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How Beauty Influences Evolution

We are constantly reminded of the small amount of time it has taken for human beings to move from the Stone Age to modernity. In some ways a certain agnosticism seems preferable here to the gee whizzes of popular science. How long should it take an intelligent tool-making species to move from the wheel to the jet engine? Is it really so very amazing that while bacterial life started on earth more than three billion years ago, land plants apparently date from a mere 400 million years ago, shortly after the first fish and about the same time as the first amphibia?

What, in any case, is the significance of talk of vast tracts of time in the absence of creatures who can plan, reflect on what they are doing, and come to an awareness of the passing of time, and hence of tasks accomplished fast or slowly? By around 10,000 BC mankind had learned to farm and in a few places was beginning to live in towns. The great period of prehistoric enslavement to need was coming to an end. Much time was saved for at least some specialists, and civilization could begin its ever more intense progression away from the satisfaction of basic drives.

There had, of course, been technology of a sort and art of a sort long before that. Tool and weapon using and making had been a part of human and pre-human life for 1,000,000 years or more. Art is more difficult to discern, but we know of humanly fashioned hand axes of 250,000 years ago which look beautiful to us, of sculptures, presumed to be cult objects, from 30,000 to 25,000 BC, and of drawings and carvings from a couple of thousand years later, and certainly from before 20,000 BC (Ridley 234).

There has been much speculation about the significance of prehistoric art objects, and about ‘beautiful’ axes. Was the maker of the Solutrian ‘laurel leaf’ flint axe in the Musee de l’Homme in Paris guided by conscious considerations of beauty? Or are its delicate patterns and symmetry due to some purely functional role they play in the activity of cutting? Or are they due to some genetically based but unconscious preference on the part of its maker? We shall, of course, never know for certain.

What, though, is evident even at this stage of our inquiry is that an apprehension of beauty assumes on the part of the perceiver or maker a sense that he is admiring or designing the thing in question because it has or he wants to give it a pleasing form. It is more than just a going for something which may incidentally please others on instinct or for purely pragmatic considerations (Trigg 56). Whatever else we may say about beauty, we must not forget that people are attracted by beauty. Appreciating something beautiful makes us want to be with it.

Beauty gives pleasure by drawing on the affective dimensions of consciousness. Consciousness is not purely a matter of information processing: along with information processing, in consciousness we also become aware of the pleasures and pains associated with things and their appearance. Further, we take delight in appearances themselves, in experiences of beauty. And this leads people, not unnaturally, to see our appreciation of beauty as being rooted in instinct and in our neural circuitry.

What has not been confirmed, though, is whether the females who choose the splendid peacocks do so for aesthetic reasons, pure or impure. This, indeed, was the subject of an early dispute between Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace was, in general, inclined to emphasize the differences between humans and (other) animals, a point to which we will return. But specifically in the matter of female choice, Wallace was far more selectionist than Darwin. For Wallace, female choice could not be purely capricious, at least not if it were to play a significant role in the development of a species.

Darwin had, of course, been arguing that we can explain the ever more splendid, ever more elaborate tails and songs observed in the kingdom of the birds by selection pressures. The most splendid males are chosen by the females, who, in turn produce splendid males. The most splendid of the new males are then chosen in their turn by the ever more choosy females born of the original choosers, and one more twist is given to the spiral and so it will go on until checked by some countervailing pressure. The evolutionary possibility of this sort of selection pressure and its trajectory was well demonstrated by R.

A. Fisher in 1930. Fisher showed that once a selection preference gets embedded in a population, it moves forward with ever increasing rapidity under its own momentum. While Darwin, supplemented by Fisher, shows that in a particular species the development of (to us) ever more aesthetically striking characteristics can happen as a result of female choice, it still does not show that the females are choosing for aesthetic reasons. That they might not be is suggested by the possibility that beauty is linked to other more clearly adaptive properties.

This indeed was how the selectionist Wallace argued, his selectionism here going hand in hand with his claim that with us aesthetic response is part of our ‘spiritual nature’ and cannot be explained on ‘purely utilitarian principles’. Wallace proposed that the apparently aesthetic choices of peahens were in fact ‘sensible’, that is the (to us) aesthetically pleasing properties of peacocks, humming birds, and the like were linked to more directly advantageous traits (Dennett 154). For example, a beautiful appearance might be a sign of good health, or of good genes more generally.

Even where beauty seems to be to a creature’s disadvantage, the fact that it is able to overcome the disadvantage may indicate its greater inner strength. Ornamental display may be a sign of territorial dominance, and so indicating general strength and superiority. And so a gene might develop in peahens for preference for peacocks with beautiful tails, not because their tails are beautiful and even less because peahens consciously appreciated their beauty, but simply because peahens choosing those peacocks by virtue of their tails (though not by virtue of their tails’ beauty) would tend to have similar offspring.

In Phaedrus, Plato sees the perception of beauty on earth as a reminder of the beauty we knew before we fell to earth. He is speaking primarily of the beauty of human beings we are physically attracted to. There is in Plato little sense of other types of beauty; he speaks mainly of encounters with godlike faces or bodily forms. At least in The Symposium, he speaks (or Diotima speaks) of the lover of beauty turning his eye from the ‘slavish and illiberal’ devotion to ‘the individual loveliness’ of single boys or men or institutions, and setting sail on the ‘open sea beauty’, towards beauty itself, the universal beauty.

