Brain Pickings

Denis Dutton’s Provocative Darwinian Theory of Beauty

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Why the cultural conditioning of your eye has nothing on the evolutionary biology of it.

What, exactly, is beauty? This question has been occupying the minds of philosophers, anthropologists, neuroscientists, art critics and ordinary people alike for centuries of human history. And while many may subscribe to the “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” theory, this, it turns out, may not be the case. Arts & Letters Daily editor and philosopher Denis Dutton counters this adage by presenting a provocative Darwinian theory of beauty in his excellent TED talk, animated by Andrew Park of The RSA — it’s the smartest thing you’ll watch this week, likely this month, and possibly this year.

Dutton argues:

I have no doubt whatsoever that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. Beauty is an adaptive effect, which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment.

Dutton debunks the commonly accepted academic explanation of beauty as something in the “culturally conditioned” eye of the beholder by demonstrating that beauty, or aesthetic appreciation, in fact travels across cultures rather easily, hinting at some deeper, universal underpinning of what we find beautiful. To explain this, Dutton reverse-engineers our present aesthetic taste by constructing a fascinating Darwinian evolutionary history of our artistic expression and aesthetic taste

For us moderns, virtuoso technique is used to create imaginary worlds in fiction and in movies, to express intense emotions with music, painting and dance. But still, one fundamental trait of the ancestral personality persists in our aesthetic cravings: The beauty we find in skilled performances. From Lascaux to the Louvre to Carnegie Hall, human beings have a permanent innate taste for virtuoso displays in the arts. We find beauty in something done well.

So is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No! It’s deep in our minds, it’s a gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendants for as long as the human race exists.

For a deeper dive into Dutton’s work and insights, be sure to grab his brilliant 2008 book, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution. The New Yorker, in reviewing the book, aptly noted that Dutton has done for art what Steven Pinker has for language, philosophy and religion in offering a compelling Darwinian explanation. Sample it with this hour-long but very much worthwhile talk by Dutton, part of the Authors @ Google series.

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