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The Evolved Eye of the Beholder: Why Do We See Beauty?
June 18, 2021 at 10:00 am - 1:00 pm EDT
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Fellow Interintellect Étienne Fortier-Dubois dives into the evolutionary origins of beauty.
Why are some things beautiful?
Why are some works of art (e.g. the Mona Lisa) more beautiful than others (e.g. a crappy drawing I just made today)? What makes people attractive? What gives people different taste?
Clearly, the proverb “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is true. Beauty isn’t a property of things. A painting can appear beautiful to some people and not to others. Standards of beauty change over time, as does fashion. Even individual taste isn’t fixed; our own aesthetic appreciation of a single object can vary, depending on our mood and circumstances.
On the other hand, beauty isn’t random: usually, people agree on the relative beauty of any two things.
Where does it all come from? In this Salon, we turn to evolutionary theory for answers.
If humans are able to find beauty, it is because the related neural mechanisms served a purpose. For instance, we might see color as beautiful because, in the ancestral environment, it was useful to distinguish colorful animals or fruits from their surroundings. Many of our instincts around sexual attractiveness exist to increase our chances at reproductive success. But some other instances of beauty are more puzzling. Why is a snowflake beautiful? A blue sky? A quiet library? A heart-wrenching story?
Is the purpose of beauty to make us aware of what is rare, different, unique? Is it a form of curiosity?
Let’s discuss the many and sometimes paradoxical reasons we see beauty in the world — order and chaos, diversity and uniformity, shape and formlessness, darkness and light.
Good to read pre-Salon:
- My newsletter post on the evolution of beauty
- Wikipedia on Evolutionary aesthetics
- Neuroaesthetics: Beauty is in the Brain of the Beholder
- Why Does Beauty Exists?
- What Makes a Pretty Face?
- How Art Can Be Good
- Suggested short fiction by Ted Chiang: Liking What You See: A Documentary
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