I have claimed more than once in these Chronicles and elsewhere that the emergence of humanity cannot be understood simply in terms of the theory of evolution, and that “creation science,” whatever its absurdities, has a single point to make: the origin of the human, as defined by our use of language, must be understood not merely as a process but as an event. The origin of language, however prepared by genetic evolution, cannot be explained by genetic mutation alone; the emergence of language is itself a cultural mutation that subsequently becomes the basis for new adaptations, including the mental and physical elements of our linguistic capacity.

My recent reading in the not uncontroversial field of evolutionary psychology (see Chronicles 201 & 203) offers new hope that a viable interface is possible between GA and evolutionary theory. Most attempts by psychologists and anthropologists to explain the phenomena of human culture in Darwinian terms only demonstrate for all to see that, lacking an adequate anthropology, empirical science cannot formulate a valid research program about human behavior. (A recent example:  A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion by Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer[MIT Press] claims that men have been selected for a specific adaptation to commit rape.) But if the concept of evolutionary adaptation is not directly applicable to the forms of language and culture, it does offer some clues as to the sort of content that these forms will tend to include.

It is perhaps in the domain of esthetics that is most amenable to fruitful dialogue between event-thinking and process-thinking. An esthetic experience may be understood both as the result of a process that generates a particular “esthetic effect” and as a memorable event in the life of its subject, unique in more than the trivial sense in which every life experience is unique. More particularly, the experience of art is generated and strongly structured by a process internal to the individual artwork that may be understood as a mechanism deliberately designed to provoke in its audience the experience of a new event.

Whereas, according to the originary hypothesis, this event derives its form from the originary event, the fundamental content of art as of all cultural mechanisms is supplied by objects of precultural appetite. Ritual sacrifice predominantly involves large edible animals because these are the most concentrated forms of nourishment; the predominant motive force in narratives is sexual desire, whose biological importance needs no demonstration. Less obviously, evolutionary psychologists hypothesize an esthetic of landscapes that reflects their attractiveness as habitats for our species in its formative stage in the Pleistocene. Gordon Orians and Judith Heerwagen in “Evolved Responses to Landscapes” (in Barkow/Cosmides/Tooby, The Adapted Mind, Oxford UP, 1992: 555-79) provide a plausible evolutionary model for our topographic tastes: we tend to find attractive savanna-like scenes that offer potential food but especially “prospect” and “refuge,” which afford us the ability to see without being seen.

From a biological standpoint, this kind of esthetic sense is a refinement of the tropism that makes amoebas move toward solutions possessing the requisite pH. The amoeba need not exercise “judgment” because its tropism is defined by a single equation computed by the amoeba’s perception system; in Kantian terms, the tropism is not “without a concept.” Conversely, we call our own judgment “esthetic” because the field of perception that occasions it is too complex and the set of evaluative criteria too vague to permit of simple conceptualization. The attractive-landscape hypothesis offers an evolutionary basis for the “judgment without a concept” of Kantian esthetics. Clearly our judgment will be quicker and more decisive if it doesn’t require us to reason, that is, to compare in our minds a given landscape with a series of landscape-images variously suited for human habitation or exploration. Among Pleistocene hunters moving through the terrain, the ability to decide correctly without reflection which direction to follow is certainly likely to affect evolutionary selection, in the same way as the ability to choose correctly at a sniff or nibble which foods to eat. It is no coincidence that the notion of taste has been from the beginning associated with the esthetic. If our taste in food has practical use, so does, or did, our taste in scenery.

Taking the evolutionary hypothesis a step farther, the Kantian distinction between the “beautiful” and the “sublime” would appear to distinguish respectively scenes that we desire to enter and scenes that we wish only to contemplate–“prospect” being a major feature of the evolutionary esthetic. Thus we may not need to link the sublime to the sacred in order to explain our otherwise seemingly gratuitous interest in mountains and waterfalls; perhaps adaptive value can be found in our “tropism” toward places from which such phenomena may be viewed.


How is this biological notion of the esthetic to be articulated with the phenomena of art?  That we use the same language to speak of beautiful landscapes and beautiful paintings strongly implies that our taste for the latter in some sense derives from taste for the former. Evolutionary psychology furnishes this much justification for Kantian esthetics’ primary focus on natural beauty, but it seems even less ready than Kant to tackle the crucial question of the articulation of the natural esthetic with the cultural.

One of the hoariest clichés of esthetics offers a simple means of distinguishing between the beauty of nature and that of art: the idea, which goes back at least to Aristotle’s Poetics, that objects that would frighten or repel us in the real world (Aristotle mentions “vile animals and cadavers”) elicit our praise as subjects of an artwork. Contemporary shock art, whatever its other virtues, allows us to refine this assertion. Whereas the classical examples, typically pictures of wild beasts, were more fearful than repugnant, an important trend in the plastic arts makes a cult of ugliness and repulsion, using excrement, menstrual blood, and other excretions with the apparent aim of demonstrating that the esthetic can only be defined in opposition to our biological tastes.  Ever since the romantics determined to épater le bourgeois, art has been increasingly opposed, not, as was often claimed, to the “useful,” but to the naturally or naively beautiful, to the kind of objects that natural selection would seemingly direct us to choose.

