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  • A Darwinian Theory of Beauty
  • Denis Dutton

Following is a transcript of Denis Dutton’s talk at the “TED2010” conference in Long Beach, California, delivered on February 13 as part of the “Imagination” session.

Iam delighted to be here and talk to you about a subject dear to my heart: beauty. I do the philosophy of art—aesthetics—actually for a living. I try to figure out intellectually, philosophically, and psychologically what the experience of beauty is, what sensibly can be said about it, and how people go off the rails in trying to understand it. Now, this is an extremely complicated subject, in part because the things that we call beautiful are so different. Just think of the sheer variety: a baby’s face, Berlioz’s Harold in Italy, movies like The Wizard of the Oz and the plays of Chekhov, a central California landscape, a Hokusai view of Mount Fuji, Der Rosenkavalier, a stunning match-winning goal in a World Cup soccer match, van Gogh’s Starry Night, a Jane Austen novel, Fred Astaire dancing across the screen. This brief list includes human beings, natural landforms, works of art, and skilled human actions. An account that explains the essence of beauty of everything on this list is not going to be easy. I can, however, give you at least a taste of what I regard as the most powerful theory of beauty we yet have. And we get it, not from a philosopher of art, not from a postmodern art theorist or a bigwig art critic—no, this theory comes from an expert on barnacles and worms and pigeon breeding, and you know who I mean: Charles Darwin.

Of course, a lot of people think they already know that the proper answer to the question “What is beauty?” belongs to our evolved human psychology. It’s in the eye of the beholder. It’s whatever moves you personally; or, as some people, especially academics, prefer, beauty is in the [End Page A314] culturally conditioned eye of the beholder. People agree that paintings or movies or music are beautiful because their cultures determine a uniformity of aesthetic taste.

Tastes for both natural beauty and for the arts travel across cultures with great ease. Beethoven is adored in Japan. Peruvians love Japanese woodblock prints. Inca sculptures are regarded as treasures in British museums, while Shakespeare is translated into every major language of the Earth. Or, just think about American jazz or American movies—well, they go everywhere!

There are many differences among the arts but there are also universal, cross-cultural, aesthetic pleasures and values.

How can we explain this universality? The best answer lies in trying to construct a Darwinian evolutionary history of our artistic and aesthetic tastes. We need to reverse engineer our present artistic tastes and preferences and explain how they came to be engraved in our minds by the actions of our largely prehistoric Pleistocene environment, where we became fully human, but also the social situations in which we evolved. This reverse engineering can also enlist help from human records preserved in prehistory—I mean fossils, cave paintings, and so forth—and it should take into account what we know of the aesthetic interests of isolated hunter-gatherer bands that survived into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Now, I personally have no doubt whatsoever that the experience of beauty, with its emotional intensity and pleasure, belongs to our evolved human psychology. The experience of beauty is one component in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations. Beauty is an adaptive effect which we extend and intensify in the creation and enjoyment of works of art and entertainment.

As many of you will know, evolution operates by two main primary mechanisms. The first of these is natural selection—that’s random mutation and selective retention. Along with our basic anatomy and physiology—the evolution of the pancreas, or the eye, or the finger-nails—natural selection also explains many basic revulsions, such as the smell of rotting meat or fears such as fear of snakes or standing close to the edge of the cliff. Natural selection also explains pleasures—sexual pleasures, or our liking for sleep, fat...


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