Reducing aesthetics to biology?

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by chiranjeeb, Dec 5, 2003.

  1. I wanted to ask if people think that our sense of what is beautiful is
    biologically determined. Biologists have a convincing reason why we
    love people with attractive features. People with healthy bodies and
    attractive features signify that they are not carrying any genetic
    abnormality within them and hence when we are looking for a mate, our
    brain is genetically hardwired to go for the beautiful rather than the

    Recently I read somewhere (probably Steven Pinker's Blank Slate) a
    similar argument about beautiful pictures. It seems most of the
    people's ideal landscape painting/photograph is one where we can see
    green vegetation, a lake/river and docile animals like deers. The
    explanation advanced is that our ancestors in the hot African Savannah
    would have loved to be in a place with plenty water, no predators and
    easy prey abundant. So what do you think of this explanation? I am a
    great believer in the theory of evolution, but I am not sure if I buy
    this one. Do you think on the average in we really prefer
    pretty pictures with lakes and deers rather than other stuff? If
    preference for natural landscape is not genetic, do you think it will
    turn us on to see a picture of a nice three bedroom suburban home with
    a Volvo on the driveway?

    On a similar vein, do you think there is some physiological reason for
    the rule of thirds? Why is it that most of the time a bull's eye
    composition looks worse than the rule of thirds? Can compositional
    rules be explained in terms of more basic physiology or should we be
    just content to leave them as they are : innate preferences which do
    not need any explanations.
  2. cf Carl Jung's theory of archetypes.
  3. no. you cannot reduce such thing as beauty to biology. it is of
    nature and nurture atleast. there are many great books and papers on
    sociobiology but none will prove it one way or another just like
    faith and religion. beauty is not formulated else it would be
    stertile...AND i assume we are just speaking of visual beauty here.
  4. >>>> It seems most of the people's ideal landscape painting/photograph
    is one where we can see green vegetation, a lake/river and docile
    animals like deers. <<<<

    i'll take a arbus/weegee portrait anyday over this natural ideal
    landscape moreover just because most people eat burgerking or taco
    bell everyday does not means they make good just means that
    they are cheap and people are lazy
  5. I assume it's partly culture. Perhaps the average viewer in the US likes mountains and deer. However what does the avergage Japanese viewer like, or the average Australian aboriginal viewer, or the average Inuit?

    They all probbaly prefer images they can relate to, and I'm sure they all have different ideas of beauty. I imagine that these are cuturally biased rather than biologically. Though the Inuit and Australian aboriginals have the same African ancestors, I doubt they have the same taste in art!
  6. Until fairly recently in the west (18th/19th century?), landscape art barely existed. It was as if people just did not see the landscape as a thing of beauty to be celebrated. The land was just a resource to be utilised, an attitude still sadly prevalent today. I therefore tend towards the nurture rather than nature argument that we have been conditioned to find certain things aesthetically appealing.

    The same applies to the rule of thirds. Photography has adopted this from classical painting, but it is by no means a universal rule. Other cultures have different rules of composition. Our preference for images that obey these rules is again a by product of conditioning. Those images are presented to us as examples of great art, even if we are not explicitly told about the rules. We therefore come to expect that all great art will follow those rules, and subconsciously reject images that break the rules.
  7. Regarding Sean: "Until fairly recently in the west (18th/19th century?), landscape art barely existed."

    It brings to mind the progression of depictions of American Indians in american art as the conquest progressed. When the conflict was still raging, the portraits of American Indians were of violent, cruel savages, hacking at women with their hatchets. Once the conquest was complete, the image of the noble savage was created; these images featured the grace and majesty and wisdom motifs.

    I wonder if the birth of american landscape art can be related to the conquering of the landscape in a similar way. Once it's gone, we mythologize it.

    Washington, DC, now has a Museum of the Press, whih celebrates the FREE PRESS in America; I tend to regard that as a similar memorial to something that was once grand but is now dead. Why did they wait to open the museum until the news outlets were all bought up by multinationals? Why did we wait to portray the humanity of the native americans until after they were all dead? Why didn't landscape art become popular until after the yellowstone bears started surviving on garbage? Probably just coincidence.
  8. I think Bob Atkins has got it right. Cultural expectations have more to do with what is acceptable or feels right than does biology. For example, the twelve tone musical "system" is commonly accepted in the west. When someone from the west is confronted with the Japanese musical scale it sounds dissonate. This has less to do with biology than with expectations. Likewise, the rule of 3rds is strictly a Western invention.

