Changes in the apperception of the beautiful across historical time and the very individuality of the experience of beauty, have led to a false doctrine of the relativity of beauty and the negation of the idea that there is anything essential, constant or communicable regarding beauty. In fact, the history of the development of knowledge supports an alternative view, that the variability across time and place of the experience of beauty is the possibility for the discovery of what is essential, constant and transmissible.
One of the oldest and most mysterious of artefacts, known as the Willendorf Venus, is a hand-sized nude statuette of a woman of considerable rotundity. Scholarly evaluations of the artefact differ, but the traditional view is that it represents a goddess of fertility. Perhaps not to modern sensibilities, but the assumption is that for the Palaeolithic hunter-gatherer peoples, this would have represented a figure of beauty. The comparative abundance of such fertility figures distributed throughout the world has, in part, led some to conclude that the basis of our sense of beauty lies in the evolutionary advantage of sexual attraction (Ryan, 2018). There is undoubtedly truth in this proposition, but having rejected the relativism of a wholly subjective account of the beautiful, it would be a mistake to fall into the trap of accepting a wholly deterministic one either. While sexual attraction intersects with our experience of the beautiful, it does not exclusively define it.
The sexual attraction thesis, though, does illuminate a fundamental point about beauty: that it is an emotional response to an experience of something in the world, that is something objectively existing.1 As a basic proposition it is unarguable that beauty is related to the physical attributes of the object of perception and our appreciation of those attributes, how the form of the thing becomes something which is valuable to us. The question then follows: in what regard and through the agency of what does the form become valuable to us in the particular way that we refer to as beauty, in other words, that stimulates the emotional response that we recognise as our being in the presence of beauty? This has been the subject of philosophical speculation and scientific and even mathematical analysis throughout history until today.
The evolution of the perception of the beautiful2
From an evolutionary perspective, the precursors of the human appreciation of beauty lie in the development of a perceptual apparatus that can identify and discriminate among signals being apprehended by an organism in relation to its environment. Among those signals, the most fundamental visual ones must be shape, movement, light and shade, depth and colour. There is no unanimity about when perception evolved into an aesthetic sense, but a critical point appears to have been around 30-40,000 years ago, when cave art made its appearance in the archaeological record in different location around the world. This is also reckoned to be the time at which ritual and more complex social forms emerged (Pfeiffer, 1982).
From the moment homo sapiens began to represent perceptions of the world and – later, we assume – ideas about the world, is the moment when we can meaningfully begin to speak of cultural history as an existential phenomenon rather than a retrospective historiographical reconstruction. It may be, although we lack, presently, any data on whether further changes in the genetic underpinning of brain structures are responsible, that this moment of the creative explosion is when cultural evolution superseded biological evolution, and the development of an aesthetic sense proceeded through the cultural assimilation and refinement of the fundamental perceptual signals received through the senses.3
Almost certainly the first of these signals to be refined and pressed into use were shape and colour. The perception of form, probably as the distinction between light and dark, is the most primitive form of perception (Gehring, 2014). Interestingly, this matches a fundamental assertion of most creation myths, although why this should be so is, when one thinks about it, puzzling. The evolution of perception was a response to the emergence of autonomous movement and predation, as a defence mechanism: movement equalled potential danger. The first proto-art, before even painting, was probably ritualistic dancing,4 evoking the movements of the real and imaginary denizens of heaven and earth. I think it likely the roots of our aesthetic sense were forged here, in the intoxicating immersion in the play of movement, colour and sound.
The discovery of colour is particularly intriguing. The evolution of the visual cortex to perceive colour has a two-fold purpose: to refine the perception of danger and to render the necessary attractive (Jacobs, 2009). Again, it interesting how often the ancient myths linked attraction with danger. Flowering plants, which are the most coloured, were the last group to evolve and co-evolved with pollinating insects and birds. They evolved to stand out for reproductive purposes, and colour plays a central role in the mating rituals of many animals. So, it would be reasonable to assume that in the evolution of human species colour plays a similar role. The colour red, especially, seems to function as an indicator of reproductive health (Davis, 2013).
