Is our sense of visual beauty of evolutionary origins?
 
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    Is our sense of visual beauty of evolutionary origins?

    I think it is. One can tell apart cultural from biological preference by looking across cultures, as well as studying response from toddlers. There is evidence that people from all across the world have very similar preferences when it comes to composition, landscape types and faces. (F.eg Denis Dutton, Steven Pinker and Vilayanur Ramachandran)

    In a nutshell, we prefer landscapes that either are beneficial for survival/hunting etc, or that causes awe and wonder, while we find deserts and visually chaotic landscapes less agreeable. Our sense of beauty helped us find good places to settle down. It is very hard to find a national romantic landscape that does not contain a body of water, even though most natural landscapes do not. Incidentally, water is necessary for survival.

    We also have very similar preferences for faces/bodies, with healthy looking individuals with smooth skin and symmetry being typical examples. Angelina Jolie is basically considered beautiful across all cultures.

    People also agree on compositions that are enjoyable for the eye, with f.eg agents looking/walking out of a frame being uncomfortable, and objects barely touching, not overlapping nor far apart (tangents) even more so. It is easy to see how a dislike of unclear compositions or dislike of some important visual focus being outside of the visual field would help us survive. If everyone is looking at a lion, you better turn your head. If tangent makes it hard to see whether the lion is in front of or behind the tree, you better move your head a bit. But if you look at a picture, both becomes impossible. We find it pleasing because it is clear.

    I can think of many more examples on each category. The point is to get at a prescriptive level, rather than descriptive understanding of visual beauty.

    The difficulty of discussing this is that some people disagree on different levels: The entire theory of evolution, or the application of evolution to human brains (as opposed to animals who are not entirely cultural), and some only accept the premise but not the specific examples, f.eg evolutionary preference for visual clarity but not facial symmetry. It is very hard to fit convincing arguments for all levels, categories and examples in one brief online post.

    Do you have any thoughts on this? My motivation for posting is ultimately hoping that someone has come across some specific example of a visual preference that stems from our biology, and can be used to improve of understand artwork.
    F.eg: "Apparently we like to have a good views from our houses because it enables us to look out for predators and watch out for enemies. We know this because the areas of the brains activated when looking at a beautiful landscapes from high up are the same as those activated in a cat's brain when watching over its territory from a high place" (made up example).

    Last edited by PaleBluePixel; January 21st, 2012 at 03:05 PM. Reason: Spelling
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    Dinosaurs didn't know about the golden ratio, they did not appreciate Rembrandt and were not interested in portraiture. They didn't make it, evolutionary spoken. Case closed...

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    Of course. The only question is, directly or indirectly. On the other hand, evo-devo proponents tend towards just-so stories.


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    Quote Originally Posted by eezacque@xs4all.nl View Post
    Dinosaurs didn't know about the golden ratio, they did not appreciate Rembrandt and were not interested in portraiture. They didn't make it, evolutionary spoken.
    Actually, they did make it...

    Is our sense of visual beauty of evolutionary origins?

    To the extent that they didn't, it was just bad luck and had zilch to do with Rembrandt. After all, the longest surviving group of organisms on earth are ones that do not even have cellular nuclei, let alone do anything more with Rembrandt paintings than slowly digesting them...

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    Quote Originally Posted by Elwell View Post
    Of course. The only question is, directly or indirectly. On the other hand, evo-devo proponents tend towards just-so stories.
    Yup, in evolutionary biology, the just-so story is an ever-present danger. One must always ask the question: how can I test my hypothesis?

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    Quote Originally Posted by eezacque@xs4all.nl View Post
    Dinosaurs didn't know about the golden ratio, they did not appreciate Rembrandt and were not interested in portraiture. They didn't make it, evolutionary spoken. Case closed...
    I have no idea what argument you are trying to make here. Did you even read my post? I am not talking about whether our tendency to make art is itself an evolutionary adaptation, (as some have argued) but whether our sense of beauty is, and if so in what cases. It is fully possible that dinosaurs, and the birds they evolved into appreciated visual beauty in landscapes and colors/composition. Just look up David Attenborough talking about the nest of Bower birds on youtube (Not providing link to avvoid spamfilter)

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    I think so as well. It pretty much has to be imho...sort of an axiom. Sentient alien life-forms, with a different evolutionary path and physiology, are going to have a very different set of aesthetics, rooted in the same cause/effect relationship, which only proves the idea.

