17:34
TED2010

Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty

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TED collaborates with animator Andrew Park to illustrate Denis Dutton's provocative theory on beauty -- that art, music and other beautiful things, far from being simply "in the eye of the beholder," are a core part of human nature with deep evolutionary origins.

- Philosopher
Denis Dutton was a philosophy professor and the editor of Arts & Letters Daily. In his book The Art Instinct, he suggested that humans are hard-wired to seek beauty. Full bio

Delighted to be here
00:15
and to talk to you about a subject dear to my heart,
00:18
which is beauty.
00:20
I do the philosophy of art, aesthetics,
00:23
actually, for a living.
00:26
I try to figure out intellectually,
00:28
philosophically, psychologically,
00:30
what the experience of beauty is,
00:32
what sensibly can be said about it
00:35
and how people go off the rails in trying to understand it.
00:38
Now this is an extremely complicated subject,
00:41
in part because the things that we call beautiful
00:44
are so different.
00:47
I mean just think of the sheer variety --
00:49
a baby's face,
00:51
Berlioz's "Harold in Italy,"
00:53
movies like "The Wizard of Oz"
00:55
or the plays of Chekhov,
00:57
a central California landscape,
00:59
a Hokusai view of Mt. Fuji,
01:01
"Der Rosenkavalier,"
01:04
a stunning match-winning goal
01:06
in a World Cup soccer match,
01:08
Van Gogh's "Starry Night,"
01:10
a Jane Austen novel,
01:12
Fred Astaire dancing across the screen.
01:14
This brief list includes human beings,
01:17
natural landforms,
01:20
works of art and skilled human actions.
01:22
An account that explains the presence of beauty
01:25
in everything on this list
01:28
is not going to be easy.
01:30
I can, however, give you at least a taste
01:32
of what I regard
01:35
as the most powerful theory of beauty
01:37
we yet have.
01:39
And we get it not from a philosopher of art,
01:41
not from a postmodern art theorist
01:43
or a bigwig art critic.
01:45
No, this theory
01:47
comes from an expert
01:49
on barnacles and worms and pigeon breeding,
01:51
and you know who I mean:
01:57
Charles Darwin.
02:00
Of course, a lot of people think they already know
02:02
the proper answer to the question,
02:05
"What is beauty?"
02:08
It's in the eye of the beholder.
02:11
It's whatever moves you personally.
02:13
Or, as some people,
02:15
especially academics prefer,
02:17
beauty is in the culturally conditioned
02:19
eye of the beholder.
02:22
People agree that paintings or movies or music
02:24
are beautiful
02:27
because their cultures determine a uniformity of aesthetic taste.
02:29
Taste for both natural beauty and for the arts
02:33
travel across cultures
02:36
with great ease.
02:38
Beethoven is adored in Japan.
02:40
Peruvians love Japanese woodblock prints.
02:42
Inca sculptures are regarded as treasures
02:45
in British museums,
02:47
while Shakespeare is translated
02:49
into every major language of the Earth.
02:51
Or just think about American jazz
02:54
or American movies --
02:56
they go everywhere.
02:58
There are many differences among the arts,
03:00
but there are also universal,
03:03
cross-cultural aesthetic pleasures
03:05
and values.
03:07
How can we explain
03:09
this universality?
03:12
The best answer lies in trying to reconstruct
03:15
a Darwinian evolutionary history
03:17
of our artistic and aesthetic tastes.
03:20
We need to reverse-engineer
03:23
our present artistic tastes and preferences
03:25
and explain how they came
03:28
to be engraved in our minds
03:30
by the actions of both our prehistoric,
03:33
largely pleistocene environments,
03:36
where we became fully human,
03:38
but also by the social situations
03:40
in which we evolved.
03:42
This reverse engineering
03:44
can also enlist help
03:46
from the human record
03:49
preserved in prehistory.
03:51
I mean fossils, cave paintings and so forth.
03:53
And it should take into account
03:56
what we know of the aesthetic interests
03:58
of isolated hunter-gatherer bands
04:00
that survived into the 19th and the 20th centuries.
04:03
Now, I personally
04:07
have no doubt whatsoever
04:09
that the experience of beauty,
04:11
with its emotional intensity and pleasure,
04:13
belongs to our evolved human psychology.
04:16
The experience of beauty is one component
04:20
in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations.
04:23
Beauty is an adaptive effect,
04:27
which we extend
04:29
and intensify
04:31
in the creation and enjoyment
04:33
of works of art and entertainment.
04:35
As many of you will know,
04:39
evolution operates by two main primary mechanisms.
04:41
The first of these is natural selection --
04:44
that's random mutation and selective retention --
04:47
along with our basic anatomy and physiology --
04:50
the evolution of the pancreas or the eye or the fingernails.
04:53
Natural selection also explains
04:56
many basic revulsions,
04:59
such as the horrid smell of rotting meat,
05:01
or fears, such as the fear of snakes
05:03
or standing close to the edge of a cliff.
05:06
Natural selection also explains pleasures --
05:09
sexual pleasure,
05:12
our liking for sweet, fat and proteins,
05:14