    As far as pretty pictures are concerned (the topic of many other threads), I think they're just easier to digest. Fewer people want to spend the energy to look beyond what is easy. Ugly is harder to look at even though it might be more informative. And, what you find ugly might be beautiful to someone else. Also, and perhaps more importantly, this year's "pretty colors" have a lot more to do with cultural fads than what biology might dictate. One might argue that a picture with purple trees and red grass is likely to confuse people. But, have you ever seen infared color work? It mixes up expections and yet can still create a lovely and compelling palette.

    If you want to see great, not necessarily pretty pictures of suburbia with three bedroom homes and Volvos in the driveway (Chevys actually), check out the informative work of Bill Owens. If you'd like to see more great pictures of suburbia check out Robert Adams whose work is beautiful in a very formalistic and pared down way. Also, look at the color work of Joel Sternfeld.

    Bottom line; I think most people believe in free intellectual will as opposed to the "tyranny" of biology. And they are right.
  9. In principle, aesthetics can of course be reduced to a combination of biology and cultural influences. In practice a complete reduction can not be performed as the interactions are far too convoluted (It would not suffice to have an exact description of the current movements of all atoms on Earth, it wouldn't even be a good starting point).

    I believe our sense of aesthetics is mainly a result of brain activity, and the brain has developed to allow rapid adaptation to changing environments, which for humans happen to be mostly of human making, and the requirements for survival in such environments are far from simple.

    Even in non-human biology the forces of importance for survival are for the most part far from clear (contrary to what the usual popular and unwarranted simplifications of Darwinism indicate with ridiculous assumptions as a consequence), and only in a few cases can specific behaviours be directly attributed to specific environmental forces.

    In one case the reduction is apparently and possibly in reality simple. Facial beauty aside, beauty in humans is closely linked with expectations of fertility and reliability. The fashions have changed, but the trend is quite clear. But then, desire to procreate is one of the most transparent effects of natural selection and curiously enough, it appears to be more dominant in humans than in animals - and it always amuses me to hear people rave about artistic nudes claiming (in good faith probably but still unbelievably) that the aesthetic value has no relation to the content, while it's perfectly fine to enjoy the beauty of a butterfly in a macro shot :D

    (As for "free intellectual will as opposed to the "tyranny" of biology", fortunately reality is not limited by how we want it to be.)
  10. The idea of human beauty relating to breeding is all very well, but it throws up some interesting questions: why heterosexual people can see it in people of their own sex being the most obvious, and why would hair colour have any effect ? <br>
    I've also heard an "evolutionary explanation of eating problems", which basically says we need to eat some fat, some salt, some sugar and eating them makes us feel good, which was nature's way of ensuring our ancestors got them, so now they are easy to get we get the same hit from them so we eat too much of them. That's easy, but is not an explanation of why I like mushrooms, but not tomatoes. <br>
    In the same way you can see that a picture of a sheltered valley, with water, trees etc might hook into some ancient sense of a good place to be, but simple explanations don't work because we should have a negative reaction to a picture of a bear or a lion or some other dangerous creature.
    We can appreciate complex things , some is learnt, some is hardwired, but not all that hardwiring has a reason. All the biolgists can really say is that the ones who found pleasure in what was good for them did better at passing on their genes long ago; some of the things that give us pleasure have no effect on your ability to pass on your genes, so they will be found in the population generally - although not everyone. <p>
    As for rule of thirds, just consider this. Going back to ancient times there was the idea of the "golden ratio" such that 1/x = 1+x (X=0.618, 1/x = 1.618), when we see things which conform to this ratio they just look right, and lots of things in nature do.
    Suppose you divide your picture not by strict thirds (i.e. 33%/66%) but actually divide it 38%/62% in line with the golden ratio ... since you're not dealing with a thin line but a "zone" you can satisfy both <br>
    [0 space 30][30 golden zone 40][40-100]
  11. Regarding Ward's comment on americans mythologizing things that are gone, and speaking from a european POV... I find that americans do have that sort of tendency...

