Atavistic Archetypes of Beauty

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.

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Taken on February 12, 2010