which in turn explains a lot of popular foods,
05:17
from ripe fruits through chocolate malts
05:20
and barbecued ribs.
05:23
The other great principle of evolution
05:26
is sexual selection,
05:28
and it operates very differently.
05:30
The peacock's magnificent tail
05:32
is the most famous example of this.
05:35
It did not evolve for natural survival.
05:38
In fact, it goes against natural survival.
05:41
No, the peacock's tail
05:44
results from the mating choices
05:46
made by peahens.
05:48
It's quite a familiar story.
05:50
It's women who actually push history forward.
05:52
Darwin himself, by the way,
05:56
had no doubts that the peacock's tail
05:58
was beautiful in the eyes of the peahen.
06:00
He actually used that word.
06:02
Now, keeping these ideas firmly in mind,
06:05
we can say that the experience of beauty
06:08
is one of the ways that evolution has
06:11
of arousing and sustaining
06:14
interest or fascination,
06:16
even obsession,
06:18
in order to encourage us
06:20
toward making the most adaptive decisions
06:22
for survival and reproduction.
06:25
Beauty is nature's way
06:29
of acting at a distance,
06:31
so to speak.
06:34
I mean, you can't expect to eat
06:36
an adaptively beneficial landscape.
06:38
It would hardly do to eat your baby
06:40
or your lover.
06:42
So evolution's trick
06:44
is to make them beautiful,
06:46
to have them exert a kind of magnetism
06:48
to give you the pleasure of simply looking at them.
06:51
Consider briefly an important source of aesthetic pleasure,
06:55
the magnetic pull
06:58
of beautiful landscapes.
07:00
People in very different cultures
07:02
all over the world
07:04
tend to like a particular kind of landscape,
07:06
a landscape that just happens to be similar
07:09
to the pleistocene savannas where we evolved.
07:12
This landscape shows up today
07:15
on calendars, on postcards,
07:17
in the design of golf courses and public parks
07:20
and in gold-framed pictures
07:23
that hang in living rooms
07:25
from New York to New Zealand.
07:27
It's a kind of Hudson River school landscape
07:30
featuring open spaces
07:33
of low grasses
07:35
interspersed with copses of trees.
07:37
The trees, by the way, are often preferred
07:40
if they fork near the ground,
07:42
that is to say, if they're trees you could scramble up
07:44
if you were in a tight fix.
07:47
The landscape shows the presence
07:50
of water directly in view,
07:52
or evidence of water in a bluish distance,
07:54
indications of animal or bird life
07:58
as well as diverse greenery
08:01
and finally -- get this --
08:03
a path
08:06
or a road,
08:08
perhaps a riverbank or a shoreline,
08:10
that extends into the distance,
08:13
almost inviting you to follow it.
08:16
This landscape type is regarded as beautiful,
08:20
even by people in countries
08:23
that don't have it.
08:25
The ideal savanna landscape
08:27
is one of the clearest examples
08:29
where human beings everywhere
08:31
find beauty
08:33
in similar visual experience.
08:35
But, someone might argue,
08:37
that's natural beauty.
08:39
How about artistic beauty?
08:41
Isn't that exhaustively cultural?
08:44
No, I don't think it is.
08:47
And once again, I'd like to look back to prehistory
08:49
to say something about it.
08:52
It is widely assumed
08:54
that the earliest human artworks
08:56
are the stupendously skillful cave paintings
08:58
that we all know from Lascaux
09:01
and Chauvet.
09:03
Chauvet caves
09:06
are about 32,000 years old,
09:08
along with a few small, realistic sculptures
09:10
of women and animals from the same period.
09:13
But artistic and decorative skills
09:20
are actually much older than that.
09:22
Beautiful shell necklaces
09:26
that look like something you'd see at an arts and crafts fair,
09:28
as well as ochre body paint,
09:31
have been found
09:33
from around 100,000 years ago.
09:35
But the most intriguing prehistoric artifacts
09:37
are older even than this.
09:40
I have in mind
09:42
the so-called Acheulian hand axes.
09:44
The oldest stone tools are choppers
09:48
from the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa.
09:51
They go back about two-and-a-half-million years.
09:53
These crude tools
09:56
were around for thousands of centuries,
09:58
until around 1.4 million years ago
10:01
when Homo erectus
10:04
started shaping
10:06
single, thin stone blades,
10:08
sometimes rounded ovals,
10:10
but often in what are to our eyes
10:13
an arresting, symmetrical pointed leaf
10:15
or teardrop form.
10:18
These Acheulian hand axes --
10:20
they're named after St. Acheul in France,
10:22
where finds were made in 19th century --
10:24
have been unearthed in their thousands,
10:27
scattered across Asia, Europe and Africa,
10:30
almost everywhere Homo erectus
10:33
and Homo ergaster roamed.
10:36
Now, the sheer numbers of these hand axes
10:39
shows that they can't have been made
10:42
for butchering animals.
10:44
And the plot really thickens when you realize
10:46
that, unlike other pleistocene tools,
10:49
the hand axes often exhibit
10:52
no evidence of wear
10:54
on their delicate blade edges.
10:56
And some, in any event, are too big
10:58
to use for butchery.
11:00
Their symmetry, their attractive materials
11:03
and, above all,