Diotima’s doctrine is that this is the final revelation, detached it seems from the mortal taint of the particular. None the less, it is only through appreciation of bodily beauty that the initiate can begin on the road to enlightenment (Gould 87). Kant, though understanding what aesthetic realism would imply, denies it. He rejects any such realism in part he says because nature can produce many pleasing forms merely mechanically. This, no doubt, is true, though it does not explain why we are attracted to such ‘merely mechanical’ forms.

Here, indeed, evolution might help, by showing that our faculties are produced by, and hence amenable to, the very same processes which produce the mechanical forms of nature. More fundamentally, though, Kant thinks that an ultimately theological or teleological aesthetic realism of the sort he rejects would tend to deny the freedom of our judgement. That is to say nature itself (or its Creator) would be dictating to us what we find beautiful, and the source of the judgement would not be in us, due to the free play of our imagination.

A “family” in the sense of two parents devotedly raising common offspring over a long period is not unique to humans. It can be observed in many birds, voles, some monkeys, and more. But the intensity of feeling that occurs with family life reaches its peak in humans. Of all the many stormy feelings, the most prominent are those that are involved in the first steps of the family process: falling in love, selecting the partner with whom we will embark on the long journey of raising a family. Falling in love is, in many cases, an inexplicable experience.

Who can speak rationally of its sensuous, dazzling, sweeping, overflowing nature? Falling in love is a dramatic component of mate selection. When we seek a mate, we look around, opening our eyes up wide. As opposed to other creatures, who open their nostrils to sniff, we open our eyes to gaze. And our eyes are drawn, as if by magic, to beauty. We strongly respond to beauty. Moral edicts teach us to ignore beauty and instead to defend different values: “Look not on the jar, but on its contents.

” That is morality’s way, to insist on the very issues that our hearts most hanker for; it stands in the breach of our sweeping impulses. Indeed, beauty catches our hearts, dazzles our eyes, and overrides our judgment, so that in lieu of it we tend to ignore the importance of wisdom, diligence, kindness, and other merits (Papineau 45). If beauty has the power to awaken such yearning in us, then evolution selected and perfected this sensitivity as one of our many traits, which were all selected for their contribution to the ability to produce offspring.

Why is sensitivity to beauty so important? Why has evolution toiled to wire into our brain and nervous system and the hormonal secretions in our blood mechanisms that respond with excitement and desire to “beautiful” and recoil from “ugly”? Plato suggests what would later be seen as an exceedingly Darwinistic solution to this question. In his book The Banquet, clever Diotima teaches Socrates an important evolutionary lesson. She says: humans sow their seed . . . and when they come to a certain age, our nature yearns to breed, but with the ugly he cannot and with the beautiful he can.

Since the coming together of man and woman – is procreation . . . and in the unsuitable it cannot be done; and the ugly is unsuitable . . . Therefore, when the carrier of seed approaches the beautiful, he becomes joyful and happy, and he impregnates and reproduces; but when he approaches the ugly, he recoils into himself in pain and sadness, turns back and does not breed, . . . therefore, every soul who wishes to procreate shall follow the beautiful . . . thus, Socrates, she says, Eros does not yearn for the beautiful, as you claim (Lampert 56). But for what?

For breeding and impregnating the beautiful. Plato, a Darwinist who anticipated Darwin, teaches us that beauty is a guide for successful breeding. Whoever chooses beauty assures favorable descendants, who all inherit the love of beauty. This is how evolution “implants” a trait in the behavior repertoire of a species. A beautiful woman is perhaps the most powerful influence. And who is a beautiful woman? Judith Langlois and Lori Roggman of Texas University give a surprising answer to this question: The beautiful woman is but the average woman, they say.

The beauty queen of a certain community, who was chosen for her ability to excite all onlookers, is constructed as a quantitative average of the features of women in that community. For instance, eye size, the distance between them, nose length and width, mouth size and its distance from the chin, face width, forehead span – all are mathematical representations of the average of all women’s faces. When many pictures of women’s faces were fed into a computer and the computer was instructed to “cook” the average face, hundreds of men and women judged this face to be a more beautiful face than any single face that was input.

And the more faces composed the average, so was it judged as more beautiful. The most average is the most beautiful. The average is the definitive epitome of ourselves, and hence its essence of being is “compatible,” as the suitable, which assures our continuity – “breeding and impregnating” (Lampert 100). Beauty is in the eyes of the beholder: the she-pig is beautiful to the he-pig, and the average one more so than the exceptional because she assures him descendants, which will enjoy the evolutionary advantages achieved by all pigs so far.

The body structure, face, characteristics, personality, and behavior of the average pig constitute the most reliable collection of traits in pigdom, and successful precedents should be repeated. The fact that a pig is not beautiful in our eyes, but that a mare and deer are is incidental. The fact that one woman is beautiful to Israelis and another woman is beautiful in the eyes of Zulu tribesmen is not incidental: every tribe has a different representative average, and in childhood everyone assimilates the human gestalt of his homeland and is attracted to the beautiful (average) in them.

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