Atavistic Archetypes of Beauty

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    Humans are hard-wired to seek beauty argues philosopher Denis Dutton in his TED Talk:

    “These Acheulian hand axes have been unearthed in the thousands, scattered across Asia, Europe and Africa, almost everywhere Homo erectus and Homo ergaster roamed.

    They were literally the earliest known works of art, practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects, contemplated both for their elegant shape and their virtuoso craftsmanship.

    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. You know, it's an old line, but it has been shown to work -- "Why don't you come up to my cave, so I can show you my hand axes."

    So the next time you pass a jewelry shop window displaying a beautifully cut teardrop-shaped stone, don't be so sure it's just your culture telling you that that sparkling jewel is beautiful. Your distant ancestors loved that shape and found beauty in the skill needed to make it, even before they could put their love into words. 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.”

    From a photography perspective, my favorite passage describes what I remember as the archetypal landscape:

    “Consider briefly an important source of aesthetic pleasure, the magnetic pull of beautiful landscapes. People in very different cultures all over the world tend to like a particular kind of landscape, a landscape that just happens to be similar to the Pleistocene savannas where we evolved. This landscape shows up today on calendars, on postcards, in the design of golf courses and public parks and in gold-framed pictures that hang in living rooms from New York to New Zealand. It's a kind of Hudson River school landscape featuring open spaces of low grasses interspersed with copses of trees. The trees, by the way, are often preferred if they fork near the ground, that is to say, if they're trees you could scramble up if you were in a tight fix. The landscape shows the presence of water directly in view, or evidence of water in a bluish distance, indications of animal or bird life as well as diverse greenery and finally -- get this -- a path or a road, perhaps a riverbank or a shoreline, that extends into the distance, almost inviting you to follow it. This landscape type is regarded as beautiful, even by people in countries that don't have it. The ideal savanna landscape is one of the clearest examples where human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.”

    His description of embedded constructs of beauty reminded me of my distant ancestors who bred the Samoyed to herd reindeer. Before I learned this peculiar past from my genetic archaeology, the big white fluffy Samoyed was the only breed of dog that I have chosen as the most beautiful. And I did that twice, adopting them from shelters, without consideration for any other breed.

    Temari 09, -fCh-, energy88, and 5 other people added this photo to their favorites.

    1. Temari 09 52 months ago | reply

      Wonderful shot!

    2. -fCh- 52 months ago | reply

      Steve, the curatorial duty you show towards the subject of this posting begs the following question: Can you ever envision an investment decision in aesthetic terms?

    3. Eppie 52 months ago | reply

      Interesting post. I haven't seen the video yet but from what you have shared here...

      A sense of beauty is hardwired into us? Very interesting. I see you have had some of your own experiences which seem to support that. Personally I'm thinking that whatever is hardwired in us has more to do with associations with survival. The experience of beauty is subjective - a bowl of brown mush, if it is edible, is a beautiful sight if we have been starving. Maybe beauty reflects need... being magnetized to something we need. Even if it is simply an experience. Is this what beauty really is? Very interesting to think about these things.

      In my own experiences I have found that beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. It seems very rare to find people agreeing on beauty. Whether it has to do with objects, places or physical looks - and I'm not even talking about art here. Could this be due to different and/or mixed ancestry? I'm not completely sure. My own preferences in beauty have more to do with what something evokes some deeper level of experience. Inspiration, for example. Were my ancestors seeking inspiration?

    4. helen sotiriadis 52 months ago | reply

      loved the video.
      so many beautiful photographs correspond to beautiful peacock tails.

    5. -fCh- 52 months ago | reply

      "Hardwiring" is a recurring explanation, which has been stretched to cover those domains authors feel strongest about.

    6. jurvetson 52 months ago | reply

      fCH: aesthetic investments? Aren't they all? Perhaps the cars and rockets less abstractly so...

