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LostInParadise's avatar

Does our sense of beauty serve any purpose?

Asked by LostInParadise (28710points) May 1st, 2012

There is a loosely organized meetup near where I live that tackles philosophical questions. One question that will be addressed at a forthcoming meeting is whether our aesthetic sense has any evolutionary value. The following TED talk was suggested as background material.

If you do not wish to take the 15 minutes to go through the talk, the gist of it is that there are two evolutionary mechanisms – natural selection and sexual selection. A commonly cited example of the latter is the tail of the peacock, which has no practical value and is in fact a hindrance, but which is believed to act as a way for the male to advertise his fitness to peahens. Duton argues that our sense of beauty evolved as a way for males to strut their stuff.

There may be some truth in this, but I don’t think it is anywhere near the whole story. It seems to me that art is just an extreme example of our desire to create order. For example, the narrative form of novels, plays, movies and television shows plays into our love of stories. We like things with a beginning, middle and end. We all use stories in describing our lives.

We may be the only creatures that appreciate beauty, but we are not the only ones that respond to it. Flowers did not evolve their shapes and colors so that they could be put in vases and grown in gardens. There is a good evolutionary advantage for a flower to be able to distinguish itself so that it is easily recognizable by pollinators.

There is much more to say on this, but as what I have already written is a bit long, I will stop to get your reaction.

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19 Answers

zensky's avatar

Without checking the link and without having read about it specifically, nontheless I’d venture it has to do a lot with evolution. Height, weight, strength in males, long hair and an hourglass figure in females – just a few examples of “beauty” pertain to the “stronger survive” theory, not?

I do recall reading that people search out (not always wittingly) like-featured partners. Though we are but a blip on the evolutionary scale if you want to go back thousands even tens of thousands of years, I think that the so-called “desirable” features are also a product of this.

But I’m just going on a hunch, There are others who will weigh in with more knowledge. GQ.

zenvelo's avatar

Without any background knowledge on this to speak of, I postulate that man’s appreciation of beauty is part of the evolution of our brain towards a higher esthetic, which separates us from other species. We appreciate beauty for beauty’s sake.

I am not speaking of appreciation of beautiful people, but appreciation for a beautiful vista, a beautiful sound, the sensual touch of certain fabrics. They all make life more interesting. Some argue that is where their spiritual connection is formed.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

It makes sense that in general, the healthier, stronger, male animal would be more likely to strut his stuff and draw attention than a weaker one, and so his genetic material should have more value to the survival of the species with animals and birds. There’s also the angle that the flashy males of a species are more easily identified by the females of the species and there are likely to be fewer wasted matings with a male of another species. Humans are tougher because as zensky mentioned we’re a blip on the timeline. Maybe beauty relaxes us and destresses us? That might have some value.

LostInParadise's avatar

By “struts his stuff,” I meant the display of works of art. One example given is an ancient ax that is in perfect shape, and is believed to have been used for the sole purpose of demonstrating the artistic skills of its pre-literate maker.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@LostInParadise In that context the craftsmen that made the tools, axes, whatever might have made a more beautiful tool, but it was probably of better quality than the other tools produced by less gifted craftmen. But that doesn’t answer why other forms of art would be so valued.

thorninmud's avatar

This is not fully gelled in my head yet, but I’m inclined to see beauty as an organizing factor contributing to the development of human society. Social organization emerges from the swamp of raw individualism because society works better at satisfying our needs. Further, the nature and complexity of those needs shapes the cohesiveness and complexity of the society that grows to support them.

Imagine, for instance, that we had no particular preferences about what we eat, as long as our bellies got filled and our nutritional requirements were met. While at first glance it might seem that not being particular about food would carry a survival advantage, consider what a rich layer of social activity would be stripped out of our lives; one less reason for us to be together, work toward a common end, and share experience. Social cohesion would suffer. Our sense of beauty, in this case as applied to food, cements society.

Along the same lines, if utility were our only concern in the products we make, the clothes we wear, the houses we live in, etc., then the complex layers of social organization that have grown just to serve our aesthetic sense would not be needed, and our social organization would be that much less important to us.

Bill1939's avatar

It was recently posited on an ABC news report that symmetry in facial features, specifically the relationship of the placement of the eyes, determines what males regard as beauty and may imply the females health (good genes?).

marinelife's avatar

It gives us a lot of joy.

