I have been enjoying thinking about the notion of “beauty” and its evolutionary origins. The specific question is what evolutionary pressure would favour people (or other animals, of course) who could appreciate beauty?
I am not an evolutionary biologist and this area is far from my areas of expertise. Therefore, all of what follows is just non-expert ruminations on the subject.
Some have suggested that being able to appreciate beauty is an argument against evolution and in favour of divine creation. While I don’t think the solution to the question is to invoke a magical and untestable response, the question remains intriguing.
The most obvious starting point connects beauty in relation to other humans. That is easily tied to mate selection and reproduction and can be associated with what may benefit species survival. There is nothing that particularly ties this to humans since we see evidence throughout the animal world of male and female displays of “beauty” features such as impressive antlers, powerful muscles, and pretty feathers. It may be that the real origin of both beauty and ugliness resides with mate selection, but why would the notion of either extend beyond?
Why would humans appreciate the beauty of a sunset or the tranquility of a northern lake or the beauty of the rugged granite coast of the eastern seaboard (Maine through Newfoundland)?
I think it is probably fruitful to start with the other side of this question: what is the evolutionary benefit of recognizing ugliness? This is easier to put into a survival benefit context. The landscapes that are ugly are, for the most part, inhospitable for us – the wastelands of volcanoes or swamp areas harbouring insect and vertebrate dangers. These areas suggest “stay away”. In a modern context these would be toxic-extruding containers in a landfill, chemical waste ponds associated with the Alberta Tar Sands development, etc. The ugly animals are frequently those we really should not touch such as scorpions, spiders, scorpion fish, wolf fish and rats.
Possibly beauty is simply the antithetical response to ugly. The menacing sky of an approaching tornado is frightening and, in contrast, the placid sunset is soothing and attractive. The rat is offset by the kitten. Humans have abstracted and extended beauty and ugliness so that we no longer restrict our perception to what I suggest may be the more limited basis of their origins. We can see beauty in paintings. We can even see beauty where the general view is of ugliness. Here I am specifically thinking that the scuba diver sees the scorpion fish’s beauty in its adaptation and camouflage after recognizing the “do not touch” message. The barren ruggedness of a lava field can be appreciated when home is elsewhere.
We have certainly been able to extend both poles. The beauty and elegance of a mathematical proof is only available once fairly extensive background mathematical experience is established. The same is true when we marvel at the beauty of a fine dovetail joint in woodworking, the full appreciation of which requires the understanding of the challenges associated with making dovetail joints. This is probably uniquely human.
Still unaddressed is Bach. How does music fit into the evolutionary framework? There are many examples in music from classical, folk, jazz, blues, etc. that are overpowering with their beauty. It seems unsatisfactory to suggest that the beauty of Bach is merely the contrast and compliment of the shrill sounds of a devastating storm.
It also strikes me that human characteristics are rarely entirely restricted to humans. Evolutionary biology has provided a huge amount of evidence that we share much with the rest of life on the planet. The differences in our DNA and the DNA of apes is remarkably small. Even with some other animals, the similarities are as fascinating as the differences. We know that marine mammals, such as dolphins and whales, and land animals, such as elephants, dogs and cats, have a sense of self and other (one of the strong reasons for not confining these animals in cages).
It follows therefore that we may not be the only animals who are able to appreciate beauty. What sort of continuum is this? A lush acacia tree may be an obvious suggestion of something beautiful to an elephant, but does the elephant also recognize the beauty of the sunset silhouetting those lush acacia trees? This is clearly something very difficult to ascertain, but I think it is within the realm of the probable. When, as a scuba diver, I look at a reef in the Caribbean and see its spectacular beauty, do the dolphins also see the beauty of the reef? Again, I see no reason to suppose that they are not capable of their own appreciation of beauty. Many of us have watched dogs and cats respond to music and although this may not always be a reaction reflecting an appreciation of beauty, on other occasions it is. The appreciation of music is not restricted to humans and this therefore suggests there is something about music that is linked to the evolution of life.
There is a fine line between anthropomorphising the experience of non-human animals and recognizing the continuity of the expression of life on the planet. While not diminishing the accomplishments belonging only to humans, it is important to recognize that we are not as unique as we previously assumed.