My late father-in-law once observed that I was, in his words, "an aesthete."
I was impressed... I had never self-identified as such, but as soon as he said it, I felt that at last here was someone who understood something about me that had escaped my own perception. He could have called me a hedonist (and been right), but somehow the word "aesthete" captures something more whole, more complete.
In any case, beauty is one of those self-evident things which really needs no justification, but perplexes me all the same. I like to look at all things human, and the evolutionary perspective is one I find compelling. From a Darwinian standpoint, all traits that persist are those that contribute to the survival of a species, specifically in the areas of finding food and mating. Or at the very least, do not interfere with the same.
So how does beauty fit in with survival? Beyond our instinctive attraction to a mate, what role could our aesthetic sense and appreciation possibly have? What does our love of sunsets, of symphonies, of the rising of the harvest moon, of starlight and fireflies, or mountains or Monet, have anything to do with living long enough to pass genes from one generation to the next?
The simplest answer may be that it doesn't, really. Beauty may be no more than one of those crufty bits of code which serves no immediate purpose, but neither causes sufficient harm to break the program. It's possible that this is the case, but here the Razor of Occam does not really satisfy. I think better answers to this question are more complex, and more interesting.
Beauty exists in all sensory realms. The appetite for certain flavors and aromas is a fairly obvious survival trait, so we will pass lightly over such sensations. These are directly connected to eating, and the ability to taste or smell good from bad is fundamental. In addition, the nose provides a chemical channel with which to evaluate an environment.
Likewise, physical feelings need little comment. Pain and discomfort typically lead to avoidance of harmful things, while pleasure rewards the urge to mate, and to sustain general health and fitness. These mechanisms are not perfect and can be fatally fooled, but so have served sufficiently well to keep the species going.
So what about things like music?
I've done a fair amount of camping alone, and it's amazing how, at night, I quickly key in to ambient sounds as an alarm system. Not just with the presence of a new and strange sound, but more significantly, the absence of normally pervasive sounds. My conjecture is that early humans associated birdsong, insect noises, frogs, and so on with certain "moods" of the jungle and savannah. The presence of large predators or other intruders can often disrupt the web of sound, changing the character of the sonic field. However stealthy the predator, a sudden interruption in the rhythm of crickets can be a giveaway.
It makes sense that the continuing presence of reassuring sounds would lead to a feeling of well-being, and that evolution would favorably select those with a predisposition toward sensitivity to this kind of aural awareness. As our cognitive capacities increased, it seems only natural that we would start to imitate these sounds to induce a soothing calm, or to make other sounds to raise an alarm. We can also imagine that music evolved alongside our other language abilities. In this case, the imitation of environmental sounds would serve a narrative function in relaying adventures of the hunt, and in conveying information to offspring about "good" and "bad" experiences, from which they could learn and enhance their own chances for survival.
It's possible that at one time music and language were not distinct. If so, then music as early language would have played a crucial role in our survival, social development, and cognitive specialization. While many creatures have ears and enjoy the obvious benefits of hearing, humans take the production of sound to extraordinarily sophisticated levels. What probably began as a simple aptitude for detecting danger or opportunity evolved into complex of communication strategies.
As for taking the time to watch the sun go down, and appreciating the slow development of textures and shades among the clouds, surely this must be an idle activity? Pleasurable if you can afford it, but not really essential to survival.
Well, maybe. And from a literal standpoint, almost certainly. But again, why would it be pleasurable in the first place?
To answer this, consider how primitive sight arose. Single-celled organisms floating in the ocean drifted at the whimsy of the tides and currents. When some happy accident of chemistry allowed for the most rudimentary organ of light detection, suddenly a new awareness of up and down come into being. Why is that important? Because life depended then as now on sunlight, so there was more life closer to the sun than in the dark depths below. Couple this gift of discernment with basic locomotion, and you've got a rather nice advantage. Encoded into the organism's DNA is an association with light as good, dark as not so good. Likewise the high and the low.
Eventually, eyes become more advanced, and color enters the equation. By itself, color gives a finer apprehension of the environment, and so the advantage of sight is accordingly refined. For terrestrial dwellers, color also is a beacon of life. Vibrant vegetation signals the presence of available water and all that depends on it. Where there is water, there are plants. Where there are plants, there are herbivores. Where there are herbivores, there are carnivores. Where these things come together, potentially there are mates. And competition, to be sure, but that's where the action is.
Greenery and floral displays and fruits and berries could not be anything but attractive, even to those that do not eat them. The quality and quantity of color gives a clear indication of the health and vitality of an environment, and those that are better attuned to this are better able to determine where to hunt and gather, where to make a stand, and when to move on.
So now, if we see soft or brilliant flowers of color blossoming in the morning and evening sky, we are not fooled into thinking that clouds are edible. But the association with life-giving energy is inevitable.
Ah, yes, but... "Harmony and contrast. All beauty comes from those two things." So now, a note of dissonance.
Many find deserts beautiful. Desolation, at least in the abstract, is also a pleasure. Does this contradict my conjecture?
Yes, but I think these things can also be accommodated within the framework of the argument.
First, we are wired to experience pleasure from the relief of a threat. To look at a photograph of the Sahara or the barren wastelands of Antarctica is to feel a thrill of satisfaction of NOT being there. We have an experience of something hostile, albeit vicariously, but we experience more the security of our vantage point. Our attention is on the photograph, but our unconscious is silently celebrating the HVAC. It's the contrast that brings pleasure.
Should we visit such places in person, the dynamic is more acutely felt, but essentially the same. A visit is, by definition, a temporary thing. We are glad to have been so close to the edge, to have gone over the horizon and beyond the frontier, but coming back to tell the tale (or the anticipation of doing so), is gratifying.
For others, simple survival in a harsh environment has an immediate, urgent, feeling of reward. Adventurers, mountaineers, explorers, martial artists, athletes -- all love difficulty for it's own sake, and not just from the cozy comfort of the recliner after the fact. In such cases, regardless of incidental suffering, the endeavor serves much the same purpose as play among human children and other animals. It is a kind of rehearsal of combat and survival skills, and it makes sense that, within limits, our biology would favor us with pleasurable reward for rare and courageous undertakings. And that we should find such people sexy.
Some people choose to live perennially in harsh environments and do just fine. Life, human and otherwise, has the remarkable capacity to fill almost any ecological niche. And if I point out that these people are a minority, that most populations will cluster around abundance of resources, and that civilizations arose near the oasis and not in the dunes, it is not to suggest that the desert nomads and solitary dwellers are maladapted. In a way, the very lack of resources is itself the advantage. With a much lower population density, there is much less competition, and the austere provisions suffice. On balance, if it works, it works.
So in my view, beauty is directly related to survival. It is not simply the recent afterthought of a successful animal with too much time on its hands. Rather, the sense of beauty is a complex of highly evolved faculties, each with storied histories and barque plot twists.
A facility with music or art (or higher math or philosophy) is a token of well-developed cognition. Skills of puzzle solving and the ability to communicate these to others is something that can help the tribe thrive. This, in turn, can be an attractive trait for prospective mates, and these faculties endure through offspring.
Finally, because biology is not without irony, it may be that beauty is not just a reason that we live, but also a reason to live. Once it's helped us to find shelter and food and love, then shelter and food and love can help us to find it.
At that point, beauty truly needs no justification.
Still Point Aikido Systems
Austin TX, USA
Harmony and contrast quote from the movie "Vatel"