by Guy Somerset / 12 December, 2009
Arts & Books editor Guy Somerset and Listener reviewers take the pain out of finding a good read this summer, whether it's a Christmas gift or something to take to the beach.

THE ART INSTINCT: Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution, by Denis Dutton (Oxford, $59.99). Dutton, philosopher of aesthetics at the University of Canterbury, generated a slew of publicity for his evolutionary account of art. A polemical triumph, it faltered methodologically: his bibliography is notably thin, his reliance on Pleistocene-era adaptations too heavy, and too often he blurs science with his own opinions. But despite that, his arguments are spirited and his writing as rich and moreish as strawberry cheesecake. The Art Instinct is what it aspires to be: a squall of fresh critical air.

THE GREATEST SHOW ON EARTH: THE EVIDENCE FOR EVOLUTION, by Richard Dawkins (Bantam, $45). After stirring up controversy with The God Delusion, Dawkins returns to his popular science roots, clearly and elegantly laying out the current evidence for evolution, demonstrating "that evolution is an inescapable fact" and celebrating "its astonishing power, simplicity and beauty". As well as outlining Charles Darwin's theory of evolution, first published 150 years ago, Dawkins provides chapters on molecular evidence, fossil evidence, embryology, geographical distribution of species and animal husbandry.

INNOCENTS IN THE DRY VALLEY: AN ACCOUNT OF THE VICTORIA UNIVERSITY OF WELLINGTON ANTARCTIC EXPEDITION, 1958-59, by Colin Bull (VUP, $50). Bull's author description leads off saying he is a "geophysicist, glaciologist and cook" - and that "cook" is no idle mention in a book where eating features frequently, right from the opening of the first chapter: "Oh damn the calorie count! What we're going to need is food." Where so many academics bleed the human out of their writing, Bull has gone to great lengths to ensure the opposite. He can overdo his exclamation marks and quips, but Innocents in the Dry Valley is never a dry read as it combines the scientific aspects of the expedition with a real sense of adventure, Kiwi can-do, camaraderie and comic irreverence.

ON THE ORIGIN OF STORIES: EVOLUTION, COGNITION AND FICTION, by Brian Boyd (Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, $75). Another New Zealand academic, another evolutionary account of art and literature. Yet Boyd lets the science do the talking, demonstrating a commendable grasp of theory and method. The results are dry (see previous entry) but persuasive, presenting art as a potent stimulant for cognitive evolution, a sophisticated form of play to which we are profitably addicted. Although Boyd's "evocriticism" can simply restate the obvious in scientific terms, this is valuable work, refining our understanding of how biology and social forces shape human thought.

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