Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Evolutionary Universal Aesthetics in Ecological Rationality

Academic journal article Journal of Ecological Anthropology

Evolutionary Universal Aesthetics in Ecological Rationality

Article excerpt

Abstract

We contend that individual reactions to universal aesthetics were critical in adapting human brain structure and evolutionary cognition. Emotional responses to aesthetics and reflexive judgments by prehistoric people may have evolved an ecological rationality with intimate pragmatics of survival. In North American Pacific Northwest ecosystems, complex indigenous societies flourished for millennia, developing strategies that allowed them to co-adapt with locally varying, productive landscapes. They evolved 'societal phenotypes' based on cultural belief systems fostering ecosystem balance. Their detailed contemplation and experience of natural phenomena, including other organisms' behaviors, were formalized as traditional ecological knowledge. For example, pre-contact Pacific Northwest societies co-evolved with periodic salmon migrations and blooming gardens of camas lilies, aesthetic events that we suggest inspired awe, captured attention, and motivated memory in individuals. Sharing and collectively storing this ecological information as traditional knowledge enhanced the group's survival. The natural endowment of judging the sublime and the beautiful through an aesthetic or spiritual connection with the place likely contributed to the success of these indigenous societies, before reservations disrupted their local environmental relationships and cultural transmission of millennial place-based knowledge. Today, the subjective experience of evolutionary universal aesthetics may drive human affinities for natural phenomena and scientists' preferences in ecological research. We motivate an argument for such unique adaptations by proposing an evolutionary relationship between the biophysical environment, aesthetic responses, and cultural belief systems.

Introduction

In the diverse and productive North American Pacific Northwest human ecosystems, indigenous societies co-adapted with their landscapes for millennia (Trosper 2002, 2003). While these societies have been much studied (Ames and Maschner 1999; Suttles 1987), their "remarkable properties;" i.e., the (specific) manifestations of human cognitive and behavioral abilities in these ecosystems (Stepp et al. 2003), have not. Facing variable climate and recurrent environmental disturbances, they evolved as resilient complex adaptive systems (Gunderson and Holling 2002; Holling 2001) with 'phenotypes' expressing belief systems that preserved relatively harmonious relationships with the animate and inanimate ecosystem elements. The millennial continuity of place, culture and resource use that distinguishes indigenous societies (Kempton 2001) manifests a sophisticated cognition of the natural world; i.e., an "ecological rationality" (Gigerenzer and Selten 2001). Relocation of aboriginal communities to reservations disrupted complex cultural and environmental practices emerging from this traditional place-based knowledge (Gonzalez-Plaza and Lam 2004).

Here we propose an inherent basis for aesthetic discrimination, which supports the biophilia hypothesis that humans have an innately emotional affiliation to natural phenomena (Wilson 1984); its potential consequences in ecological research are explored by Kovacs et al. in this issue. Mental constructs or cultural models (Holland and Quinn 1987) of indigenous societies-formalized as traditional knowledge (Berkes 1999; Pierotti and Wildcat 2000)-regulated human activities toward sustainable ecological management by fostering respectful ecosystem relationships. Captured in historical data, reconstructed oral stories, chronicles and archeological evidence, survival strategies evolved through detailed contemplation and experience of natural phenomena and behavior (Laird 2002; Maffi 2001). Though mostly undocumented, two examples of the panoply of observations by indigenous societies to orchestrate strategies sustaining resource use are: in the high Andes, the influence of El Niño on Pleiades visibility was accurately interpreted to determine potato plantation time (Orlove et al. …

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