Evolutionary Aesthetics

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty, – that is all Ye know on earth and all ye need to know.’ – John Keats

Van Gogh's Starry Night

In 2004, Kevin Kniffin (a former classmate of mine at Binghamton) and David Sloan Wilson, published an article in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior revealing their results from three different studies on perceptions of beauty. Among their findings was that, for people who knew each other, ratings of physical attractiveness were strongly influenced by the personality traits of those persons who were being rated. In other words, when rating potential mates, ‘inner beauty’ augmented perceptions of external appearance and overall attractiveness. The reason behind this likely has Darwinian roots. According to Wilson:

“The fitness value of potential social partners depends at least as much on non-physical traits — whether they are cooperative, dependable, brave, hardworking, intelligent and so on — as physical factors, such as smooth skin and symmetrical features.”

This raises the larger question of our general appreciation for beauty. In psychologist Geoffrey Miller’s view, the seemingly excessive intellectual capabilities of the human mind evolved as much by sexual selection as by natural selection– as ‘courtship machines’ rather than merely as ‘survival machines.’ After all, what would have been the survival value of having a capacity for poetry, art, music, humor, or calculus in our ancestral past? To Miller, perhaps these things arose at least in part to achieve status by impressing each other, which in turn could have had genetic payoffs by increasing one’s mating opportunities. Obviously, this need not have been the case in every instance. One can imagine many scenarios where such aesthetics and reproduction are not interlinked– for example, an appreciation for art and music is not confined to people of reproductive age.

However, generally speaking, for adults of comparable physical appearance, those who were intelligent or interesting (or kind) would be considered more ‘mate-worthy’ than those who were exceedingly dull or stupid (or cruel). Therefore, individuals who could create something beautiful as an extension of themselves– either verbally, artistically or through whatever means– might have an advantage in this area. But there would have to be a simultaneous appreciation for that beauty, which must reside somewhere in the evolved brain.  The philosopher Denis Dutton has attempted to apply evolutionary logic to explain our general appreciation for a broad range of aesthetics that we collectively refer to as ‘beautiful.’

“I can… give you a taste of what I regard as the most powerful theory of beauty we yet have. And we get it not from a philosopher  of art, not from a postmodern art theorist, or a big-wig art critic. No, we get it from… Charles Darwin.”

It has been argued before that nature is a tinkerer, often modifying existing structures for new purposes. Robert Sapolsky pointed this out recently in the New York Times, noting that the same area of our brain, the insula, becomes active when we experience disgust, whether it applies to thinking about rotten meat or someone’s reprehensible behavior. In his words: “When we evolved the capacity to be disgusted by moral failures, we didn’t evolve a new brain region to handle it. Instead, the insula expanded its portfolio.”

Thus, it’s not too hard to speculate that an appreciation for beauty could have been co-opted by evolution from its original function, with its reproductive connotations, to a more generic appreciation for all things awesome, from beautiful symmetrical faces, sunsets, and landscapes, to Lascaux, the Taj Mahal, Shakespeare, Dave Chappelle, and Radiohead (see here, here, here, or here).

Though interesting, I am uncertain how far I am willing to take this idea. Because of linguistic constraints, we may be conflating many different phenomena and placing them all under the single umbrella of ‘beauty.’ Whatever the ultimate reason is that we appreciate music (Steven Pinker once called it ‘auditory cheesecake’) or aesthetics in general, life certainly is richer for it.

Update:  Sadly, Denis Dutton has passed away. An  obituary in the Chronicle Review can be found here.  (Dec 31, 2010)

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