It seems like I have been encountering a lot of interesting videos lately. This one, by Denis Dutton, postulates a Darwinian theory of beauty. Denis holds that an appreciation of beauty is universal, not cultural, or merely in the eye of the beholder. He says that beauty plays a pivotal role in evolutionary selection. Here’s the video:
These are some ideas with some profound implications. In the scheme of things, beauty really holds an important place. It is an essential component of survival. It isn’t a frippery, something optional, something trivial or something lacking in existential significance. It’s a core mechanism by which human kind betters itself. It’s a signalling system that encourages members of the species to select mates that improve the chances for all of us surviving. Beauty matters.
The universality of aesthetic experience is actually pretty surprising, given the propaganda we all grow up with, that holds that there is no absolute standard of beauty and further asserts that what one person feels to be beautiful, another finds to be ugly. That just isn’t so, according to the research. There are many aesthetic experiences that can be said to produce an objective experience of beauty in all of us. It isn’t subjective at all. I will return to why the messages we have been getting for generations, asserting that beauty was a relative, not absolute, aesthetic experience, might run counter to the findings from research in a second.
It is stated in the video that “beauty is an adaptive effect that we extend and intensify, in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment” In other words, we need beauty. It’s also an effect that we can extend, enhance and intensify through creating works of art, enjoying works of art, or by doing the same with entertainment. Entertainment, then, is no mere waste of time either. It’s a method of extending and intensifying beauty, when used well. Think about that next time you put pen to paper, write a song, paint a picture, visit an art gallery or watch a show.
Beauty exists to arouse and sustain interest, or fascination, even obsession, in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction. Ponder that for a moment. Beauty is there to make us choose to make the species capable of increasing expressions of beauty, by propagating the genes of those with the ability to create and appreciate things of beauty and screening out those that lack such abilities. Beauty is nature’s way of acting at a distance to drive you to make those adaptive choices.
We find beauty in skilled performances. We perceive beauty in something done well. If the human race does things well and better, with each successive generation, it is increasingly capable of surviving, if for no other reason than our increasing human competence, hence the reason for beauty to have emerged as a desirable, selection trait in all of us.
That brings us to the question of why the world seems so overwhelmed by ugliness, brutality and pollution. Ever wondered where the destructiveness and nastiness comes from? If the research and the theory proposed in the video is right, it’s a response from those that will not embrace their vulnerability and who are incapable of creating beauty, appreciating beauty or doing anything with skill. They’re not going to win the evolutionary selection race on the basis of their ability to create more beauty in the world, so rather than perish without a peep, their destructiveness is a naked assertion of power to try to cling on to a vanishing evolutionary selection advantage – aggression. They are mean because they are losing the selection race. It’s maladaptive.
The other important consequence of a Darwinian theory of beauty is that artists are not a waste of space, too lazy to work and sponging off the population at large. Artists are engaged in something important. Their work, to increase the stock of beauty in the world and to teach others to create and appreciate beauty by example, is of paramount importance to the survival of the human race. They certainly do not deserve to be starving.
Artists are engaged in the defence of competence against those that would prefer to dumb us all down, in order to propagate their own genetic deficiencies rather than let the human race improve collectively in its ability to cope. The work of those in positions of power, with their destructive and non creative tendencies, is almost to deliberately and systematically undermine our culture, our education system, our ability to think critically and our natural desire to beautify. It is a programme of action that actually imperils the world and runs counter to evolutionary selection. In some senses, it is nothing more than a bald attempt at subversion or denial of the traits that have come to be desirable in human beings, over millennia.
I’ve said this before, but I believe it now more than ever. Beauty will save the world. Hug an artist today! 🙂
EDIT: It is with great sadness that I report the sad loss of Denis Dutton on December 28th, 2010. He succumbed to cancer. I will miss the lasting insights and clear thinking of a wonderful speaker and philosopher.