Stephen Davies, an insightful philosopher of art (with specialism in music and naturalistic approaches in philosophy of art) has just written a wonderful book, The Artful Species. Aesthetics, Art, and Evolution, forthcoming with OUP. This book presents an evolutionary approach to art behaviors and aesthetic sensibility. What is particularly interesting in this book is that Davies attempts to link approaches in evolutionary aesthetics to more classical approaches in philosophy of art.
For example, the 18th century aestheticians regarded two qualities as primary: the beautiful and the sublime. As Davies notes, evolutionary approaches to art and aesthetics (EAAA) have payed a lot of attention to the former, but almost nothing to the latter. To explain why we find some things beautiful, EAAA examine the fit between properties and our evolved nature. Classic examples can be found in sexual selection theory, where aesthetic appreciation of physical traits is explained in terms of the fact that such traits reliably signal fecundity in potential sexual partners. Evolutionary approaches to landscapes, similarly, propose that we like park-like landscapes that are congenial to hominids, with animals, trees for shelter but still good visibility, and water in proximity (my picture from the beautiful Blenheim palace grounds is an example: these gardens were designed by "Capability" Brown in line with principles that EAAA would predict).
Evolutionary explanations of art can account for why we find this beautiful...
Steven Pinker famously proposed the "cheesecake" or "Baywatch" theory of art, the view that all forms of art are in fact a form of pushing our "pleasure buttons", they key in on our evolved predispositions in a way similar to pornography. I'm here not going to endorse or criticize the cheesecake theory, but ask why, supposing it is true, we enjoy things that do not contribute to fitness, such as mountains and seascapes, predators, the vast expanses of the night sky? In other words, what explains our enjoyment of the sublime and not just the beautiful?
Taking the example of Blenheim palace and its grounds, while our aesthetic response to it could easily be explained by EAAA, post-18th century people began to find this and other forms of landscaping quite dull and bland. The 19th century saw a surge in interest for and aesthetic appreciation for environments that are inhospitable to humans: the stormy sea, the dense rain forest, desolate mountains (see the picture by Caspar Friedrich below) - not landscapes that humans can comfortably live in without significant cultural adaptations). As Davies remarks "It's far from clear how this is consistent with the thesis of an environment of evolutionary adaptedness or the landscape aesthetic that is most widely espoused by evolutionary psychologists."
But not for why we find this sublime.
Davies argues we should not underestimate the role of culture in landscape preference - and this strikes me indeed as an important reason why landscape preferences changed over time. Or alternatively, he speculates maybe humans have a more malleable appreciation for landscapes than evolutionary aestheticians have hitherto thought. However, what remains unexplained is that for the inhospitable landscapes, the sense of the sublime is an important part of the aesthetic appreciation. I remember hiking one day in the countryside. It was sunny when I started out, but large dark clouds started gathering. I had no umbrella, was far away from everyone and everything, but I still remember being awe-struck with the dark mass of the clouds gathering above me, and bursting out in lightning and heavy rain. EAAA, especially the cheesecake theory, do not have a good account of the aesthetic sensation I had at that time.