However, sex and danger are not the whole story about colour. The transformation of life through ritual enactment into vicarious representation, as in cave art, was probably only possible through the discovery of a technology to represent images in colour, namely pigments. The loss of lived-experience involved in a static creation, as well as the investment of time necessary to execute such designs, necessitated a compensatory gain, the possibility of the representation and transmission of a felt idea, and that could only be given force through the use of colour, even of a rudimentary type and limited range. Such creations, I surmise, presaged the advent of cultural history, allowing the reflective appropriation and multiplication of ideas and images.
Although I use the terms cultural transmission and cultural evolution, their definitions, their connection and their relationship to the beautiful cannot be fully explored here. Biological evolution proceeds through the transmission of variability at the genetic level and specifically rules out acquired characteristics; cultural evolution proceeds by a hypothesised mechanism of cultural transmission that is considerably more context-dependent than genetic inheritance, more prone to errors in the transmission process and depends on the accumulation of individually-acquired knowledge.5 Among the many things not known are whether biological evolution continues to contribute changes that affect cultural evolution. The argument I make here is a simple one, that the perception of the beautiful is rooted in our biological nature, but refined by the accumulated wisdom of historic cultures.
The first advances in the formalisation of the aesthetic sense was made under the Greeks, with the development of ideas about symmetry and proportion. Symmetry is a design feature of many animals and plants. Most higher creatures are bilaterally symmetrical, and a high degree of symmetry has come to represent health and attractiveness, to humans as well (Grammer & Thornhill, 1994). To this natural propensity, the Greeks gave a mathematical basis through their exploration of two- and three-dimensional geometry.6 Pythagoras additionally identified what we call ‘the golden mean’, roughly equivalent to the proportion 1.618, that creates a balance which is most pleasing to the human eye. It is found throughout nature wherever an iteration of the proportion of whole to parts occurs, such as the in structure of animal and plant bodies, and in the spiral formations of snail shells. In the 12th century this was recognised as equivalent to a mathematical series we now know as the Fibonacci sequence.
Symmetry and proportion were recognised in cultures other then Greece and incorporated into their monumental architecture and decorative arts. The Egyptian pyramids are highly geometrical and necessitated the development of mathematical and engineering tools; however, their art was functional within a systematic religious worldview and, as far as we know, not created for aesthetic pleasure (Mark, 2017). In the later Islamic world highly stylised and complex forms of symmetry were utilised in the calligraphy that adorned public spaces, an art form that flourished to fill the niche left by the prohibition of human and animal images, and one that clearly had an aesthetic purpose. Muslim architects also developed intricate patterns of tiling that have been likened to the contemporary tessellations of Escher and Penrose.
The evolution of binocular vision and depth perception in mammals and some birds imbued an evolutionary advantage for hunting which was bought at the cost of the loss of panoptical vision found in herbivores, most birds, reptiles and insects. The loss of this survival ability was compensated, in mammals at least, by the emergence of complex social systems involving common defence of the group. Depth perception also became a fundamental component of aesthetic appreciation, a form of contrast that complemented that of shape and colour.
Although three-dimensional representation, in statuary, for example, existed in the ancient world, and various techniques for representing objects in space, it was the Renaissance that saw the emergence of perspective in two-dimensional painting – which in previous cultures had been rendered flat – adding depth to the representative arts. In the fifteenth century the first treatises on perspective were written, drawing on the reborn appreciation of nature and the human form at the centre of Renaissance sensibility, the practical issues to be solved in making a realistic representation, and the search for mathematical rules. There are speculative theories that rules of perspective existed in the ancient world, but not to date any evidence to support this idea (Anderson, 2007, p.15)
Depth seems to be one of the qualities that renders landscape beautiful. Those living on reclaimed flatlands, such as the Dutch, and the dwellers on the Eurasian plain may beg to differ, but most of us consider a landscape with variations in height provided with mountains and valleys to be more beautiful than a completely flat landscape. Villages and cities that exhibit variations in height and elevation of buildings are more attractive than those which are built at a single elevation – just consult the property market.7 In the early 90’s I travelled from Moscow to Sevastopol in the Crimea by train through Ukraine, when such a thing was still possible (and for a cost equivalent to about £1). My impression of the landscape was one of unremitting monotonous flatness consisting of grassland, agricultural fields and endless birch forests. Perhaps – it is not entirely unreasonable hypothesis – dwellers of the world’s flatlands experience aesthetic depth in a different, less obvious, way: the depth to horizon; the depth of the broad expanse of sky. Perhaps, as the phenomenologist Mikel Dufrenne proposes of that paradigmatic flatland, the ocean, aesthetic depth is not to be sought in any external dimension, but in our sense of its “corporeal unity” and “unfathomable totality” (Dufrenne, 1973, p.412), that is the overlaying of metaphysical narrative on the landscape.
