Beauty Explained

Sounds right to me.


A quick thought: what if the very things that move us in landscape paintings (water in the distance, grassy fields, etc.) are the very same stimulants that our ancestors followed out of Africa 60,000 years ago, compelling them forward? If so, that would seem to make Keats’s famous dictum at the end of “Ode on a Grecian Urn” to follow the beauty–“Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth and all ye need to know”–all the more poignant.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Beauty Explained

  1. I think you may have a point but I have no reason yet to abandon the thought that pre-modern humans were driven in their thinking elsewise than we are now. Specifically to say that what drives us now is not an objective vision of beauty or the desirable. Curiosity is more closely matching a universal drive. Columbus had an idea… others followed him. Cook had an idea, others followed him. A norseman had an idea, others followed him. I do not think that we as a species move in unison, rather we follow those that create or invent. There will be these individuals among us perpetually. One or more of us will always wonder what is atop that mountain or more so what is on the other side of it… or simply what can be seen from the top of it. Knowledge sharing defines we hairless apes in many ways.

    One ape wanders over a mountain to see what is there. They come back and tell close relations there is better food and a small group leaves. The next day the rest wonder where they are. One observant ape tells the group they went ‘that way’ and points. They all wonder why. Then one suggests they go find out. Before you know it there is a migration of 10’s of thousands of miles. It does not take the complexity of aesthetic, only the curiosity of the unknown.

    I believe this is how entire civilizations appear and dissappear. One damn ape was curious. We climb mountains and write computer code because we can and often enough for no other reason. We do not need the complexity you suggest to do so. Often enough necessity is the mother of invention. Look at how many hammers or paint brushes are availabe in your local hardware store. This is not so because of aesthetics. It is because there was a better way to do something.

    If hawks circle easy to take food, then just one hawk circling a mountain top would be enough to get an ape to go see. Curiosity killed the cat but not so much for apes.

    • colinhutton says:

      I think your point about curiosity being more significant than a search for beauty is a good one. However, I suspect that, certainly in our prehistory, depleted resources and overpopulation would have been a greater driver.

  2. colinhutton says:

    I find Dutton’s case for ‘beauty’ (when that word is applied as a descriptor for works of art or physical actions) being a Darwinian reaction to a fitness display, relevant to sexual selection, pretty convincing.

    His argument that a cross-cultural agreement on the beauty of landscape paintings which depict the elements of a fertile landscape can be attributed to Darwinian natural selection is, however, entirely muddled and unconvincing. It seems more likely to me that any cross-cultural agreement relates to the skill of the painter (a fitness display) rather than the subject matter. Otherwise he needs to explain why there will be cross-cultural agreements on the beauty of a Rembrandt self-portrait, or a Rothko abstract etc. And what of such agreements on music, dance etc.? And, in my case, he needs to explain to me (although I might not enjoy the diagnosis!) why I found Death Valley far more beautiful than Yosemite.

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