Hardwired To Seek Beauty

The Australian    January 13, 2006

Denis Dutton


THROUGHOUT history and across cultures, the arts of homo sapiens have demonstrated universal features. These aesthetic inclinations and patterns have evolved as part of our hardwired psychological nature, ingrained in the human species over the 80,000 generations lived out by our ancestors in the 1.6 million years of the Pleistocene.

The existence of a universal aesthetic psychology has been suggested, not only experimentally, but by the fact that the arts travel outside their local contexts so easily: Beethoven is loved in Japan, Aboriginal art in Paris, Korean ceramics in Brazil, and Hollywood movies all over the globe. Our aesthetic psychology has remained unchanged since the building of cities and the advent of writing some 10,000 years ago, which explains why The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer, and the Epic of Gilgamesh, remain good reading today. We haven’t lost Pleistocene tastes for fat and sweet foods, nor have we lost our ancient tastes for artistic entertainment.

The fascination, for example, that people worldwide find in the exercise of artistic virtuosity, from Praxiteles to Renée Fleming, is not a social construct, but an evolutionary adaptation; the worldwide interest in sports comes from a similar source.

Displays of virtuosity make audiences’ hair stand on end, regardless of their specific cultural context. It’s no surprise this is a universal aspect of human nature: over thousands of generations, hunter-gatherer bands that exercised dexterity, and encouraged it by admiring it, would have survived better than their less skilful cousins against predators and the rigours of a hostile environment.

Darwinian psychology has other interesting applications to aesthetics. Consider landscape painting and calendar art. Studies of landscape preferences repeatedly show a human liking for alternating copses of trees and open spaces, often hilly land, with animals, water, and a path or river bank that winds into an inviting yet mysterious, bluish distance. This preference for the landscapes of the Pleistocene era, which has been experimentally verified as a cross-cultural constant today, shows up in the painting of early European artists, such as Albrecht Altdorfer and Salvador Rosa, and is found today on calendars in kitchens and offices worldwide. It is very marked in 19th century Australian landscape painting, the result of European artists taming their new vistas. It can be seen in the design of public parks from New York to Kyoto to Melbourne.

Cross-cultural studies also show persistent themes in drama and story-telling. When Aristotle described the basic plot points of Greek tragedy, he may have thought he was only speaking for his culture. Not so. The themes of family breakdown (“She killed him because she loved him”) are also found in Chinese fiction and Mexican soap operas. What often arouses our interest is hate-filled struggle between people whom we’d expect to love each other — the mother who murders her children to get back at her husband, the two brothers who fight to the death — struggles which clearly threaten the survival not just of individuals, but, more essentially, of their genes. Stories of adventure, of overcoming evil, injustice and obstacles to love, are found everywhere. Usually, they involve beautiful young women, strong men, children needing protection, wise old people. The universality of these themes and situations are of particular interest to Darwinian literary theorists.

The Darwinian origin of art is a subject of much dispute. It’s unlikely that the arts came about at one time or for one purpose: they evolved from overlapping interests based on survival and mate selection, and explore and make use of emotions experienced even by our pre-hominid ancestors. The usefulness of the arts for survival is demonstrated by the universal human tendency to reconstruct reality in the imagination. The rehearsal of dangers and conflicts in fiction is a way of learning about the world without having to take actual risks. Those of our ancestors who derived pleasure from fictional “practice” for real life gained an evolutionary edge: they were better prepared to deal with the real world as they found it.

The arts also echo the sexual display that accompanies Darwinian selection. The heavy, glorious tail of the peacock has no intrinsic survival value in the wild. To the contrary, it slows peacocks down and makes them more visible to predators. The peacock’s tail is a product of peahen choices: females choose males with the biggest, most perfectly formed tails. Much of the human personality was similarly formed by women and men choosing clever, affectionate, kind, and skilful mates in the Pleistocene. This too would permeate not only the arts as a “show-off” demonstration of virtuosity, but our large-brained capacity to creatively use memory and language to levels far beyond mere survival requirements.

How we scan visually, how we hear, our sense of rhythm, the pleasures of artistic expression and in joining with others as an audience: all of this and more will in time be illuminated by Darwinian aesthetics.

Though it is possible to identify persistent themes and subjects in the arts, human beings everywhere are also inclined to enjoy what’s new. This craving for novelty is itself a fascinating area of empirical research. There is a tendency, for example, for all artistic genres to develop in the direction of greater emotional content in time. Music moves from baroque to classic to romantic, with modulations becoming more striking, emotions stronger, orchestras larger. Movies go from merely illustrating stories to becoming more graphically exciting. These patterns toward increasing violence and emotional content can be put down largely to satiation: the process by which we simply get tired of anything we consume and crave more excitement from it. Such cycles tend to have natural conclusions, with film producers periodically returning to the calm formality of Jane Austen after pushing the boundaries of sex and violence. Such episodes can be charted and studied with perhaps less precision, but certainly more fascination, than can the tides and cycles of ocean currents.

Darwinian aesthetics have hardly got off the ground, and much work remains to be done. Nevertheless, I’ve already seen a stiff, knee-jerk resistance to the very idea among older academics in the humanities. It’s odd that the very academics who express outrage that religious conservatives want to keep Darwin out of high school biology classes in the U.S. are themselves unwilling to admit Darwin into their own seminars. Aesthetics approached with intelligible, scientifically valid research techniques would clearly be a threat to the reigning orthodoxies.

But there’s no cause for greying humanists to worry. Culture, the central idea of the humanities as they now exist, makes an enormous contribution to the meaning of art and Darwinian aesthetics has no desire to deny it. Indeed, Darwin saw human beings as culture-creating animals. Darwinian aesthetics only denies that culture is the whole story of art.

The most complete explanation of great works of art will address form, narrative content, ideology, how the work is taken in by the eye or mind, and indeed, how it can produce life-transforming pleasure. Darwinian aesthetics are about understanding the deepest nature of our apprehension of beauty. Some of this will always remain a mystery, of course, and there is no harm in that either.