The Eye of the Beholder

December 14, 2015

17,000-Year-Old Lascaux Cave Painting

Beauty, we are told, is in the eye of the beholder.  But why, apart from human reproductive urges, do we have an eye for beauty at all?  According to evolutionary theory, the traits that get passed on to future generations must have some selective advantage in assuring the survival of the species.  Humans are born with an eye for color and movement, which stands to reason.  You want to keep a sharp eye out for things to eat – or for things that might eat you.  But it’s frankly hard to see where aesthetics fit into Darwin’s scheme.
Not that people haven’t tried. There is a theory called evolutionary aesthetics, which argues that aesthetic preferences are globally present in human societies and therefore must be hardwired in our genes rather than being culturally determined.  However, natural selection only gets you so far in explaining how art appreciation gave our hominid ancestors a leg up in their struggle for survival.  We are on solider ground invoking sexual selection, which goes back to those aforementioned reproductive urges.  The example Darwin himself used is the peacock’s tail, which is a useless extravagance from a strict survival-of-the-fittest standpoint but makes perfect sense if you are looking to attract peahens with an eye for colorful feathers.  Philosopher Denis Dutton argued that the “art instinct” – the human equivalent of the peacock’s tail – first emerged among hominids during the Pleistocene period some 1.6 million years ago as an indicator of reproductive fitness.  Why artistic talent or temperament should be an indicator of reproductive fitness isn’t entirely clear, except perhaps as a mark of broader intelligence.
Even Denis Dutton was prepared to concede that the case for evolutionary aesthetics was speculative at best, if not downright fanciful.  After all, we are some 80,000 generations removed from the supposed origins of the art instinct, and there is no written record or even cave art to document it until much more recently.  Clearly, something happened along the way that led to the rapid enlargement of hominid brains and the emergence of anatomically modern humans with a capacity for language, abstract thinking and aesthetic appreciation, among other things.  But what exactly?
As long as we are indulging in speculative (if not downright fanciful) thinking, I have my own theory to propose.  According to one of the oldest written records we have, God created the heavens and the earth in six days and judged them to be good.  The Hebrew word translated as “good” in the Genesis creation story literally means “that which gratifies the senses and derivatively that which gives aesthetic or moral satisfaction”  -- beautiful, in short.  The adjective is used seven times in the first chapter of Genesis as God contemplated his handiwork and pronounced it beautiful: first the light, then the earth and the seas, the plants and the trees, the separation of light from darkness, the sea creatures and birds of the air, the wild animals of the earth and the cattle of every kind.  Finally, he beheld everything that he had made and found it to be beautiful.  Curiously, the narrative does not specifically mention that the Lord judged the creatures he had made in his own image to be beautiful.  But then, he did not need to; they could see it for themselves.  What does it mean to be made in God’s image, if not to see the world as he does, in all its extravagant beauty?