Letters – Issue 92

Arts and evolution

In NZB (Winter 2010), Chris Else claims in regard to Denis Dutton’s The Art Instinct and Brian Boyd’s On the Origin of Stories, that “an evolutionary explanation of art, seductive though it might be to the reductive temperament, is about as enlightening as an evolutionary explanation of computer technology.”

Unfortunately, his refutation of Dutton’s and Boyd’s views comes from a rather narrow (and should I say prejudiced?) view of the arts and evolutionary theory. The arguments he dismisses are not perhaps as easily put aside as he suggests. “Is a boomerang a beautiful object we enjoy for its own sake or a tool beautifully designed for killing birds? If it is the latter, is it a work of art?” he asks. Most societies don’t have a notion of art remotely resembling ours, he claims, using this as a disparagement of the evolutionary theory.

As a counter to Dutton’s and Boyd’s argument, this is a non sequitur. What one group or another might label as art or whether any such label is applicable at all is irrelevant to the concept of evolutionary origin. The elitist habit of designating an object as falling under such a label or otherwise has been wonderfully exploded by John Carey in his book, What Good is Art? (2006), which should perhaps be read in conjunction with the two books Else discusses.

Again, Else disagrees with Dutton’s view that perhaps fiction operates by “inculcating potentially adaptive interpersonal and social capacities”. His counter-argument is that the heroic figures of fiction run counter to the need for co-operative behaviour for the benefit of group survival. He misses the obvious point that individual heroism provides a model of initiative and bravery that demonstrates a form of behaviour and attitude that can likewise benefit society.

There are other and genuine arguments that could offer reverse views to Else’s and support Dutton’s and Boyd’s theories. One could postulate, for example, that although we may not be aware of it, all human behaviours are either survival behaviours evolved through Darwinian evolution or secondary and tertiary variations subsequently evolved from these. If this view were adopted, the principal criticism of Dutton’s and Boyd’s publications would be that their theses don’t go far enough, and that the way in which their books tend to get bogged down in side issues and detail is the result of their not taking their contentions further than they have.

Alistair Paterson




Gnats and camels

Reflecting on Julia Millen’s review of Best of Both Worlds (NZB Spring 2010), I am confused by its tone. She concludes that the book is “important and timely”, providing “rich rewards for those prepared to work hard and persistently”. Yet anyone reading her prior dismantling of the book would surely wonder how she reached this conclusion.

Her comment on my prose style – at times “as impenetrable as the mist-shrouded Te Urewera forests” – is rather patronising. Her objections to the book’s structure – interleaved chapters on the two men’s lives, building to their 1895 meeting, their ongoing relationship and my discussion of its consequences – are similarly questionable. Their twinned stories are clearly signalled; I prefigure their actual meeting before it happens, analysing at length and depth what shaped them – and that is the whole point. This is a history of ideas and the impact of Christian literacy on 19th-century Maori thinking – other reviewers have managed to grasp this.

No, it is not an easy read, but neither is it confusing, unless my editors were all wrong. I’m portrayed as a sloppy researcher, yet she can’t get her own facts straight. Her comment that I miss the significance of Best’s meeting with Percy Smith is curious: did she read chapter xix and pages 94-96 in particular? Tutakangahau, by the way, when he met Best in 1895 was not a follower of Rua Kenana – Te Mihaia did not emerge until 1905-06, two years before the old man died. This is just carelessness.

And the remark made after her précis of chapters nine and 10, “that not until chapter 12 do we find another significant comment from the author” – excuse me? Chapter 11 and its discussion of Best’s writing life at the Dominion Museum, his relationship with Te Whatahoro Jury, and his conversion to the “high god” Io thesis, is skated over as if it doesn’t exist. Best is either his literary output – or nothing.

Millen claims that because her Mexted ancestors (the Best family’s neighbours around Tawa) exhibited no fascination with Maori culture, then my argument – that Best was influenced in his later life by his early contact with Maori – is therefore a “dubious assumption”. I’m bemused. Does she mean that accidents of ancestry give her authority over what Best said himself, and what his biographer recorded?

There is more I could say about her apparent inability to engage with the book’s central focus – orality meets literacy on the colonial frontier – but sufficient here to conclude that this review is a poor reflection on the standards I have come to expect from New Zealand Books. I’m more than happy to be judged by a jury of my peers, both in style and content; that is what this necessary debate needs. In this instance, I’m still waiting. She is right about one thing – there is a typo in the first sentence of chapter one – whereby in the straining out of a gnat, a camel is swallowed.

Jeffrey Paparoa Holman


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