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  • Life is a Passacaglia
  • Stephen Davies


With its countless cultural variations based on and laid over the endlessly repeated bass melody of evolution, life is a passacaglia.

As an evolved species that reached its modern form 30,000 BP or earlier in the late Pleistocene, we members of the species homo sapiens share the same perceptual, affective, and cognitive systems. These not only register the way the world is, they organize our engagement with the world in ways that reflect our common interests and concerns. We want and need the necessities first for survival and then for raising children to an age at which they too can raise children to maturity, this being the measure of our successful evolutionary adaptation. That is, we seek and value fresh air and clean water, food, shelter, companionship, stimulation, cooperation and all the other means to survival and reproductive success. (I allow, of course, that there is some cultural variability in what counts as food and on what foods can be eaten, and similarly for many of life's patterns and situations.) Our shared biology and the way the world is together dictate that the tunes to which different cultures dance are variations on an underlying, pan-cultural theme, which is the human condition. Moreover, because we are deeply self-reflective and profoundly social, we are fascinated by the motives, patterns, and dynamics driving human interaction. We are mesmerized by pride and prejudice, crime and punishment, by love, jealousy, justice, revenge, compassion, trade, betrayal, peace, and violence. And again, despite a plethora of surface social differences in the ways such human characteristics are manifested, the universality of these human vectors is readily apparent. Notwithstanding the undeniable impact of local [End Page 315] cultural and environmental factors on the organization of life within different societies, other humans are never entirely alien or opaque to us because we inhabit a single world and share a common biology, with the result that we inevitably experience the same joys, fears, challenges, and desires.

Narrative and representational arts often feature these common themes of human existence and teach lessons in life at no expense to the audience beyond their imaginative involvement.1 As well, we are absorbed by presentations of strong emotions, and these can be apparent in the sounds of music and in decorative arts as well as in more directly mimetic art forms. As one would expect, the attraction of art that deals with universal aspects of human experience and basic emotions transcends the boundaries of culture. The tragedies of the ancient Greeks are no less powerful and meaningful now than in the past, and are cross-culturally accessible also, as are, for example, the Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata epics. Meanwhile, all cultures elaborate stories of ghosts, adventure, lost and found love, heroism, exploration, endurance, friendship, trust, and the like.

Many universal human preferences are the product of our ancestral evolution. We evolved to like sweet and fatty foods, for instance, because they were nutritious and hard to come by in the late Pleistocene. We preferred landscapes offering distant views that showed signs of water and life, as well as concealed places that could be used for shelter and as lookout points. We found bodily and especially facial symmetry attractive in members of the other sex because it signals health, which in turn indicates fecundity. More generally, the markers of sexual attractiveness functioned as predictors of the health of potential offspring. In general, we valued prototypicality, but were also drawn to specimens that are unusual without thereby qualifying as deviant.2 It is possible to discern the basis for a proto-aesthetic in these judgments, a biologically conditioned propensity to find some things naturally beautiful or appealing and others ugly or scary. And this tendency comes to us as part of our biological endowment, however we overlay it with traditions of cultural refinements.

Artists are able to take and exploit the aesthetic inclinations just described. For example, artistic designs featuring symmetry are claimed to inherit the beauty and appeal attached to symmetry in evaluating the bodies of potential sexual partners.3 And by recreating and stylizing visual and other patterns that are attention-grabbing in nature...


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pp. 315-328
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