Academic journal article International Journal of Humanities and Peace

Beauty and Evolution

Academic journal article International Journal of Humanities and Peace

Beauty and Evolution

Article excerpt

Along with truth and goodness, beauty has a long philosophical history as one of the three supreme values of western civilization. Twentieth century philosopher Charles Hartshorne claims that beauty is the centerpiece of this classical trinity (303) and that nothing in our experience is exempt from the touch of the beautiful; he also tells us that experience "in all its phases can be valued aesthetically" (308); all experience, that is, can be judged by the quality of beauty we find there. English literary critic Terry Eagleton points out that the reach of beauty exceeds that of mere thought, that it appeals to more than the rational element of our minds; he says that beauty is involved in "the whole region of human perception and sensation, in contrast to the more rarefied domain of conceptual thought" (13). If these and other authorities are correct, beauty is more than mere prettiness or elaborate ornamentation. In fact, it seems that beauty has been instrumental in the evolution of life on this planet and that it connects us to the deepest sources of meaning and life.

Recent studies in the sciences provide mounting evidence that beauty is an essential ingredient in the work of evolution; the partnership of biology and beauty accounts for the survival and development of the human and other species. Psychologist Nancy Etcoff from the Harvard Medical School tells us that "Beauty is one of the ways life perpetuates itself, and love of beauty is deeply rooted in our biology" (234). Etcoff and others point to the animal kingdom where healthy looking creatures attract mates because they are most likely to produce healthy offspring. In birds glorious plumage and coloring indicate health and resistance to parasitical invasion. The peacock, for example, flaunts his tail to dazzle and attract a mate, and he displays it in a kind of dance by which he announces his attractiveness and his supreme good health, even though this colorful activity puts him at risk as prey. Apparently the rewards of love and beauty outweigh the danger of becoming some predator's dinner. The well-known naturalist Konrad Lorenz has documented the love and war games of some fish species in which aesthetic as well as territorial and reproductive interests are involved in their fishy affairs. Even plants join the drama as some orchids manage pollination by taking on the color and shape of the seductive female wasp to deceive male wasps into attempted mating. Indeed, these various displays of color, dance, and drama may be viewed as a parallel to human artistic productions, although lacking human artistic skills and intention. Thus the interplay of beauty, reproduction and evolution can be viewed as a grand cosmic dance. As Etcoff says, "Humans, like flowers and animals, inhabit a form that is both functional and aesthetic" (70).

In human evolution, the correspondence between beauty and biology is more pronounced and more complex. Infants are regarded universally as beautiful, a fact that promotes their safety and assures their well-being in a world of larger and potentially dangerous adults. Infants make baby-talk, show all kinds of body language, and engage in cute mimicking of their parents--activities that have little cognitive content but immense binding and pleasure values. Ellen Dissanayake, a Darwinian art historian, has suggested that the baby talk and play between mothers and infants is the precursor of the arts, the beginnings of dance and poetry and music.

Not surprisingly biology plays a major role in adult romance. We humans may like to think our partners are chosen for reasons higher than those of other animals, and surely such factors do enter in. From a biological perspective, however, as Etcoff tells us, "The biological purpose of sex is reproduction, not fun or friendship or the communing of souls" (69). To reproduce successfully we instinctively adopt the strategies of the larger animal community and give preference to mates who look healthy. …

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