An appreciation of nature or art is regarded as a mark of refinement—but are there simpler biological reasons why we love beautiful things?by Nicholas Humphrey / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
Art imitates life: René Magritte’s La condition humaine (1933): it’s only human to see nature as art
Psychologists are taking a new interest in the evolutionary history of beauty. But there are still large unknowns. Evolutionary theory has had no problem explaining many—even most—of the things that give human beings pleasure: honey, orgasm, sunshine, lullabies, flower gardens. But, the closer we get to high art and beauty proper, the less easy it is to see how people’s attraction to it can be contributing to biological survival. If beauty were of relatively minor significance in human lives, we could push it to one side. But in reality it’s the opposite. With beauty, people can find the very point of being alive.
John Hadfield, the publisher and critic, said, for example: “What is it that makes life so abundantly, so triumphantly, worth living? If I had to answer the question in one word the word would be beauty.” Or GE Moore, the philosopher: “Personal affection and the appreciation of what is beautiful in art or nature are good in themselves… [They] include all the greatest, and by far the greatest, goods we can imagine.” We may not agree entirely. But we can certainly see where these enthusiasts are coming from. The proposition that it is beauty that gives life a purpose, makes human sense—as it would not if we were to replace beauty with, say, food.
Yet, is beauty truly something so distinct? Isn’t beauty just the limiting case of the ordinary pleasures—produced, perhaps, by the coming together of several species of pleasure at one time? Steven Pinker, in How the Mind Works, suggested something like this. In the case of music, for example: “I suspect that music is auditory cheesecake, an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.”
Pinker is likely right that music does this—and no doubt a similar story about “visual cheesecake” could be told about painting. But this low-level explanation of music’s appeal surely cannot be nearly the whole story. True, some music hardly counts as beautiful. True, too, we are not always in the mood to respond to the beauty of music. But when it is beautiful and we are in the mood, we know the difference between music and muzak. We feel a different kind and degree of emotional response.
There are several reasons for believing the…