JLeslie's avatar

Just hypothesizing, I don’t know much about human genetics, but it is possible that certain traits also are linked to certain genetics that are “healthier.” Partial DNA sequences are many times held together. So let’s say blue eye trait is very close to a trait for good immunity to disease (I amd making up that combination) then blue eyed people would be healthier in general and live longer lives. Human beings, and other animals for that matter, might subconsciously pick up on it, and associate the two and seek out the blue eyed person. There might be more at work than the very obvious.

The more obvious are things like what @zensky pointed out, height and strength in males, figure and hair for women. In fact women who do not ovulate tend to have a condition called PCOS and they are less likely to have an hourglass figure, and women with thyroid and other hormonal conditions are more likely to have thinning hair. What we see as beautiful can actually be an indicator of reproductive health.

Bill1939's avatar

Many thanks to LostInParadise for the TED link. Clovis points as works of art. Who would have thought it.

LostInParadise's avatar

I appreciate all the comments, but I would like to hear about why we have a sense of beauty unrelated to human physical characteristics. Why do we write poems, play music, carve sculptures and produce paintings? Do you think this follows from appreciation of the human form? I am claiming that there are organizational characteristics of beauty in art that are related to our ability to organize a business or build an automobile.

There is a field of study called computational aesthetics. I would link to a site, except that I find the discussions too confusing. The basic idea is that beauty is defined as order/complexity. I find this general idea intriguing. Consider, for example, the Iliad. There seems to be general agreement that the poetic form was chosen to allow a non-literate people to memorize it. I still keep track of which months have 30 days from the rhyme that begins, “30 days have September…” Granted, this is not great literature, but the poetic form provides an organizational structure that acts as mnemonic device.

JLeslie's avatar

@LostInParadise For me a lot of the things you name are mathmatical. The formation of a flock of birds or school of fish, the geological strata of a mountain or canyon, music, especially classical music, a flower, all have a math, a geometry, something about it makes me feel connected to everything. When our senses are filled, I think it gives us pleasure for many reasons, one is it distracts the mind from our worries, much like a drug. Maybe it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, because it motivates us to be in harmony with nature and not distroy it. If we destroy nature, we eventually destroy ourselves.

LostInParadise's avatar

@JLeslie , I share your viewpoint. I hope that we never nail down an exact mathematical formula for beauty and that we can just step back and be overwhelmed by it. Nevertheless, I am drawn to the idea that beautiful things contain a lot of information. There is a mathematical definition of information. It is one of the great achievements of the 20th century. Some of those involved with computational aesthetics have tied the idea of order within beauty with the mathematical idea of information. I find such attempts a little silly, but consider the poetic form. Why does it work so well? It is because the poem uses everything about words to convey meaning, not just their literal meaning, but rhyme, meter and many other structural devices. A short poem is brimming over with all kinds of information. Is it not the same with a painting? A landscape, for example, achieves its effect not just by the choice of objects, but by their placement, symmetries, use of light and shadow and color coordination.

lifeflame's avatar

I think of those moments of epiphany in nature., which helps us recognise that we are part of a greater schema of things. Wonder, joy—> spiritual purpose.

YARNLADY's avatar

I believe it’s related to the pleasure centers in our brain. When the synapses for beauty and joy are fired they excite the chemicals that make us feel pleasure. This trait has somehow been important for our evolution

Neizvestnaya's avatar

It serves as one of the guides for us to recognize health. Most things that look good, smell good, taste good and feel good are healthy or at least designed to function well.

zensky's avatar

Expounding upon some of the theories here, particularly what @JLeslie has written, I do want to add the age-old cliche that beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. What one finds atrractive another might not, correct?

whitenoise's avatar

Besides what was written Bove, on the mathematical aspects of beauty, I have been surprised on the differences between cultures on what in general is seen as ‘beautiful’.

To me, therefore, I feel our sense of beauty also stems for a big part from our social wiring. We look for esthaetjc themes and create them as an expression of our belonging to a certain group.

Our youth often like different things from what our establishment likes. Not merely because they ‘don’t understand beauty yet’.

Being able to recognize the artificial order we create in our world and to create that order in line with group estaetics is part of our belonging to society.

That social cohesion is very important to our survival.

LostInParadise's avatar

I think that there is much cross-cultural agreement in beauty standards. Art produced by one culture is generally appreciated by others. Suburban households the world over try to make their yards look like replicas of African savannas, minus the fauna. The Web site that I pointed to discusses cross-cultural differences.

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