Tuesday, August 31, 2010

In search of beauty


In his review of my trio of books Nature’s Patterns in the TLS, Martin Kemp makes a start on a question that I leave more or less untouched: the issue of our subjective experience of pattern and form. Why do we respond aesthetically to pattern and order? Or to put it simplistically but, in the end, in the form that perhaps really counts: why do we find snowflakes and flowers beautiful?

That’s the issue psychologist Nicholas Humphrey tackles in an ambitious article in the current Prospect. More specifically, he asks why we apprehend beauty both in art and in nature. He seeks an answer in evolutionary psychology. And guess what: he finds it. He believes that ultimately an appreciation of beauty has its origin in sexual selection, much as Darwin anticipated. Beautiful works, he says, bear the hallmarks of human skill that offer signals of reproductive fitness: dexterity, intellectual ability, sensory acuity, perhaps even morality.

But why do we then find nature beautiful too, when there is no maker? Partly, says Humphrey, this is a question of convergence: we find traits in animals beautiful (such as butterfly wings) because the courtship displays of other animals are akin to those of humans. And partly, it is the result of the way we habitually personify inanimate nature, believing that it does indeed have a maker, and that this maker should therefore be the object of our love.

Now, let’s be fair: experience of beauty, and judgements of beauty in art, are so diverse that just about any attempt to explain them in biological and evolutionary terms is likely to be vulnerable. But just about every statement in Humphrey’s piece is open to challenge. It is hard to know where to start.

Probably the most serious problem for his thesis is that it is so culturally biased. Humphrey seems to assume that all cultures find beauty in the same places: that making visual art, music and literature is always primarily about making beauty, and that we all agree on it when we see it. But it is hotly debated whether, say, the primary function of music in some cultures is an aesthetic one at all. (Without culturally agreed points of common reference, it can be very hard to say.) Humphrey’s notion of what art is and what it strives to do seems solidly located within the Western Renaissance tradition.

The sexual selection idea seems kind of plausible, but no more than others. Certainly that’s the case for music, as I discussed in The Music Instinct. And like so much evolutionary psychology, not only is this idea not put to the test, but its proponents seem wholly unconcerned even to think about how that might be done. Is musical prowess an honest signal of survival skills, for instance? There seems to be no evidence for that (and sometimes evidence to the contrary). And what are the relevant skills? How does art demonstrate ‘loyalty’, for example, as Humphrey suggests? Are the ‘rich resources’ really those of the artist, or his/her patron?

And does a human sense of beauty really converge with animal mating displays? Sure, we admire the peacock’s tail, but some of these displays just strike us as bizarre. And many ‘beautiful’ animal traits, such as some butterfly markings, aren’t used for sexual display in any case. Humphrey argues that biological ‘good form’ is necessarily adaptive – among which characteristics he lists ‘rhyme’ (huh?), grace and symmetry. But symmetry is not necessarily adaptive in itself, and in any case, do we really look for the highest symmetry in art? (Answer: no. The highest symmetry is uniformity.)

But the weakest part of the argument surely comes when Humphrey tries to explain why we deceive ourselves in imagining that there is a creator in nature. He says that ‘at least in modern culture, many of our encounters with nature come first through art.’ One could question this statement even as it stands, but even if you accept it, it won’t wash. Why would we transform the ‘maker’ of a painting of a waterfall into a ‘maker’ of the waterfall itself? More to the point, if this is only the case in ‘modern culture’ (which it is), then it can play no evolutionary role.

Humphrey asks an important question: why do we possess a sense of beauty? It’s hard to answer, for sure. But inventing Just So stories, devoid of any means of empirical validation, won’t help. Nor are we likely to get very far by introversion: by assuming, as Hobbes and Descartes did, that we can so easily step outside our culture that it is meaningful to commence by asking ‘Well, how do I feel about it?’ We need at least to begin by asking not only what other cultures find beautiful, but what they mean by beauty.

1 comment:

C L A Nicholson said...

To ignore your final point completely, I think an appreciation of beauty results from a combination of the brain's preference for a healthy (and therefore pleasant looking) mate, a safe, calm, non-chaotic environment and a certain amount of sensory stimulation. People of different cultures are attracted to, scared/irritated by and interested in different things because of their different enviroments, and hence we might find beauty in different places.