    On a more practical note of proof, I think "beauty" and "aesthetics" are the result of awareness and desire for health, fitness and improved function of design.

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    Quote Originally Posted by blogmatix View Post
    Yup, in evolutionary biology, the just-so story is an ever-present danger. One must always ask the question: how can I test my hypothesis?
    I can think of quite many ways of testing theories regarding evolutionary adaptation.

    If you believe that preference for symmetrical faces is helpful guide to avoid breeding with mutated/infected (and hence less evolutionary fit) individuals, you could see if the offspring of these individuals really are weaker. You could also look whether the youth of f.eg birds with asymmetrical faces has lower survival chance. For all I know, this might already have been studied deeply.

    One other example is to look at brain scans while people of different culture, or at a very young age (hence unaffected by culture) look at various digitally generated natural landscapes. From there you can find out what the optimal "preferred" landscape is, with certain variables like amount/type of vegetation and topography. I know that this has been done, with interesting results, but the graphics back then were rather poor. If your hypothesis is that landscapes optimal for survival will be preferred, the study should show that. On the other hand, they might be many other influencing factors to take into account, and the experiments bias might affect the study. However, my impression is that these studies have given rather consistent results.

    Even if it was by principle impossible to prove your theories with the same level of certainty as in physics, it might still be an interesting philosophical exercise. I certainly think that some insights into this fields has helped my own art a lot. But I would love to know more about the science done in neuroaesthetics/evolutionary psychology.
    My biggest problem in advancing in discussing this field with people are the surprising number of folks who dismiss it right away. There seems to be a lot of resistance against a scientific study of our senses/visual preferences. Almost all the literature I know about is only concerned with faces.

    Some claim that it is inherently impossible to test, but I think that some quite clever tests have already been done. Maybe more clever/creative people are needed to think out ways to test these hypothesis.

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    Quote Originally Posted by JeffX99 View Post
    On a more practical note of proof, I think "beauty" and "aesthetics" are the result of awareness and desire for health, fitness and improved function of design.
    I think there is a consensus among psychologists that beauty is largely connected to desire for healthy and fit mates.
    However, I don't know much about improved function of design. It sounds very interesting, I can easily imagine how stone age people with preference for symmetrical, aerodynamic and efficient weapons might have greater chance of surviving than those who dismiss all that. I certainly find many stone age weapons amazingly beautiful, and many of these characteristics are visible in modern weapons/vehicles. A building with ridiculously large columns holding up a very thin roof is ugly, and architects have always been conscious about maintained a balance. Maybe we have an evolutionary rooted bias towards efficent/improved design? Of so, I can't immediately think of any ways of testing this, but if anyone knows about research on this field, I would be very interested.

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    I think its more complicated than that. The book 'science and practice of art' covers it well though.
    There is beauty in 'ugly' or 'chaotic' things, like an atonal piece of music, or even diminished chord. But I guess without this conflict or tension, you couldnt create a resolution.

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    Quote Originally Posted by PaleBluePixel View Post
    It sounds very interesting, I can easily imagine how stone age people with preference for symmetrical, aerodynamic and efficient weapons might have greater chance of surviving than those who dismiss all that. I certainly find many stone age weapons amazingly beautiful, and many of these characteristics are visible in modern weapons/vehicles.
    Exactly...that is the crux of my point really. Efficiency, effectiveness... essentially "functionality" for humans is part of our own evolution as well, and is an aspect of beauty. The guy who could knap a flint or obsidian spearpoint to be it's most functional was part artist/sculptor, part inventor, part craftsman and would have a great deal of power within a group.

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    Generally speaking...
    We're all made of the same basic stuff, I would be surprised if that doesn't result in certain things resonating with us more then others.
    In nature, math and physics, lot of natural functions seem to have the ratio very close to the golden rule factor.

    But, also, as you get into more complex matters, and then into life forms, there are a number of influences to take into account, that can cause various deviations.

    My personal opinion is, in most cases, there's something to it.

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