Beauty: Evolutionarily explainable?

Denis Dutton recently gave a TED talk titled ‘A Darwinian theory of beauty.’ Since Mr. Dutton is quite fond of Darwin, I’d like to quote a piece that Darwin wrote in his autobiography:

“Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds…gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare, especially in the historical plays. I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also lost almost any taste for pictures and music…My mind seems to have become a kind of machine grinding general laws of large collections of fact, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher taste depends, I cannot conceive…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature”

I think Mr. Dutton’s analysis is keen, though incomplete. As one begins to objectively study beauty in Mr. Dutton’s manner, one misses it completely. Beauty, I suspect, is a subjective experience; as Darwin calls it, “…a higher taste…” To taste, one needs the ability to sense taste. You do this through your taste buds. So taste, by experience, is subjective. You and I can eat the same food yet taste it completely differently. Why then should beauty be any different? If we get shackled into studying beauty objectively (i.e. through evolution via natural selection), then we too, like Darwin, may cease to experience it. This last bit is some advice for self 🙂   

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About Ranjodh Singh
I'm currently an Ally in the Public Allies New York Apprenticeship (www.publicallies.org). Through the apprenticeship, I'm partnered with NYCRx (www.nyxrc.org), a nonprofit organization that improves the health of New Yorkers using public health interventions. I'm excited to continue serving, but doing so closer to health and medicine. I'm also enjoying NYC, which I find to be an enriching environment.

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