Blog Post #7: Beauty & Material Culture as an Evolutionary Concept


Throughout this semester, we’ve elaborated on how object analysis provides a window into the culture that produced it. Lava Lamps, teapots, libraries, all objects who’s metaphysical properties indicate social or cultural values, but as our studies have gone on, I’ve slowly begun to wonder: how far back do these connections go? Are there objects so broadly influential that they extend past societal or cultural ties, and are instead just humanistic? In his TED discussion, Denis Dutton states that objects of beauty fit this mold, as their evolution can be traced back throughout the course of cross-cultural human history.

On the surface, a “beautiful” thing is not easily defined. It’s typically stated that, because of it’s subjective nature, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder”… or better yet, that objects we see as beautiful are due in some part to our cultural conditioning. “Paintings, movies, music, are all beautiful because cultures shape uniformity for preference of aesthetic taste”, yet beyond this there are certain objects that people worldwide have a magnetic attraction to.

I feel that this source would provide a unique concept for a class discussion as it not only aligns with previous readings, but expands on them in such a way that it provokes a great deal of thought about the creation and development of our relationship with objects. Dutton’s tie in of beautify creating desire is rather parallel with our previous discussion of how “cute” things: just as a ceramic cat evokes the same physical response as seeing a baby’s face, Dutton suggests that our concept of beauty is an evolutionary response “to encourage us toward making the most adaptive decisions for survival and reproduction”. The result is that these objects have a universal appeal, even to people who have never encountered them before.


For example, Dutton notes that around the world, we are obsessed with photos and replication of a very particular landscape: “open spaces of low grasses interspersed with copses of trees…. water directly in view…indications of animal or bird life… a path or a road, perhaps a riverbank or a shoreline, that extends into the distance.” Amazingly, this perfectly describes the savanna environments were our ancestors evolved and flourished. I won’t spoil the entire discussion, but he makes some truly astounding connections between art and evolution that I highly recommend everyone to watch.

We’ve seen that “cuteness” influences parental instincts, disgust is a defense mechanism, and beauty/desire is for survival and reproduction. So naturally, this begs the question: What other aesthetics produce psycho/physiological responses, and how has evolution shaped them as well?

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One thought on “Blog Post #7: Beauty & Material Culture as an Evolutionary Concept”

  1. I think this blog post incites a healthy discussion into that of aesthetics. As a philosophy major, I am well aware that this discussion stems back to thousands of years before our time. I, personally, subscribe to the philosopher Nietzsche’s position in that beauty is simply what man views as healthy in himself, and ugly is what man views as degradation in himself. I also think that the origins of beauty would make for an interesting class discussion, because it definitely ties into material culture, and if the discussions are anything like the ones in my philosophy courses it is sure to be entertaining. Once again, great post.

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