive (in the sense that it aids in passing on genes)?[xxxv]


His initial attempt to address this apparent incoherence is a citation of an idea from the early Darwinian theorist Ronald Fisher, an idea so spectacularly assinine, it is almost impossible to believe that Fisher actually published it, and even more impossible to believe that Gottschall would cite it as evidence for his argument:

Fisher hypothesized that heroic imprudence could serve the fitness interests of the hero if the genetic costs of early death were offset by the benefits ‘conferred by the prestige of the hero upon his kinsmen…’ Fisher speculated that the families of killed heroes bask in reflected glory and prestige, and that the genetic losses warriors suffer through early death might therefore be outweighed by the enhanced fitness of relatives.[xxxvi]


Gottschall follows this ridiculous notion with several desperate pages maintaining that the Homeric heroes all truly wish to avoid death – “a Homeric man will generally not choose death over dishonor” – that theirs is no more than a “prudent boldness,” in which the warriors engage in order to lay claim to the material benefits which their society bestows on all men so willing to risk their safety. A more irrelevant argument could not be imagined, since the very probability of warfare leading to death – and reproductive annihilation – is enough to render it the less likely alternative, in the Darwinian scheme, for kings who might very well stay at home and procreate at leisure. After all, they have nothing more to gain in the way of the world’s goods. But far more crucially, the assertion flies in the face of what we know regarding the poem’s central protagonist, Achilles, who abandoned the prospect of long life (and a large genetic legacy) in Pthia, to pursue immortal glory at the price of an early death on “the windy plains of Troy,” and who, when he had determined to kill Hector in retribution for his dear Patroclus’ death, did so with a perfect knowledge of the consequences of this action. “You’ll be swift to meet your end, child, as you say: your doom comes close on the heels of Hektor’s own,” says Thetis, to which Achilles bluntly responds, “May it come quickly.”

MacIntyre correctly perceives that the warriors in Homer are under no illusions about the consequences of their participation in the ten-years war at Troy: “the man therefore who does what he ought moves steadily towards his fate and his death. To understand this is itself a virtue; indeed, it is a necessary part of courage to understand this.” Courage itself “will be one of the central virtues, perhaps the central virtue,” not because it benefits its possessor, or, more unbelievably, his offspring, but because it is needed to maintain the cohesion of society: “to be courageous is to be someone on whom reliance can be placed.” Courage is the surety of every bond of kinship and friendship: “If someone kills you, my friend or brother, I owe you their death and when I have paid my debt to you their friend or brother owes them my death. The more extended my system of kinsmen and friends, the more liabilities I shall incur of a kind that may end in my death.”[xxxvii] Thus, in perfect contradiction of Gottschall’s theory, Homer’s heroes face death, or the likelihood of death, because they value their timê, their honor, more than they value their lives.

Indeed, Gottschall cannot construe the notions of Homer’s heroes in any other terms but the infantile “selfish/altruistic” dichotomy endemic to sociobiology. In the one place in the book where he engages in serious reflection about the contents of the epics – as opposed to propagandizing the Darwinian theory – he lists some of the more lovely and irenic images in the poems, and then asks poignantly regarding the poem’s heroes: “Why must they squander this beauty? Why, even when they seek out peace, do they so often find war?” Yet, in answer to these serious questions, Gottschall can only respond with the most shopworn and ineffective of sociobiological tricks; he hauls out the prisoner’s dilemma. A model from the weird discipline of game theory, the prisoner’s dilemma purports to provide a schema for the deliberation of scenarios involving a choice between cooperative and selfish behavior, and purports to reveal, by way of all sorts of arcane analysis by computers and computer-like professors, that the ideally efficient dictum by which to guide one’s behavior in all such scenarios is the one declaring “do unto others as others have done unto you.” Since it is the most efficient strategy, posit the Darwinians, it must be the strategy which our genes compel us to employ. The absurdity of attributing refined mathematical knowledge to genes does not prevent the sociobiologists from alluding to the prisoner’s dilemma at every opportunity, and by now it is quite fair to say that it constitutes one of the foundations of their theory. Thus Gottschall, in perfect sociobiological fashion, analyses the tragic aspect of the poem in light of this inane model, arriving at the most cliched of insights: “by failing to cooperate they fail to achieve not only what is best for the collectives, but also what is best for individuals.” He even admits that the prisoner’s dilemma offers only a “radically superficial” account of the Homeric narratives;[xxxviii] some of us would like to remind him that “radically simplified” is but another way of saying “grossly inadequate.”