One the earliest metaphysical narratives applied to reality concerned the nature of motion and change. According to Parmenides the appearance of movement and development is an illusion; reality is continuous, undivided, immobile Being. Influenced by Parmenides, Plato and his Christian interpreter, Plotinus, established the orthodoxy in Western culture of beauty as a stable quality, that is to say, it inhered in permanence and unchangeability. The alternative view put forward by Heraclitus, that all is in a state of flux, virtually disappeared, but this insight has re-emerged with the advent of Chaos theory.8 The theory refers to ‘the edge of chaos’ as being the most creative place, where a certain amount of destruction is taking place, but where order is preserved, which suggests that a degree of instability has a place in beauty. The beauty of nature is that it is neither wildly chaotic or static, but that its forces are constrained by natural law and by human ordering, while at the same time, this constraint does not suppress development. The Japanese have a very distinctive view of beauty as passing and impermanent, which is why they fetishize the spring cherry blossom, which fades within a few days, but which nevertheless returns each year and is incorporated into the social ritual. Japanese poetry and calligraphy, by contrast with that of other cultures, also esteems the spontaneous over the mannered. This aspect of movement and change within the perception of beauty brings it into the moral realm, which is why we can speak of the beautiful also as the good.
The Beautiful as Balance and Variance
Beauty is both complex and simple. The fundamental property seems to be a balance between opposites, the finding of the harmonic centre between extremes; yet it also exists in the departure from this balance and the enrichment of the centre with the new and innovative. Beauty can flirt with the extremes, but it can never be wholly committed to the extreme and it must always seek to reinvigorate the centre. If this seems to anthropomorphise beauty, that is because beauty is ultimately a human creation and an aspiration of the human spirit. It is, however, a creation rooted in nature, which our biology and psychic parameters reflect. For beauty to exist chaos must be resolved, even momentarily. However, as an evolutionary function, variability, selection and adaptation play an important role.
For each component of the aesthetic experience the perceptual apparatus for appreciation evolved in the cause of survival and reproduction, then found a subsequent use within a medium of communication. In this medium a set of skills were honed over generations before being formalised, for example in mathematics, and this formalisation entering the ongoing and evolving cultural discourse, to add order, reason and depth to the emotional force of working in a particular medium. In the process, this discourse has been continuously bent back upon nature itself, which has become an aesthetically interpreted reality.
Nature manifests the interplay of movement and rest or durability, which is mirrored by the cultural categories of performance and tradition. The performance would be a moment lost in time unless it were recorded and communicated, becoming, in the process, part of our social bonding. This is also true of the appreciation of natural beauty. A few weeks ago, walking with family in the countryside, we crested a hill to be confronted by a spectacular sunset. Few words were said, but as the sky moved in performance from blinding vision to glowing embers we stood and absorbed this moment, tried to capture it in some photos, but knowing above all it was a shared experience that bound us more closely.
Part 3 will consider the philosophical discussion around beauty
1. We are not in the habit of labelling our own internal states as beautiful, although I would concede the possibility of ‘clear and distinct’ dreams, visions and drug-induced hallucinatory states also being so-valuated. This much is uncontroversial and is the source of the relativist dogma that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which our culture has largely come to accept.
There is a problem with this, though. Unless we accept that the beautiful is ineffable and, moreover, hold to the Wittgensteinian position that “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”, discussions of and exclamations about the beautiful enter naturally into public discourse. Utterances to the effect that something meaningful is being communicated must do so with certain criteria in mind, which lie in the realm of objectivity. The beautiful must have the potential to be universally judged as such, so even a valued internal state must be objectified and brought into the public domain.
2. This essay will focus on the visual sense. While beauty, or its closely related values, can occur through the other senses – touch, smell, taste and hearing – the visual sense is paradigmatic for beauty. The other sense routes for aesthetic appreciation, though, have also gone through a process of development and refinement in history like the visual sense.
