Brain Pickings

Denis Dutton’s Provocative Darwinian Theory of Beauty


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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Jay-Z’s Decoded: A Real-Life Rags-to-Riches Story


Sure, it’s overpublicized. And, sure, it’s overpopculturized. Between the Bing push and the Andy Warhol cover art, Jay-Z’s autobiography (the genre seems to be a recurring theme today) runs a high risk of being overhyped. But overexposure aside, Decoded, out today, is a candid memoir that offers a rare first-hand account of a modern rags-to-riches story.

As part of the Bing promotion, 300 pages of the book were placed in the streets where the events they describe actually took place, for fans to locate and decode. So far, 298 of the 300 pages have been released, found and deciphered.

When you’re famous and say you’re writing a book, people assume that it’s an autobiography — I was born here, raised there, suffered this, loved that, lost it all, got it back, the end. But that’s not what this is. I’ve never been a linear thinker, which is something you can see in my rhymes. They follow the jumpy logic of poetry and emotion, not the straight line of careful prose. My book is like that, too.” ~ Jay-Z

When I first started working on this book, I told my editor that I wanted it to do three important things. The first was to make the case that hip-hop lyrics-not just my lyrics, but those of every great MC-are poetry if you look at them closely enough. The second was I wanted the book to tell a little bit of the story of my generation, to show the context for the choices we made at a violent and chaotic crossroads in recent history. And the third piece was that I wanted the book to show how hip-hop created a way to take a very specific and powerful experience and turn it into a story that everyone in the world could feel and relate to.” ~ Jay-Z

The tome is also an aesthetic masterpiece, designed by Steve Attardo:

While expectations of profound existential insight might fall flat, you may find yourself immersed in the fascinating non-linear narrative of Decoded and emerge with a more intimate, faceted understanding of a world whose media representation is wrapped in and warped by superficiality and bling-glam.

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Sterling’s Gold: A Fictional Mad Men Memoir


Last month, we rejoiced in the news that Mad Men‘s Roger Sterling is publishing a fictional memoir to be sold on the very real Amazon — pure genius by AMC. Today, Sterling’s Gold: Wit and Wisdom of an Ad Man hits the virtual bookstore in a very non-virtual way. In 176 pages, the fictional Sterling keeps it real on everything from the business consequences of his divorce settlement to juicy details on his longtime affair with Joan Holloway.

Divided into chapters on women, clients, drinking and other essentials of the Mad Men lifestyle, the book is full of Sterlingisms, many of which remain surprisingly timeless truisms about life in the Madison world.

The day you sign a client is the day you start losing him.” ~ Roger Sterling

Even the Amazon product description is written in complete biographical seriousness, treating Sterling as an actual pioneer from the golden age of advertising.

Being with a client is like being in a marriage. Sometimes you get into it for the wrong reasons, and eventually they hit you in the face.” ~ Roger Sterling

Also abundant are the era-appropriate chauvinism’s we’ve come to expect and welcome with anthropological bemusement in the Mad Men universe.

When God closes a door, he opens a dress.” ~ Roger Sterling

Sterling’s Gold is without a doubt the most brilliant piece of cross-platform entertainment we’ve seen this year. What makes it all the more special is the stark contrast to the majority of try-hard transmedia storytelling efforts, which immediately jump to the flashy stuntsmanship of digital platforms. Yet here we have something as analog as it gets that adds a rich and engaging layer to some of our favorite “traditional” entertainment. Well played, AMC, well played.

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Everyone Forever Now: Subcultural Storytelling


What knowing thy neighbor has to do with solar-powered beach bums.

Subcultures and niche rituals are what make humanity the layered, complex and fascinating phenomenon that it is. Everyone Forever Now is “an episodic motion-based media project” documenting different facets of our collective eccentricity. The project consists of three thematic films, each exploring a different cultural practice: tanning, stoop sitting and shooting a gun.

It makes you feel like you have a place, like you belong with people. It’s almost like family. It is family.”

The project comes from production duo William Hoffman and Daniel Mercadante, better known as Everynone — the same team that a few months ago brought us Words, the wonderful conceptual short film for WNYC’s Radiolab.

I understand that component of being so focused you’re absent of thought. I own a yoga instruction company and they all think it’s a riot that the yoga teacher goes out and fires weapons but it’s definitely not a contradiction.”

What makes the project particularly fantastic are the beautiful cinematography, meticulous art direction and thoughtful audio editing that weave together mesmerizing storytelling and fascinating (sub)cultural anthropology in a way that give these communities and subcultures a palpable, deeply human soul.

Being a true beach bum, or beach person, or solar-powered, as I prefer to call it, I’m searching for… I’m searching for self.”

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