A Darwinian Theory of Beauty?

As I was driving home from a gig on Saturday, I tuned into the “TED Radio Hour” on NPR, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the topic du jour was aesthetics. The program included excerpts from several different TED Talks, all centered around the question “What Is Beauty?”

Each of the segments was thought-provoking (you can listen to the entire program here), but the one that most piqued my interest was the first: “Are some things universally beautiful?” (Direct link to the audio and transcript here). The segment includes input from violinist Robert Gupta, painter/anthropologist Alexander Melamid, and philosopher Denis Dutton. The basic conclusion was that people everywhere share many of the same artistic sensibilities, and have a common notion of what beauty is. This, of course, challenges the popular (though by no means universal) claim that “beauty” is a cultural construct.

Dutton suggests that this apparently universal conception of beauty is best explained by everyone’s favorite ornithologist, Charles Darwin. I was fascinated by what I heard in the NPR segment, so I looked up Dutton’s 2010 TED Talk for more. Here it is in its entirety:

As a thoroughly convinced believer of the creation account from the Bible, I was curious to see how an evolutionist would account for the striking similarities in the things found beautiful by those all over the world. After all, this is not a problem for the Christian; in fact, it’s exactly what God’s Word leads us to expect. We believe that beauty is part of God’s nature, something that has been made plain to us. All men are created in the image of God, and so we find beautiful what God finds beautiful.

But how can Darwin’s theory of natural selection account for this uniformity and appearance of purpose? Why do people groups who “evolved” in different regions, with totally different cultural and environmental conditions for “millions of years”, understand beauty in largely the same way? What is it about beautiful music that made our primitive ancestors better suited to pass on their genes? Here’s what Dutton says:

Beauty is nature’s way of acting at a distance. I mean, you can’t expect to eat an adaptively beneficial landscape, and it would hardly do to eat your baby or your lover. Evolution’s trick is to make them beautiful… to have them exert on you a kind of magnetism to give you pleasure simply by looking at them.

Okay, so evolution “tricks” us by making things which are otherwise necessary for our survival (e.g., offspring, shelter, mates, etc.) pleasurable for our eyes? Perhaps I’m merely seeing his words through my gospel-colored glasses, but it sure sounds to me like he’s building a case for design in nature. The Designer? Evolution personified, naturally!

His specific example is the idyllic landscape preferred by people all over the planet, even in climates that have no such landscape (referring to the “art science” experiment by Alexander Melamid mentioned in the NPR segment linked above). Studies showed that paintings perceived to be most beautiful by nearly all who were surveyed contained a water source, trees, animals, and blue skies. Everything the “protohumans” needed to survive! His reasoning was that this scene is reminiscent of the “Pleistocene savannas where we evolved.” People find it beautiful because deep down inside us we remember that only those who were able to find food and shelter lived long enough to add their contribution to the gene pool.

Of course, one might also see this same landscape as similar to the Garden of Eden, which was the perfect (and perfectly beautiful) environment into which God placed our earliest ancestors. Revelation also describes the New Jerusalem as a place of stunning beauty, fed and sustained by the tree and river of life. The city from which God shines forth is “the perfection of beauty,” as Asaph wrote in Psalm 50:2.

So as it stands so far, Dutton appears to agree with Scripture in at least two ways. First, in his conclusion that “Human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.” Second, in his supposition that all human life descended from common ancestors in a garden.

His attention then moves from natural beauty to the beauty we find in man-made works of art. What might have been adaptively advantageous about a sculpture or a melody? Once again, Evolution has an answer!

Dutton’s supposition is that the earliest works of art were ancient hand axes. These were put on display, and their attractive appearance was visual evidence of the ability of the craftsman to develop tools, making him more attractive (thanks to what he calls “fitness signals”) to potential mates.

Competently made hand axes indicated desirable personal qualities: intelligence, fine motor control, planning ability, conscientiousness, and, sometimes, access to rare materials. Over tens of thousands of generations, such skills increased the status of those who displayed them, and gained a reproductive advantage over the less capable.

Eventually, this very pragmatic consideration of females looking for a resourceful mate evolved into a general appreciation of skillfulness. Thus, “We find beauty in something done well.”

Plausible? Perhaps, but this doesn’t account for the fact that some things require a great deal of skill yet are not generally regarded as being “beautiful”. For example, a virtuoso pianist might perform a recital featuring works by Schoenberg and Chopin. Listeners may well appreciate the skill necessary to play (and compose) both, but I’m guessing most of them aren’t rushing to add Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire to their iPods… not even the “Chopin Waltz” movement.

So is it merely cultural conditioning or personal preference to identify one piece of music as more beautiful than another, or is the beauty of Chopin something that is objectively true? While the wisdom of our age often argues the former, our own experiences confirm the words of God, who tells us that there IS a standard of beauty, and it is He. When Paul told the Philippians to fill their minds with whatever is lovely, he wasn’t recommending their subjective preferences. He didn’t say, “whatever is lovely to you…”

In his final analysis, then, Dutton is right in agreeing with Plato that beauty is NOT in the eye of the beholder—contrary to the wisdom of the relativistic Sophists of his day—but I don’t find his theory of beauty’s origin the least bit compelling:

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No. It’s deep in our minds. It’s a deep 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.

A “Darwinian” theory of beauty—whether claiming that beauty is purely subjective or a “trick” played on us by Mother Nature—ultimately says that there can be no such thing as real beauty. This is a lie which no human heart can fully accept, though there are certainly many who suppress the truth that has been made plain to them. It’s why I believe that beauty remains one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God, and one of the greatest problems for those who deny Him.

[Image Credit]