MacIntyre recognizes such idle speculations as symptoms of the incoherence into which modern ethical thought has fallen, a decline famously exposed in the first half of “After Virtue.” To apply this incoherent framework to Greek epic is already to falsify the meaning of those works:

In this context (ie, contemporary ethical discourse) a contrast between the altruistic individual who gives weight to the desires of others and the egoistic individual who does not, and between cooperative qualities of the one and the competitive qualities of the other, is completely at home. But to use these same contrasts in elucidating Homeric attitudes and actions, as some scholars have done, is to risk grave distortion.


MacIntyre constantly calls our attention to the way Homeric heroes construe their own self-interest in terms of their social roles, with their special obligations: “what Homer and the sagas show are forms of assertion proper to and required by a certain role and agents in the Homeric poems can certainly be said always to act in their own interests as they understand them, but the interest of an individual is always his or her interest qua wife or qua host or qua some other role. And since what is required of one in one’s role is to give what is due to those others occupying roles that stand in determinate relation to one’s own…there is not the same contrast between what is to one’s own interest and what is to the interest of others as that which is conveyed by modern uses of ‘self-interest’ and cognate terms.”


Thus the prisoner’s dilemma, with its necessary distinction between altruistic, or socially beneficial, and selfish actions, can only render a deeply erroneous account of the motives of Homer’s warriors, who in fact know no such distinction.[xxxix]

Gottschall, again in typically sociobiological fashion, tries to redeem the implicit nihilism of his arguments in his book’s last three pages, by suddenly referring to a “sublime human ideal,” which Achilles strives to emulate, a notion which he pulls out of thin air, and which, if properly understood, undermines the entire thesis of the book, dependent as it is on the assumption that Homer’s heroes are driven blindly by genetic necessity. But despite this moment of flippant inconsistency, Gottschall leaves his readers with no mistake as to what is the important truth to take away from a reading of the Iliad or the Odyssey: “Homer’s world is inhabited by men like Achilles – men who are gentle apes and killer apes, striving to accomplish, conquer, and possess, all in unconscious obedience to life’s prime directive: be fruitful and multiply.” That is to say, the poetry of Homer – like the reproductive patterns of codfish, like the social organization of the hymenoptera, like the developed vaccine-resistance of certain bacteria – is but one more piece of evidence for the omnipotence and omnipresence of selective forces, and the all-sufficing explanatory capacity of the Darwinian theory.[xl]

To MacIntyre, the most important thing to learn from a reading of the Iliad – the lesson which classical Greek society most emphatically did learn – is the difference between the achievement of moral excellence, and the fortunes of conflict: “defeat is the moral horizon of the Homeric hero, that beyond which nothing is to be seen, nothing lies. But defeat is not the Homeric poet’s moral horizon, and it is precisely by reason of this difference that the Homer of the Iliad transcends the limitations of the society he portrays. For what Homer puts in question, as his characters do not, is what it is to win and what it is to lose.”[xli] The episode of the chariot race in Book Twenty-Three, and the judgment by which Achilles dispenses the prizes of victory, quite clearly supports this reading. Eumelus is offered the greater prize because “the standards by which excellence is to be judged and the standards by which it is determined who has won on a particular occasion are distinct.”[xlii] This great truth, imbibed into the Hellenistic mind, bore its fruits at the pass of Thermopylae, as well as in the immortal persona of Antigone. Indeed, the significance of this theme to the larger development of Western culture cannot be overstated. As MacIntyre helps us see, the greatness and irreplaceability of Homer lies in his depiction of those fundamental ethical insights from which our entire intellectual tradition have emerged.

