Today’s not Monday, but I want to round out the discussion of the universality of beauty I started last Monday.
There I suggested that any (normal) human-like creature is capable of Kantian judgements of taste. Today, I want to consider the appreciation of beauty without restriction to the rigorous Kantian ideal. My concern here is the simple sense of beauty–the gobsmacked reaction that people have to gorgeous sunsets, magnificent mountain ranges, the starry sky, and also (my ultimate quarry) to great artistic creations. Obviously, SOB–I apologize for the rebarbative acronym, but perhaps some demystification is healthy–is universal among humans, and apparently not so among other animals. It must, therefore, be an evolved characteristic, something that sprung up in some hominin species and inherited by us. (Million year old handaxes are meticulously symmetric, and dubiously functional; so it seems likely that SOB is pre Homo sapiens.) The question is: why did it evolve?
- SOB is said by some to have evolved by piggy-backing on some other trait, much as male nipples and female clitorises piggy-backed on the other-sex homologue. This is the spandrel thesis (so-called for relatively well-known reasons that we need not go in to here).
- The relevant hominins may have been selected for SOB: the sense of beauty gave its bearers a reproductive advantage, and was not merely genetically or structurally associated with some other trait that gave its bearers such an advantage (as the spandrel thesis holds). This is the adaptation thesis.
Now, the spandrel thesis for SOB is a good bit less popular in the literature than its analogue for art. Pinker, who holds that art is a spandrel, writes that it is the “by-product of three adaptations,” one of which is “the aesthetic pleasure of experiencing adaptive objects and environments.” So he at any rate buys into 1.
Two overview remarks:
a) It is often held that Ockham’s Razor favours spandrel theses over adaptive ones. This doesn’t sound right to me. A spandrel thesis has to establish both that the target trait is appropriately associated with some other and that the other trait is selected for.
b) There is a difference between saying that SOB–the sense of beauty as such–is evolved, and saying that norms of beauty are, i.e., what we find beautiful. If one can show that norms of beauty are evolved, it follows that SOB is, but not conversely. For humans in all cultures might share SOB and yet vary in what they find beautiful. Most “biological” accounts of SOB go through norms of beauty–for example, Pinker above.
There are a number of theses around about the evolution of norms of beauty. Here, briefly are a few:
- Certain two-dimensional shapes, or juxtapositions of shapes, should normally be construed as boundaries of three-dimensional objects. For example:
. . . . ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) ( ) . . .
is more readily construed as a series of round enclosures, rather than as a series of convex objects. Infants learn to segment scenes by visual play with such configurations. Such visual play leads to SOB.
- Familiarity with one kind of pattern or shape tends to pull in exaggerations of that shape or pattern. The “peak shift effect” involves animals trained on rectangles of a certain length ratio. It turns out that having taken in the departure of these rectangles from the perfect square, their training extends to skinnier rectangles. V. S. Ramachandran suggests that this accounts for the aesthetic appeal of the Chola bronze sculptures, which he takes to be peak shifted in this way from the universal woman-schema:
- As we saw, some think that we find safe landscapes and other "adaptive objects" aesthetically pleasing.
How persuasive are these hypotheses? Well, let’s just say that they don’t seem to get the domain quite right.
- They do not account for the full range of instinctive aesthetic preferences. It’s unclear to me, for instance, how they account for our being struck by sunrises and sunsets. Are these peak shifts? Are they adaptive? Is visual play with them developmentally useful?
- Secondly, they seem to include things that we don’t aesthetically appreciate. There is a difference, for example, between aesthetically appreciating the Chola Saraswati above, and being sexually aroused by it. I may be wrong, but it seems to me that both the peak shift explanation and the “adaptive object” explanation regard the two reactions to be continuous with each other. This is wrong. Maybe I have misunderstood the theory, but it does not seem to say enough about why sexual arousal (for example) isn't the same as aesthetic appreciation.
- Finally, something implied by the immediately preceding remark: Why the sense of beauty? If pleasure in eating or in sex is enough to get one to engage in these adaptively advantageous activities, what role is beauty playing?
I am inclined to think that there is no good evolutionary explanation for norms of beauty. If the sense of beauty is the product of evolution, it has to be explained as such, not through specific norms. I am not aware of anybody having taken up this enterprise. To me, it seems that Kantian judgements of taste are a better starting point. How is it that these judgements are universal? Does the capacity to make such judgements give us a reproductive advantage? Or is it, rather, a spandrel?
I’ll take these questions up in later posts. For the moment, let me say that I am inclined to hold the reverse of conventional wisdom. To me it seems that the sense of beauty is adaptive because the capacity to produce artworks is–and not the other way around. Art precedes beauty.