Fuz Rana: The Argument from Beauty: Can Evolution Explain Our Aesthetic Sense?

Interesting article at RTB. How would you respond?

Our appreciation of beauty stands as one of humanity’s defining features. And it extends beyond our fascination with nature’s beauty. Because of our aesthetic sense, we strive to create beautiful things ourselves, such as paintings and figurative art. We adorn ourselves with body ornaments. We write and perform music. We sing songs. We dance. We create fiction and tell stories. Much of the art we produce involves depictions of imaginary worlds. And, after we create these imaginary worlds, we contemplate them. We become absorbed in them.

1 Like

Obvious case of runaway sexual selection. Question: do bowerbirds have an appreciation of beauty? Some of them really seem to like blue or white, especially if it’s shiny.


It reminds me of human exceptionalism.


I haven’t read the piece at RTB and I doubt I will. But concepts of beauty in evolution were the entire subject of a recent book by Richard Prum, which I mentioned in a conversation last year. Once someone moves beyond gods of the gaps, they can only make progress by considering ideas like Prum’s (and many others).


Part natural selection, part sexual selection, partly an epiphenomenon/spandrel. It depends on what it is you find beautiful. Being attracted to members (and attributes) of the opposite sex should be rather uncontroversially a product of both natural and sexual selection. Certain foods, landscapes and environments are also attractive for reasons I think owe to selection.

One way to think about this is to consider what you find the diametrically opposite of beautiful and attractive, which is ugly or repulsive. Those often has to do with things that are directly or indirectly bad for you: wounds and open sores, pus, excrement and other forms of waste. Possibly some developmental abnormalities.

There are more vague sense of beauty, like feeling a certain attraction, or you could say a pleasing feeling of satisfaction from comprehending an abstract mathematical or geometrical pattern.

There might be some weak influence of selection associated with getting a positive emotional response to comprehending an abstract pattern, be it simply seeing a geometric arrangement of shapes or colours, or wrapping your mind around a systematic pattern of interactions among many smaller parts (I certainly do some times find pleasure in figuring out how something works, and would consider some processes beautiful). Realizing how something works can be literally exciting.

With respect to the latter part I think there’s a decent case to be made for natural selection contributing to such a sense finding beauty in certain processes. Understanding a complex natural process (like the relationship between climate and weather, and the abundance and locations of sources of food and shelter) can help you survive and reproduce.

Of course there’s rarely any product of selection that does not also have unselected byproducts. Experiencing itches and pains in so-called “phantom limbs” comes to mind as an example. I can’t think of a good reason why that would be selected for, nor even why a putative creator would create anyone with a tendency to some times feel an itch in a limb that was amputated 20 years ago. So here it should be rather uncontroversial to state that spandrels are a real thing, even if you are a creationist.

In the same way, some attractions to beautiful things are entirely plausible spandrels. I don’t think anything evolved under selection to find satellite pictures of hurricanes beautiful. So that’s definitely a spandrel.


This topic was automatically closed 7 days after the last reply. New replies are no longer allowed.