      Eppie: Sure, the survival instinct is still there, and so we relish the bowl of gruel, but I would not call it beautiful. Denis describes beauty as nature acting at a distance.

      I think we start by perceiving beauty in the emergent patterns derived from simple iterative algorithms (shells, organic growth, fractals, culture, evolution) as they represent embedded computational complexity - a virtuoso display not easily replicated.

      And over time, human selection effects make it more interesting. For example, pet breeds reverberate with the collective constructs of beauty in our minds.

    7. solerena 52 months ago | reply

      interesting talk, actually from this angle... humans are not the only species making decisions based on esthetical reasons... other female species on this planet are acting very similar way – thus natural selection and sexual selection contradict one another… so nature for whatever reason evolved in a very strange way which brings beauty to the world even at the expense of survival instinct… quite amazing…
      Moreover, the evolution works in such a way that females need beauty so males have to make choices based on this notion even at the expense of their own survival at times… (like peacock’s tale or bright colors for some birds or fish – are too noticeable)... and for humans: males do not have to be more beautiful than females but they have to satisfy the female cravings for beauty in other ways: works of art, music, jewelry etc. It became eventually important for both genders...

      also, to Eppie’s comment, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs does not always work… people were known to think about higher level needs with an empty stomach, especially people in Russia during World War two (the first thing came to my mind)…
      So from pure scientific reasons nature itself has to have beauty in it as it’s essence…. There is a strange logical loop right there.. is it?

    8. solerena 52 months ago | reply

      and if we extend this to macro world of fractals, galaxies and stars they have beauty in essense too, why our universe has to be beautiful?

    9. vennettaj 52 months ago | reply

      Vanita has a cool match shot for this i can move on and come up with some thoughts on beauty may be..ok, tomorrow

    10. Eppie 52 months ago | reply

      "Sure, the survival instinct is still there, and so we relish the bowl of gruel, but I would not call it beautiful." Surely you have never experienced hunger, Steve, or you would see the beauty. Really. Of course beauty is also relative. "Denis describes beauty as nature acting at a distance." Interesting. Still digesting.

      Solerena, I was not referring to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It is hard for me to explain need (and magnetic attraction) the way I see it. For example, what draws a whole bunch of people to reply to Steve's post? The beauty of ideas? The need to participate in something meaningful? My own need to have profound experiences of inspiration or meaning is often far greater than my need to have food, etc. (Estonians also have a similar history, in fact there used to be a certain pride in "laziness" - it was not seen as a bad quality. Lying on a warm bed above a large heated fireplace, it was better to think of new and easier/better ways to do things than to go out and labor for one's food, etc. :-D Often far more productive in the long run.) I like your mention of the "strange logical loop right there". Thought provoking.

      Oh and back to Steve... I'm still thinking what came first. Computation (discovering and making sense of patterns) or some other form of intelligence that we are learning to see the complexity of? Unless something or someone was computing things before we came into being... the mathematics and the beauty was already there before we existed or learned to understand it. Call it that organizing principle... it doesn't matter to me, the name... we don't yet understand it, if we ever will. Anyway, I keep thinking of how we pride ourselves in the complexity of the modern city, lets say, and when we look at how a "primitive" cell works, we see that the same patterns of complexity already existed before we even became conscious of it. I believe that what we call evolution is just a repetition of a pattern that has existed for far longer than we have. That true evolution is in realizing these patterns in increasingly higher level systems. So now we are working on establishing a healthy global system - probably it is nature itself that is urging us in that direction. Activating a "code" in us which enables this complex pattern to continue on a higher level, in the direction of symbiosis, unification. We are becoming consciously aware of a large global system. The next step would be galactic?

      Only mentioning the above to suggest that beauty may exist simply to direct us in the direction of creating unity. (I should say "realizing" unity.) One little step at a time. Nature acting at a distance.

