Why do humans take pleasure in making art? In his 2009 book The Art Instinct, philosopher Denis Dutton suggested that art is a need built into our systems, a complex and subtle evolutionary adaptation comparable to our facility for language. We humans evolved to love art because it helps us survive; for example, a well-expressed appreciation of art can — even in modern times — help us to find a mate. It’s a bold argument to make, bolstered by examples from the breadth of art history that Dutton kept at his fingertips.
TED collaborates with animator Andrew Park to illustrate Denis Dutton’s provocative theory on beauty — that art, music and other beautiful things, far from being simply “in the eye of the beholder,” are a core part of human nature with deep evolutionary origins.
The experience of beauty
I try to figure out intellectually, philosophically, psychologically, what the experience of beauty is, what sensibly can be said about it and how people go off the rails in trying to understand it. Now this is an extremely complicated subject, in part because the things that we call beautiful are so different.
I can, however, give you at least a taste of what I regard as the most powerful theory of beauty we yet have. And we get it not from a philosopher of art, not from a postmodern art theorist or a bigwig art critic. No, this theory comes from an expert on barnacles and worms and pigeon breeding, and you know who I mean: Charles Darwin.
What is beauty?
It’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s whatever moves you personally. Or, as some people, especially academics prefer, beauty is in the culturally conditionedeye of the beholder. People agree that paintings or movies or music are beautiful because their cultures determine a uniformity of aesthetic taste. Taste for both natural beauty and for the artstravel across cultures with great ease. Beethoven is adored in Japan. Peruvians love Japanese woodblock prints. Inca sculptures are regarded as treasures in British museums, while Shakespeare is translated into every major language of the Earth. Or just think about American jazz or American movies — they go everywhere. There are many differences among the arts, but there are also universal, cross-cultural aesthetic pleasures and values.
How can we explain this universality?
The best answer lies in trying to reconstruct a Darwinian evolutionary history of our artistic and aesthetic tastes. We need to reverse-engineer our present artistic tastes and preferences and explain how they came to be engraved in our minds by the actions of both our prehistoric, largely pleistocene environments, where we became fully human, but also by the social situations in which we evolved. This reverse engineering can also enlist help from the human record preserved in prehistory. I mean fossils, cave paintings and so forth. And it should take into account what we know of the aesthetic interests of isolated hunter-gatherer bands that survived into the 19th and the 20th centuries.
Now, I personally 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. As many of you will know, evolution operates by two main primary mechanisms. The first of these is natural selection — that’s random mutation and selective retention — along with our basic anatomy and physiology — the evolution of the pancreas or the eye or the fingernails. Natural selection also explains many basic revulsions, such as the horrid smell of rotting meat, or fears, such as the fear of snakes or standing close to the edge of a cliff. Natural selection also explains pleasures — sexual pleasure, our liking for sweet, fat and proteins, which in turn explains a lot of popular foods, from ripe fruits through chocolate malts and barbecued ribs.
The other great principle of evolution is sexual selection, and it operates very differently. The peacock’s magnificent tail is the most famous example of this. It did not evolve for natural survival.In fact, it goes against natural survival. No, the peacock’s tail results from the mating choices made by peahens. It’s quite a familiar story. It’s women who actually push history forward. Darwin himself, by the way, had no doubts that the peacock’s tail was beautiful in the eyes of the peahen. He actually used that word. Now, keeping these ideas firmly in mind, we can say that the experience of beauty is one of the ways that evolution has of arousing and sustaining interest or fascination, even obsession, in order to encourage us toward making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction. Beauty is nature’s way of acting at a distance, so to speak
How about artistic beauty?Isn’t that exhaustively cultural?
No, I don’t think it is. And once again, I’d like to look back to prehistory to say something about it. It is widely assumed that the earliest human artworks are the stupendously skillful cave paintings that we all know from Lascaux and Chauvet.