No doubt, in its ostentatious protesting-too-much, painting with excrement only affirms the ultimate bondage of art to the natural esthetic. Mondrianesque abstraction was far more liberating in reducing this esthetic to its bare bones of pattern and rhythm. Abstraction is in keeping with the nature of our perceptive system; our inviting landscapes are built up from patterns of edges and shapes. These reactions against the natural esthetic may be interpreted historically, manifestos to the contrary, as enlargements rather than denials of the canon of natural/classical beauty. But the most significant point made by the anti-naturalism of modern art is in the domain of form rather than content: to emphasize the mediation of the esthetic sign. This emphasis on form is most crucial in the plastic arts, where an artwork that copies the appearance of its subject-matter risks being reduced to a mere example of “mechanical reproduction.” Whereas the classical admirers of trompe-l’oeil were satisfied to understand representation as reproduction, modern art, reflecting a deeper insight into culture’s source in human interaction, understands representation as creative in a primary rather than secondary sense. Whatever its excesses, the modernist anti-mimetic revolt in the plastic arts, with its parallel rebellion against tonality in music, reminds us that the sign of art is never a mere trigger for the natural esthetic.


The oscillation between the esthetic sign and its imaginary referent mediates between human culture and the natural esthetic. The latter tells us which landscape or sexual partner is likely to promote our evolutionary fortunes; if our perception includes a moment of “esthetic judgment,” it cannot be detached from the practical use to which it will be put. The referent of the sign, in contrast, is by that very reference cut off from the world of practical reality. Even when the ostensive sign picks out an object in the real world, that object is thereby detached from the surrounding world of appetitive relations. Here the oscillation between sign and referent is in its simplest state; the referent exists in reality, but its contemplation is dependent on the sign to frame it as an object of esthetic experience, to detach it as solely significant from the rest of its visual environment.

We may assume that a potentially significant object will have already been detected as such by our precultural perception system and even that it will have received an esthetic valence, just like the landscape evaluated by our natural esthetic judgment. The framing effect of the sign results, according to the originary hypothesis, from the sacralization of the object through the convergence of the desires of the community; it is prerequisite not to perception itself but to the exclusive focusing of attention characteristic of esthetic contemplation. Thus the sign provides a “supplement” to the natural esthetic interest aroused by the object, with the consequence that the visual field, instead of being composed of a set of diversely interesting objects, is restructured as a central object on which all attention is concentrated and a background from which all interest has been withdrawn. But the interest focused on this object is no longer preliminary to appropriative or exploratory action. Mediation by the sign is tantamount to withdrawal from the world of appetite into that of “disinterested” contemplation. Culture reinforces the relative dispositions of the natural esthetic with the absolute significance borne by the sign.


Although this articulation of natural and cultural esthetics strikes me as reasonable, the question this discussion raises in my mind, and perhaps in that of the reader, is whether evolutionary esthetics has really added anything new to the dialogue between Kantian esthetics on the one hand and originary thinking on the other. Why indeed was landscape chosen in The Adapted Mind to illustrate the natural esthetic? If, for example, female beauty had been selected instead (see, for example, Nancy Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest,  Doubleday, 1999), it would be obvious without any discussion of esthetics that men are attracted to those women who show, always according to the criteria of the Pleistocene, the greatest likelihood of enhancing their reproductive fitness. (It has never been clear to me why that old misogynist Schopenhauer has been given credit for the all but tautological observation that our criteria of female beauty correspond to evidence of this likelihood.) There would be no need to allege an esthetic sense independent of appetite simply in order to affirm that our judgment in such matters is based on “apperception” without the need for reasoning.

In the case of landscape, however, our preference appears to our intuition as disinterested in the Kantian sense because, unlike our nomadic ancestors, we are unlikely to follow it to a practical end. (Within this framework, our choice of “esthetic” vacation sites would seem to lie half way between a practical and a purely esthetic decision.) Because we admire landscapes in a contemplative mode that does not appear strongly connected to an even virtual praxis, it becomes of interest to show that this mode has roots in practical action of the kind that drove the evolution of our genotype. But I find no compelling reason to consider such contemplation as constituting a separate “esthetic” category. The esthetic only acquires its specificity, that is, its independence from appetitive praxis, on the communal scene of representation where the danger of mimetic desire forces us to contemplate the sacred and the beautiful. Evolutionary biology can arguably refine our understanding of the appetites that lie behind human culture, but only originary anthropology offers explanations of the forms of desire that this culture constructs.