    Also, the average american seems to have a "thing" for european castles and other historical monuments...

    Could it be because america has a relatively short history compared to western europe? After all, the US have some 200 years of history, while many european nations have over 500....
    Portugal, for instance, exists as a nation since 1138, and there are remains of "previous owners"... 9th century moor castles, 2000 y/o roman temples and settlements... and this sort of cultural heritage is common all over europe...
  12. "do you think there is some physiological reason for the rule of thirds?"


    First and foremost, there are no rules in photography, there are only different ways of manipulating the human visual system (HVS). Bearing this in my the 'rule of thirds' is merely an average descriptive statistical measure with zero presciptive value. This lack of prescriptive value can be seen by the images that break the 'rules' and yet still work. This is because they have made a less common choice in manipulating the HVS.

    That said, are you aware of the rough distribution of rods and cones in the HVS? Are you aware that you are only capable of achieving sharp focus in approximately a 2 degree arc of vision? Are you aware that you are capable of a moderately sharp focus in an aproximately a 10 degree arc of vision? Beyond that your vision is mostly rods which are very sensitive to motion and can discriminate light from dark but have terrible visual accuity. [I should note that I derived these values from publications on color perception most especially those published by the Munsell Color Science Laboratory.]

    Using these rough details of how the HVS performs, we can see that by bringing object in to then thirds points from the edges of an image it becomes possible to focus your 2 degree arc of sharp vision on a region/object of interest (ROI) without having the boundary of the image impose itself on your 10 degree field of moderately sharp focus. Placing a ROI in an image too close to the edge of an image and the boundaries of the frame suddenly impose themselves on your field of reasonably sharp vision. If the fact that you are looking at a photo imposes itself your vision, then you suspension of disbelief is stressed and the image becomes less effective in portraying its tale.

    But again, there is far more going on in an image than just this. Consider that any object in an image has its own body language and a resulting tendency to lead your eyes in a certain direction. Quite often a well composed image will balance this body language with appropriate amounts of negative space (black, white, OoF shrubs, ...) to allow your eys to flow over an image without the fact that it is image (edge of the frame) to impose itself on your reasonbly sharp visual field. Hence there is a physiological phenomena underlying that descriptive statistic, but the prescriptive formulation that will help you understand what you are doing has nothing to do with silly numerological superstitions. [I am a mathematician by education so I have do not pull verbal punches about fools and their madness as it is far less work to accept insulting a few fools than to correct those they mislead.]

    Viewing distance is another factor in this too. Some compositions work well from a distance and poorly up close for precisely these reason.

    Then there is another major factor underlying compostion. The HVS utilizes stereo vision to interpret what it sees in the 3-D world. A photo is a 2-D depiction of a 3-D world. There are various ways of manipulating the transformation from 3-D to 2-D that allow one to prevent the viewer from seeing things stand out clearly they would seen in person. This is how camouflage works, it breaks up the lines of an object so that the form we would normally recognize is lost in the lines of the camouflage. Similarly we can place an object in a composition so that its 3-D separation from other objects is clearly notable in a 2-D image. Often this is done by placing an object in an image so that it contrasts in color or brightness with what is behind it and the use of selective focus.

    I could ramble on, but my main point is that any time you approach technical composition from any viewpoint except as the manipulation of the HVS you end up with foolish results. You get ridiculous rules that require exceptions when in fact there are no rules, there are simply various ways of manipulating the HVS.
  13. I think, to a certain extent, our sense of what is beautiful is biologically determined. This is probably so on a primitive level, where for instance, physical features are adapted for survival in a particular environment. In order to produce offspring who will be survivors of the species, we select partners who display those characteristics. But the social system of the modern world has diluted that by changing the roles of individuals in survival. Our sense of aesthetic has been manipulated and distorted by commercialism to the point where many can't differentiate between aesthetics, need, greed and downright bad taste. Surely culture, education, intelligence, psychology and experience all affect our aesthetic senses.

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