Science to Live By: Beauty and the Savanna Hypothesis

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“Beauty is Nature’s way of acting at a distance.”

– Denis Dutton, TED Talk, 2010

© J. Dirk Nies, Ph.D.

Appealing or appalling, attractive or repulsive, pretty or ugly; constantly, reflexively, and often unconsciously, we make these sorts of snap value judgments about people, pets, works of art, architecture and the landscapes around us.

Are these assessments learned responses? Or is our appreciation of beauty profoundly influenced by innate, subconscious, biological impulses? Is aesthetics merely a malleable, socially constructed artifact of human culture—perhaps no more than the narrow-minded imposition of the arbitrary tastes and preferences of one segment of society upon the sensibilities of another—or do some of its motivations, pleasures and principles run deep within us and transcend culture?

Research indicates that indeed we do possess innate, instinctive, aesthetic proclivities that shape our sense of beauty and influence our appreciation of art, architecture and nature. In this first in a series of articles on aesthetics, art and design, I will describe some fascinating scientific findings in the immensely diverse field of aesthetics and its connection to the emerging field of evolutionary psychology.

As a prologue, here is a little etymological and historical background about aesthetics.

In 1735, German philosopher Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten appropriated the ancient Greek word aisthētikos (sensitive, perceptive) into German as Ästhetik. He gave it a new meaning: artistic taste or the sense of beauty. Professor Baumgarten went on to develop the field of aesthetics—“the science of sensory knowledge”—predicated on deducing rules or principles of artistic or natural beauty from individual taste.

Development of our modern, Western understanding of aesthetics occurred in the cultural context of an expanding and lucrative commercial market in Europe for fine art, arising from the desire of the nouveau riche to flaunt their good taste as manifested in their display of good art. Purchasers wanted some assurance that the artworks they were buying had enduring value within and even across cultures.

Nine decades after the word was coined in Germany, ‘aesthetics’ had not yet made its way into Noah Webster’s authoritative American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828. However, the word did appear in our lexicon soon thereafter, and its frequency of use in America has increased steadily since then.

Now let’s turn our attention to the science of natural beauty and to the ‘Nature or Nurture’ question. Do our individual tastes have an underlying biological component or, as sociologists have long taught, are our minds blank slates at birth awaiting instruction?

To understand why the human brain works the way it does, evolutionary psychology argues that one must understand the environment in which we evolved. The Savanna Hypothesis posits that those individuals who comprehended and appreciated the value of their native landscape survived and multiplied in greater numbers than those who did not. The hypothesis takes as given that the majority of pre-human and human evolution took place in the East African savanna during the Pleistocene—the geological epoch which lasted from about 2.6 million to 11,700 years ago —and that all modern humans descend from this population of closely related individuals.

Before the advent of agriculture, before humans ventured forth from the African continent, the savanna was home to our hunter-gatherer ancestors; supplying food, water and our basic material needs without exposure to undue risks. Its rolling grasslands provided vantage points for hunting prey and spotting threats. Scattered, climbable trees offered escape routes and hiding places from predators. Affording both prospect and refuge, verdant savannas allowed our ancient ancestors to hunt without being seen, to make a quick getaway up a tree, if needed.

As their heirs, modern humans are genetically endowed and predisposed to find the savanna pleasing. We are innately fond of its open, green and amber grasslands with widely spaced, laterally spreading trees (making for easy climbing). We naturally enjoy open vistas of blue sky with large animals grazing in the distance and a source of water nearby.

This ideal has been depicted in countless landscape paintings, such as those of the great classical French Baroque painter and philosopher, Nicolas Poussin (1595 – 1665). Entitled The Four Seasons: Summer (or Ruth and Boaz), this oil-on-canvas work represents not an actual landscape, but the world of Nature that one creates (or sees) in the mind.

Summer was the second in a series of four canvases, each representing a season of the year, painted by Poussin between 1660 and 1664 for Armand-Jean, Duke of Richelieu.

The Duke commissioned these works to depict the power and seasonal grandeur of Nature in conjunction with enduring values of human society; in this instance, the generosity and protection of the wealthy Boaz toward Ruth, the poor, widowed Moabite immigrant. Boaz permitted Ruth to glean grain from his fields, to eat of his bread, to drink water from his vessels and to stay close to his servants. (Summer was one of twenty-five paintings the Duke lost from his private collection in a game of tennis against King Louis XIV of France; thirteen of which were by Poussin. Despite the great loss, perhaps it was wise of the Duke to lose to the King.) Today, the quartet of paintings is on regular display in the Richelieu Wing of the Louvre (© 2010 Musée du Louvre, Angèle Dequier).

Given a choice, people everywhere preferentially find the idealized image of the savanna beautiful, more so than images of their own native landscapes, even when they have never seen an actual savanna! We humans consistently prefer savanna-like environments over either dry, desert-like or damp, jungle-like habitats.

A manifestation of our deeply held preference shows up in the way we design city parks. All over the world, parks most often mimic this landscape, reflecting a cross-cultural preference for our ancestral home. From Dubai to Dubrovnik, from Toronto to Tokyo, municipal parks frequently feature large spaces open to the sky. Fields of low grasses are interspersed with shrubbery, coppices and mature trees. Commonly, water is in view, with a path, a riverbank or a lake shoreline inviting us to wander and explore. The sense of a vibrant habitat, embellished with flowers, birds, waterfowl, fish and other animal life, often is invoked.

Like coins, human beings are image bearers. Three millennia ago, the writers of the Book of Genesis proclaimed to the ancient world of the Near East a revolutionary idea, that we are imprinted with the holy; “So God created mankind in his own image; in his own image God created them; he created them male and female” Chapter 1 Verse 27, International Standard Version. Today, science proclaims our bodies bear the mark of Nature, and it suggests the fine-looking, nurturing and comforting image of the ancient savanna is indelibly imprinted within our hearts and minds.

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