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Art as Lust

Medieval alchemists searched for a legendary “philosopher’s stone” capable of turning lead into gold. Modern Darwinists have given us a different “philosopher’s stone” — one that turns gold into lead.
Darwinism is the doctrine that all living things are biological descendants of common ancestors that have been modified by unguided variations and natural selection. Although Darwinists claim that their doctrine is supported by “overwhelming evidence,” nothing could be further from the truth. The fossil record shows that living things originated in a particular pattern, but Darwinists themselves (when they’re being candid) admit that the pattern tells us nothing about the process of origination. As for the process, variation and selection are well-documented in existing species, but Darwin didn’t write a book titled How Existing Species Change Over Time. He wrote a book titled The Origin of Species — and no one has ever observed the origin of a single species by variation and selection.
Empirical science tests hypotheses by comparing them with the evidence, but Darwinists never allow evidence to jeopardize their basic claims. Darwin called The Origin of Species “one long argument,” but his followers are engaged in one long bluff. Books and articles promoting Darwinism invariably make inflated claims based on little evidence — or worse, evidence that is misrepresented or even faked.

Among the inflated claims, those prevalent in sociobiology and evolutionary psychology (“evo-psycho” for short) tend to be the silliest. Sociobiology and evo-psycho are so fanciful that even some Darwinists criticize them for consisting of nothing more than “just-so” stories. A century ago, Rudyard Kipling wrote entertaining but scientifically meaningless “just-so stories” about how the camel got its hump, how leopards got their spots, and so on. In 1978, Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould faulted sociobiology for relying on just-so stories in which “virtuosity in invention replaces testability as the criterion for acceptance.” 1
In 2000, University of Leicester geneticist Gabriel Dover wrote:

This problem with just-so story telling is not some minor irritation… The problem runs much deeper and wider, embracing many new disciplines of evolutionary psychology, Darwinian medicine, linguistics, biological ethics and sociobiology. Here quite vulgar explanations are offered, based on the crudest applications of selection theory, of why we humans are the way we are… Not only is there the embarrassing spectacle of psychologists, philosophers and linguists rushing down the road of selfish genetic determinism, but we are also shackled with their self-imposed justification in giving ‘scientific’ respectability to complex behavioral phenomena in humans which we simply do not so far have the scientific tools and methodologies to investigate.2

In 2001, the U.S. Public Broadcasting System (PBS) produced a lavish eight-hour propaganda series titled Evolution. Episode Five featured evo-psycho advocate Geoffrey Miller. According to the narrator, Miller “believes the human brain, like the peacock’s magnificent tail, is an extravagance that evolved–at least in part–to help us attract a mate, and pass on genes.” But Miller “is just getting started when he argues that the size of our brains can be attributed to our ancestors’ sexual choices. He’s also convinced that artistic expression, no matter how sublime, has its roots in our desire to impress the opposite sex. And that includes music, art, the poetic and storytelling uses of language — even a good sense of humor. According to Miller, they all stem from our instincts for sexual display.” Miller himself then said, “I think when a lot of people produce cultural displays, what they’re doing in a sense is exercising these, these sexual instincts for impressing the opposite sex.”
To illustrate Miller’s claim that artistic creativity is reducible to our ancestors’ sexual choices, PBS’s Evolution chose — of all things! — the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah. According to evo-psycho, Handel did it for sex. In fact, however, Handel composed the Messiah as a benefit concert, and he personally conducted scores of performances that raised substantial funds for a London hospital and for people in debtors’ prisons. Far from trying to satisfy his sexual desire, Handel used his creative abilities for deeply altruistic purposes, and the Messiah stands as a legacy to his Christian faith.
Nevertheless, for Miller — as for Freud — all of human culture is a by-product of selfish sexual urges. But “Freud’s views lost credibility,” wrote University of Chicago evolutionary biologist Jerry A. Coyne in 2000

when people realized that they were not at all based on science, but were really an ideological edifice, a myth about human life, that was utterly resistant to scientific refutation. By judicious manipulation, every possible observation of human behavior could be (and was) fitted into the Freudian framework. The same trick is now being perpetrated by the evolutionary psychologists. They, too, deal in their own dogmas, and not in propositions of science.3

Coyne was criticizing evolutionary psychology in general. But many biologists have also criticized Miller’s specific ideas about the evolution of the human brain. “How does one actually test these ideas?” wrote University of Sheffield behavioral ecologist Tim Birkhead in a 2000 review of Miller’s work. “Without a concerted effort to do this, evolutionary psychology will remain in the realms of armchair entertainment rather than real science.”4 In another review of Miller’s work, American Museum of Natural History paleoanthropologist Ian Tattersall wrote: “In the end we are looking here at a product of the storyteller’s art, not of science.” 5
Now Denis Dutton has come out with yet another retelling of the evo-psycho story. In The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (Bloomsbury Press, 2008), Dutton attributes human artistic tastes to our evolutionary history — especially sexual selection. According to an online review by Michael O’Donnell, Dutton’s “idea of an evolutionary basis to the arts” is “compelling,” because “unless you are inclined to believe that an omniscient creator bestowed on some people angelic voices to fill his cathedrals with heavenly airs, there must be some scientific explanation for artistic talent.”
But “scientific” here does not mean “consistent with the evidence.” It means “consistent with Darwinism.” And although Darwinists such as Gould and Coyne and Tattersall criticized evo-psycho for storytelling, Darwinism from the start has consisted mainly of storytelling. What matters in Darwinism is not following the evidence wherever it leads, but seeking explanations that are (a) materialistic and (b) believable, meaning only they are not blatantly contradicted by the evidence. Darwinism masquerades as empirical science, but in reality it is just materialistic storytelling.
Unfortunately, materialism has no room for angels; that’s why Miller and O’Donnell are deaf to the angelic voices that most other people hear in the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Materialism reduces art to lust; that’s why evo-psycho regards the Messiah as nothing more than high-end erotica. And that’s why the philosopher’s stone of Darwinism turns gold into lead.
1 Stephen Jay Gould, “Sociobiology: the art of storytelling,” New Scientist (16 November 1978), p. 530. See also Tom Bethell, “Against Sociobiology,” First Things (January, 2001).
2 Gabriel Dover, Dear Mr. Darwin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), pp. 44-45.
3 Jerry A. Coyne, “Of Vice and Men: The fairy tales of evolutionary psychology,” a review of Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer’s A Natural History of Rape, in The New Republic (April 3, 2000).
4 Tim Birkhead, “Strictly for the birds,” a review of Geoffrey Miller’s book, The Mating Mind in New Scientist (May 13, 2000), 48-49.
5 Ian Tattersall, “Whatever turns you on,” a review of Geoffrey Miller’s book, The Mating Mind, in The New York Times Book Review (June 11, 2000).

Jonathan Wells

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Jonathan Wells has received two Ph.D.s, one in Molecular and Cell Biology from the University of California at Berkeley, and one in Religious Studies from Yale University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has previously worked as a postdoctoral research biologist at the University of California at Berkeley and the supervisor of a medical laboratory in Fairfield, California. He also taught biology at California State University in Hayward and continues to lecture on the subject.