3. In speaking of the evolution of the perception of the beautiful it is important to make some basic distinctions. Evolution is fundamentally a theory of the development of the biological form of life, through variation and selection. Any extension of the term to society and culture is, at best, allegorical. There is, however, the possibility of a range of human abilities and skills that are subject to evolutionary pressures that bridges the divide between the biological and the cultural. These have been explored in sociobiology and, more recently in evolutionary psychology. The central argument advanced here is that there has been an evolution in our perception of the beautiful, which is fundamentally biological but knowledge of which has unfolded in historical time through human discovery, through the arts and through the scientific analysis and evaluation of the arts. This knowledge has itself contributed to the refinement of the sense of beauty.
4. For example, the prehistoric art at the Bhimbetka rock shelter in India, reckoned to be 30,000 years old, depicts dancing figures, which suggests that that art form precedes its depiction.
5. Beginning in the 1970s a considerable body of theoretical work has amassed on the evolutionary basis of cultural transmission. One of the most prominent hypotheses is known as the Dual Inheritance Theory, which claims that human nature and behaviour can best be understood as an amalgamation of genetic inheritance and cultural transmission (McElreath and Henrich, 2007). The main contributors to the field have been Lumsden and Wilson (1981), Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Boyd and Richerson (1985) who all developed mathematical models of how genetic and cultural factors can reinforce each other. Slightly predating these, and far better known, Dawkins (1976) proposed a theory of memetic evolution (cultural transmission though ‘memes’, a cultural analogue of genes).
For example, Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) developed a theory of cultural transmission based on an epidemiological model of viral diffusion. That model drew on four evolutionary factors (ibid, pp. 65-67) as the driving forces of evolutionary change, the two classical Darwinian notions of variation and selection and the later neo-Darwinian concepts of drift and migration. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman utilised the first two to create a basic typology of cultural change akin to genetic variation. As in epidemic spread, they identified three transmission routes (ibid, p. 54): vertical, from parent to offspring; horizontal, from peer to peer (non-related individuals of the same generation); and oblique, between non-related or distantly-related individuals of different generations.
6. The relationship between the instinctive recognition of the attractive and the mathematical formalisation of symmetry or proportion is not a necessary one. However, the felt-experience of attraction can be augmented by the wonderment felt at the mysterious order and simplicity underlying so much complexity.
7. The favelas of Rio de Janeiro are an exception to this widespread observation, where the slums have come the occupy the slopes of the city and the wealthier districts the low-lying areas.
8. Chaos theory is a relatively new branch of mathematics concerned with non-linear complex systems, which are not modelled well in traditional applied mathematics. Its principal insight is that the output of recursive equations yields results that are analogous to chaotic systems in nature, such as the weather, turbulent flow and population changes, to economic behaviour and social fashions, and to complex geometries such as that exhibited by landscapes (fractional dimensionality) and vegetation, such as trees.
The branch of chaos theory most closely associated with beauty is fractal geometry, pioneered by Benoit Mandelbrot, which posits complexity and self-similarity as a fundamental property of the beautiful. While there is a grandeur in some modern skyscrapers with their endless and uniform glass fronts, most people recognise the architecture that incorporates intricate design and detail as being more beautiful, in the same way that we recognise the baroque work of Bach to be more transcendentally beautiful than a work of minimalism (although there is more at work here than mere detail).
Kirsti Anderson (2007). The Geometry of an Art: The History of the Mathematical Theory of Perspective from Alberti to Monge. Copenhagen: Springer.
Boyd, R. and Richerson, P. (1985). Culture and the evolutionary process. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Cavalli-Sforza, L. and M. Feldman. (1981). Cultural transmission and evolution: A quantitative approach. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Stephen Davies (2013). The Evolutionary Value of an Aesthetic Sense. Aisthesis. Pratiche, linguaggi e saperi dell’estetico, 6(2), 75-79, (Dec. 2013). Available at: <http://www.fupress.net/index.php/aisthesis/article/view/13770/12802>.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mikel Dufrenne (1973). The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience [trans. Edward S. Casey, Albert A. Anderson, Willis Domingo and Leon Jacobson]. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
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Joshua J. Mark (26 May 2017) Ancient Egyptian Art, Ancient History Encyclopedia (online). Available at: https://www.ancient.eu/Egyptian_Art/
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John E. Pfeiffer (1982). The creative explosion. An inquiry into the origins of art and religion. New York: Harper & Row.
Michael J. Ryan (2018). A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.