I leave it to the judgment of all persons familiar with the Homeric texts to decide which of these two authors has read the epics with the greater accuracy and insight. I leave it to all persons of sense to determine which of these two perspectives represented here appears the most coherent, the most complete, the most concordant with the observed facts of man, and the most attentive to the enduring dilemmas of his existence. I leave it to such persons to determine which of these two perspectives offers most promise to revivify the dessicated husk of academic humanism, and which will serve merely to perpetuate its well-merited reputation as the publicly funded refuge of every last petty, stunted, tedious theory-monger.

The works of the classical tradition of aesthetic inquiry are precisely the place we should be turning right now – not to the faddish but defective speculations of sociobiology – and the insights we find there are the ones we should be pursuing if we wish to raise our universities, as well as the more general culture, out of their present torpor and degeneracy. One such work, Schiller’s Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man stands out for its unique bearing on this topic. Identifying the origins of artistic production in what he terms “the play drive,” Schiller regards such “play” as in truth momentously important, preparing men for the burdens of the responsible liberty which, as rational creatures, they peculiarly possess. To be sure, this drive has a natural – a biological – root:


The constraint of superabundance or physical play, answers as a transition from the constraint of necessity, or of physical seriousness, to aesthetical play; and before shaking off, in the supreme freedom of the beautiful, the yoke of any special aim, nature already approaches, at least remotely, this independence, by the free movement which is itself its own end and means.


But in its emergence, this imaginative play creates a rupture between the natural order and the mind of man: 

From this play of free association of ideas, which is still quite material in nature and is explained by simple natural laws, the imagination, by making the attempt of creating a free form, passes at length at a jump to the aesthetic play: I say at one leap, for quite a new force enters into action here; for here, for the first time, the legislative mind is mixed with the acts of a blind instinct, subjects the arbitrary march of the imagination to its eternal and immutable unity, causes its independent permanence to enter in that which is transitory, and its infinity in the sensuous.


The entire tendency of the aesthetic impulse is to pull men away from their merely biological natures towards a conceived ideal of rational freedom:

Consequently, when we find in man the signs of a pure and disinterested esteem, we can infer that this revolution has taken place in his nature, and that humanity has really begun in him. Signs of this kind are found even in the first and rude attempts that he makes to embellish his existence, even at the risk of making it worse in its material conditions. As soon as he begins to prefer form to substance and to risk reality for appearance (known by him to be such), the barriers of animal life fall, and he finds himself on a track that has no end. Not satisfied with the needs of nature, he demands the superfluous. First, only the superfluous of matter, to secure his enjoyment beyond the present necessity; but afterwards he wishes a superabundance in matter, an aesthetical supplement to satisfy the impulse for the formal, to extend enjoyment beyond necessity.[xliii]


From the moment that man begins to fashion works of art, and thereby demonstrates his preference for ideal form over the incorrigibly defective material world around him, from that moment he ceases to act and think in a wholly biological way, and from that moment, theories which rely on wholly biological explanations become untenable and distortive.   Art is the manufacture of creatures striving after rational freedom, and can be understood properly in terms appropriate to such creatures, and no others. The attempt to explain art, in terms of a theory which renders man nothing more than a “survival-machine” is a mere imposition upon the common sense of the public. Novel as this approach may be, it is already time to be done with it.





[i]Human Prehistory and the First Civilizations, (The Teaching Company) lectures 1 and 10.

[ii]G. K. Chesterton, Everlasting Man (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993) 34.

[iii]Jonathan Gottschall and D.S. Wilson, eds. The Literary Animal (Chicago: Northwestern Univ. Press, 2005) Forward.

