Darwinian Aesthetics: It’s All In Your Head!

Denis Dutton was a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. He wrote an essay entitled “Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology” for the The Oxford Handbook for Aesthetics (2003) and gave a speech on the subject at the TED Talks Convention in 2010 (that speech was later animated by CognitiveMedia, and I added the video to the end of this post!). He was a firm believer that a Darwinian approach to aesthetics is “the most powerful theory of beauty we have.”  I picked through the essay and the video/speech to give you an overview of this theory.

beautiful things

Beauty, Dutton admits, is a difficult subject, because the things we identify as beautiful are so different: humans, natural landscapes, works of art, etc. To suggest that beauty is universal is quite against the grain these days. During the 20th century, aesthetic theories held that beauty was in the culturally conditioned eye of the beholder. Art, therefore, “was considered purely a determined product of culture, and there were as many kinds of art and artistic values as there were cultures.”

However, Dutton supports a kind of aesthetic universalism, he insists that there are artworks that are aesthetically enjoyed throughout the world. But how do you explain such universality?

Try this: our aesthetic tastes are ingrained in our brains. Like all species, humans are a product of evolution, and Dutton turns to evolutionary psychology for answers, an approach which “extends the findings of Darwinian theory to the working of the human psyche.”

“The experience of beauty, with emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. Beauty is an adaptive effect, which we extend and intensity in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment.”

Now, there are two main parts to Darwin’s theory: natural selection and sexual selection.  Natural selection develops certain adaptations that allow the species to survive (ie. fear of snakes and spiders, aversion to the smell of rotten meat, pleasure in calorically  dense foods, etc.).

Dutton considers a particular source of aesthetic pleasure: natural landscape. Could the vestiges of our survival instincts dictate a universally preferred landscape scene? One research study showed standardized photos of various landscapes to people of different ages and in different countries.  Although adults were markedly split on preference, children were not.

“…it was found that they showed a marked preference for savannahs with trees-exactly the East African landscape where much early human evolution took place (Orians and Heerwagen 1992). Beyond a liking for savannahs, there is a general preference for landscapes with water; a variety of open and wooded space (indicating places to hide and places for game to hide); trees that fork near the ground (provide escape possibilities) with fruiting potential a metre or two from the ground; vistas that recede in the distance, including a path or river that bends out of view but invites exploration; the direct presence or implication of game animals; and variegated cloud patterns. The savannah environment is in fact a singularly food-rich environment…, and highly desirable for a hunter-gatherer way of life. Not surprisingly, these are the very elements we see repeated endlessly in both calendar art and in the design of public parks.”

Sexual selection, on the other hand, allows the species to thrive: “Fundamental to sexual selection in the animal kingdom is female choice, as the typical routine for most species has males displaying strength, cleverness, and general genetic fitness in order to invite female participation in producing the next generation.” The prettier the peacock plumage, the more likely it will attract the attention of a female mate. Beauty is a way for nature to “[arouse] and [sustain] interest…in order to encourage us toward making the most adapted decision for survival and reproduction.”

But what does this have to do with artistic beauty? It is widely assumed that the first evidence of human artistry came from cave paintings in Europe, but this is not necessarily true. Around 3.5 million years ago, an ancestor of the homo sapien began developing a stone tool to chop various materials. The Acheulian hand axe evolved: a slim, teardrop shaped stone with sharpened edges. Hundreds of these tools have been unearthed and many show no signs of wear. Dutton claims that these were the earliest works of Art. Indeed, with such symmetry, attractive materials, and meticulous workmanship, these pieces are considered beautiful even today.

Acheulian hand axes

Acheulian hand axes

These hand axes mark an important stage in human evolution. Darwinians would call these objects “fitness signals,” for the consciously crafted objects act as human peacock tails. The man (forgive me ladies) who creates a competent hand axe displays several desirable qualities that are attractive in a mate: fine motor skills, intelligence, ability of plan ahead, and conscientiousness (and sometimes access to rare materials).

Furthermore, such objects seem to have been a particularly important method of communication, for the axes were made by homo erectus or homo ergaster 50,000-100,000 before language developed.

Today, art is generally used to create imaginary words or express intense emotion, but Dutton claims that humans still find beauty in skilled performances. “Humans have a permanent, innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.”

Dutton does note that this theory is not infallible, for it does not distinguish between what is “agreeable” (pleasurable sensations from direct experience) versus “beautiful.” In other words, it does not differentiate between the satisfaction of desires vs. contemplative beauty.

Overall, though, it is a fascinating approach to aesthetics! I admit the idea of aesthetic universality is one that attracts me. Beauty is not in the beholder, but it’s deep in your minds.

“Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology” by Denis Dutton. The Oxford Handbook for Aesthetics, edited by Jerrold Levinson (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003). <http://www.denisdutton.com/aesthetics_&_evolutionary_psychology.htm&gt;

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