11:05
their meticulous workmanship
11:07
are simply quite beautiful
11:09
to our eyes, even today.
11:12
So what were these ancient --
11:15
I mean, they're ancient, they're foreign,
11:19
but they're at the same time
11:21
somehow familiar.
11:23
What were these artifacts for?
11:25
The best available answer
11:28
is that they were literally
11:30
the earliest known works of art,
11:32
practical tools transformed
11:34
into captivating aesthetic objects,
11:36
contemplated both for their elegant shape
11:39
and their virtuoso craftsmanship.
11:41
Hand axes mark
11:45
an evolutionary advance in human history --
11:47
tools fashioned to function
11:49
as what Darwinians call "fitness signals" --
11:51
that is to say, displays
11:54
that are performances
11:56
like the peacock's tail,
11:58
except that, unlike hair and feathers,
12:00
the hand axes are consciously
12:03
cleverly crafted.
12:05
Competently made hand axes
12:07
indicated desirable personal qualities --
12:09
intelligence, fine motor control,
12:13
planning ability,
12:16
conscientiousness
12:18
and sometimes access to rare materials.
12:20
Over tens of thousands of generations,
12:23
such skills increased the status
12:26
of those who displayed them
12:28
and gained a reproductive advantage
12:30
over the less capable.
12:32
You know, it's an old line,
12:34
but it has been shown to work --
12:36
"Why don't you come up to my cave, so I can show you my hand axes?"
12:38
(Laughter)
12:41
Except, of course, what's interesting about this
12:43
is that we can't be sure how that idea was conveyed,
12:46
because the Homo erectus
12:49
that made these objects
12:51
did not have language.
12:54
It's hard to grasp,
12:56
but it's an incredible fact.
12:58
This object was made
13:01
by a hominid ancestor,
13:03
Homo erectus or Homo ergaster,
13:06
between 50,000 and 100,000 years
13:10
before language.
13:13
Stretching over a million years,
13:16
the hand axe tradition
13:18
is the longest artistic tradition
13:20
in human and proto-human history.
13:23
By the end of the hand axe epic, Homo sapiens --
13:26
as they were then called, finally --
13:29
were doubtless finding new ways
13:31
to amuse and amaze each other
13:33
by, who knows, telling jokes,
13:36
storytelling, dancing, or hairstyling.
13:38
Yes, hairstyling -- I insist on that.
13:41
For us moderns,
13:44
virtuoso technique
13:46
is used to create imaginary worlds
13:48
in fiction and in movies,
13:50
to express intense emotions
13:52
with music, painting and dance.
13:54
But still,
13:57
one fundamental trait
13:59
of the ancestral personality persists
14:01
in our aesthetic cravings:
14:03
the beauty we find
14:06
in skilled performances.
14:08
From Lascaux to the Louvre
14:10
to Carnegie Hall,
14:12
human beings
14:14
have a permanent innate taste
14:16
for virtuoso displays in the arts.
14:18
We find beauty
14:22
in something done well.
14:24
So the next time you pass a jewelry shop window
14:28
displaying a beautifully cut
14:30
teardrop-shaped stone,
14:32
don't be so sure
14:34
it's just your culture telling you
14:36
that that sparkling jewel is beautiful.
14:38
Your distant ancestors loved that shape
14:40
and found beauty in the skill needed to make it,
14:43
even before
14:46
they could put their love into words.
14:48
Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?
14:50
No, it's deep in our minds.
14:53
It's a gift handed down from the intelligent skills
14:56
and rich emotional lives
14:59
of our most ancient ancestors.
15:01
Our powerful reaction to images,
15:04
to the expression of emotion in art,
15:06
to the beauty of music, to the night sky,
15:09
will be with us and our descendants
15:12
for as long as the human race exists.
15:15
Thank you.
15:18
(Applause)
15:20

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About the Speaker:

Denis Dutton - Philosopher
Denis Dutton was a philosophy professor and the editor of Arts & Letters Daily. In his book The Art Instinct, he suggested that humans are hard-wired to seek beauty.

Why you should listen

Why do humans take pleasure in making art? In his 2009 book The Art Instinct, philosopher Denis Dutton suggested that art is a need built into our systems, a complex and subtle evolutionary adaptation comparable to our facility for language. We humans evolved to love art because it helps us survive; for example, a well-expressed appreciation of art can -- even in modern times -- help us to find a mate. It’s a bold argument to make, bolstered by examples from the breadth of art history that Dutton kept at his fingertips.

Dutton taught philosophy at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, and was the editor of Arts & Letters Daily, a three-column compendium of culture news from all over the web. (His own homepage is another storehouse of tidbits from his wide-ranging explorations in philosophy and culture.) He was on the advisory board of Cybereditions, a publisher specializing in ebooks and print-on-demand editions of nonfiction works. And he was an editor of Climate Debate Daily, a lively blog that takes a skeptical view of some climate-change arguments.

Dutton died from cancer in December 2010.

More profile about the speaker
Denis Dutton | Speaker | TED.com