[iv]Denis Dutton, The Art Instinct (New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2009) 2.

[v]Steven Pinker, in an interview with Robert Wright, agrees that, according to the computational model – the cognitive theory implicit in all academic materialism, including sociobiology – “in principle you could explain all behavior without reference to subjective states.” <> See minute 51.

[vi]After over a century of insistence by its partisans that Darwinian theory has utterly routed teleology from the realm of respectable philosophical discourse, Daniel Dennett now assures us that natural selection imbues organisms with purposes “as real as purposes could ever be.” <> See minute 8.

[vii]Quoted in David Stove, Darwinian Fairytales (New York: Encounter Books, 1995) 227.

[viii]Robert Trivers, Social Evolution (California: Benjamin/Cummings, 1985) 198-200.

[ix]“The adopter not only wastes her own time: she also releases a rival female from the burden of child-rearing, and frees her to have another child more quickly. It seems to me a critical example which deserves some thorough research. We need to know how often it happens; what the average relatedness between adopter and child is; and what the attitude of the real mother of the child is – it is, after all, to her advantage that her child should be adopted: do mothers deliberately try to deceive naïve young females into adopting their children” quoted in Stove, 309.

[x]“ Any rational person would not pursue a feud, any more than he would let guilt or shame prevent him from stealing a friend’s wallet.” in Matt Ridley, The Origins of Virtue (New York: Viking, 1996) 133.

[xi]Quoted in Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion (New York: Routledge, 2002) 3.

[xii]Dutton, 9.

[xiii]Joseph Carroll, Evolution and Literary Theory (Columbia, MO: Univ. of Missouri Press, 1994) 310.

[xiv]Brian Boyd, “Evolutionary Theories of Art,” in Gottschall and Wilson, 147.

[xv]Jonathan Gottschall, The Rape of Troy (New York: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008) 163.

[xvi]Ridley, 138.

[xvii]Quoted in Stove, 321.

[xviii]Ellen Dissanayake, Homo Aestheticus (Seattle: Univ. of Washington Press, 1995) 32.

[xix]Eckart Voland, “Aesthetic Preferences in the World of Artifacts” in Karl Grammer and Eckart Voland, eds. Evolutionary Aesthetics (New York:Springer, 2003) 246.

[xx]Dutton, 146.

[xxi]Denis Dutton, “Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology” in The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics ((New York: Oxford University Press, 2003) <>

[xxii]Dissanayake, 44

[xxiii]Dutton 2009, 236.

[xxiv]See Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (New York: Touchstone, 1995) esp. chapters 2 and 3; also Stephen Jay Gould Full House (New York: Harmony Books, 1996) 40-41; Gould himself cites Ernst Mayr as an early defender of this position.

[xxv]Roger Kimball, “Art in Darwin’s Terms,” Times Literary Supplement 20 March 2009

[xxvi]Gottschall, 2.

[xxvii]Gottschall, 10.

[xxviii]Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1981) 127.

[xxix]Gottschall, 60.

[xxx]Gottschall, 61-61.

[xxxi]Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (Notre Dame, IN: Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1988) 14.

[xxxii]MacIntyre 1988, 14.

[xxxiii]Gottschall, 87.

[xxxiv]MacIntyre 1981, 127.

[xxxv]Gottschall, 96.

[xxxvi]Gottschall, 96.

[xxxvii]MacIntyre 1981, 124.

[xxxviii]Gottschall, 155-157.

[xxxix]MacIntyre 1988, 20-21.

[xl]Gottschall, 163-165.

[xli]MacIntyre 1981, 128.

[xlii]MacIntyre 1988, 27.

[xliii]Friedrich Schiller, Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man, Letter XXVII <>

Mark Signorelli teaches English Literature at Christian Brothers Academy in Lincroft, NJ.  He has published poetry in the Evansville Review and the Mahwah Review.

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