    11. 52 months ago | reply

      While reading an article earlier today I was marveling at the beauty of what I was seeing. Not a picture in sight but instead what appeared as a diagonal line amongst the text. And yet there was no line, instead it was the alignment of text over many lines that my brain had interpreted as a line, and yet the line only happen to appear when my focus was elsewhere.
      Edge detection in the human mind is fascinating, seeing more than that which is really there is beauty in the eye of the beholder. This to me is beauty; the superposition of states which lead from inspiration to awe and onto religious experience. The same experience that can be had with an electric field applied to a certain region of the brain. ;^)

    12. solerena 52 months ago | reply

      Eppie, i was referring more to the idea that people have their basic needs met (Maslow’s famous theory) prior to self-actualization (beauty is probably in this realm), although since as this talk shows beauty linked to sexual selection, thus from this angle it takes precedence over primary needs at times... interesting... world war two reference was remembering people in the leningrad blockade trying to save books and works of art (those could be used for heating)... etc.... and yes, Steve's posts - beauty of ideas "I think, therefore I am"

    13. vennettaj 52 months ago | reply

      neuraxon77, are you talking about that one..things can look so wonderful ;)
      Eppie, have had similar thoughts about beauty...things we find beautiful(feel bit uncomfortable with the word) ..may be things that are able to rewire us..or keep for the soul they say..
      ..had tons of thoughts, but they crushed..
      solerena..why the universe pretty..perhaps something to do with our sense of order --patterns and codes Eppie talks about...puts our brains in the mood
      or reminds us of something we have..makes us feel good about ourselves(?)
      so we pursue it..
      then the differences in tastes obviously come from all sorts of combination and group formation..ancestry may be....or something like that..don't know..
      on top(or bottom) all linked to sexual drive..
      but i of course don't know what all that is about :D

      just recently saw how Freud's room looked first impression was he was using persian rugs in his practice..
      oh we perceive colors as pretty, too...not just shapes

    14. turbubutton 40 months ago | reply

      "Hard wired to seek beauty" he says holding up a well carved piece of rock -- rather than a picture of his dream girlfriend with the perfect bum.

      There's a lot to argue.
      - For me, I admire the beauty of perfect handiwork, or the beauty of perfection. I could care less if this is diamond shaped, round, or nautilus. I admire the Faberge egg on the same level. A hard amount of Protestant Catholic work ethic went into that thing. I wonder if this handyman is a little obsessive compulsive, and admire (and question) his devotion to one singular pursuit. That's one reason I admire certain prolific Wikipedia writers.

      - Second, I assume that this arrow head is really good at killing things, its function. I admire that it strives to fulfill its function at the highest level. I place this in relationship to other crude arrow heads of this period. I admire the AK-47 for the same reason. It's really good at fulfilling its function, without jamming and the need for constant cleaning. And keeps up to more expensive equipment of a generally more technical period.

      - Third, Running along with the AK-47 theme. I admire that fewer components are needed to fulfil a problem where others used more. Moreso, I admire that these components are known to me and that I too can also utilize this solution to my own problem. I can remove us from this sticky situation (function) with this ballon, a ball of string and a paperclip. Thanks for figuring it out, MacGyver. I saved time and natural resources. The horrendous statement "elegant solution" is really admiration of a shorter solution with less steps in a math problem.

      But more convincing than anything that we admire not beauty but something else: wIthout a doubt, the worst credo is "FUNCTION FOLLOWS FORM"
      That's how you get the ornamented and sponge-painted doric columns holding up no mass, or massive air wings on commuter cars such as those on "Pimp My Ride."

      Beauty is not a goal, beauty is an outcome.

    15. jurvetson 33 months ago | reply

      Yes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder... an emergent property of iterative algorithms.

      Admiring functionality is not beauty, IMHO. But all your other examples — handiwork, embedded labor and parsimony — speak to the computational complexity argument that I was making.

      And meanwhile, here is a very cool short video on perceiving patterns in beauty.

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