Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

For Evolution, Beauty Is as Beauty Does


What follows is a guest post by Mohan Matthen. Mohan is Professor of Philosophy and Senior Canada Research Chair at University of Toronto. He has published numerous articles on issues in philosophy of biology and sense perception and is the author of Seeing, Doing, and Knowing: A Philosophical Theory of Sense Perception (Oxford: Claredon Press, 2005). This post also appears at New APPS (here).

What is it to find something beautiful? To take pleasure in looking at it, or in listening to it, or in otherwise contemplating it. One might find the proof of the Pythagorean theorem beautiful. If this is literally true, it is because intellectually contemplating it gives one pleasure. But let’s stick to the senses, and pleasure in gazing or listening.

Why have we evolved to have a sense of beauty? That is, why do we take pleasure in contemplating certain things? (I’ll just assume that the sense of beauty is at least partially the product of evolution. Argument: almost all humans find some things beautiful, but most of our ancestor species find nothing beautiful—that response is not in their repertoire.) And secondly, why are certain things (certain patterns, certain rhythms) universally found to be beautiful? Why have we evolved to appreciate these things?

Some philosophers ground the sense of beauty in the worth of beautiful things. For example, Stephen Davies writes:

The fact is that we need food, water, and shelter wherever we find ourselves and whatever form our social life takes. This alone may establish a baseline landscape aesthetic that is applied to varying local conditions . . . People who were naturally drawn to [congenial] habitats, who found them appealing and pleasing, would have had an edge in reproductive success over those who were not. 

In other words, we take pleasure in certain landscapes because they contributed to biological flourishing. This, according to Davies (and Denis Dutton), is what makes them beautiful to us.

Davies is not alone in following this line of thought. But it seems to me as if it gets the whole problem wrong. To find something beautiful is to enjoy contemplating it. If I want to explain why a certain kind of landscape is found beautiful, I should explain why it’s advantageous to contemplate it. It’s easy to understand why I want to inhabit a place that provides me with food and water. But this doesn’t tell me why I should enjoy looking at it. In fact, it tends to emphasize other priorities. I should get on with grabbing a piece of this landscape and building a house in it. Looking at it would be a waste of my time. And yet looking is what the sense of beauty encourages me to do.

The theory of motivation needs more structure than Davies argument allows it. Consider food and hunger. Clearly, it is good that we should eat when our bodies need nourishment. Hunger is an evolved motivational state that helps us do this: it arises when the body needs nutrition, and it enjoins eating. Hunger is action-specific: it motivates us to eat; it does not, for example, enjoin foraging (though we might have learned that a trip to the supermarket may be necessary to satisfy hunger).

Move now to gustatory pleasure. Why did evolution make it pleasurable to eat certain things? Hunger makes us eat—what additional purpose is served by pleasure in eating? One answer is that pleasure is a reward that helps us learn. Hunger is action-specific but not object-specific. It tells us to eat, but it doesn’t tell us what to eat. This is something we have to learn. When I sample a peach, its flavour gives me pleasure. This tells me that peaches are good to eat. In future, when I feel hungry, I know that a peach is a good choice.

Pleasure in eating is object-directed and complements an action-directed drive. Gustatory pleasure is peach-directed because peaches are good to eat. Pleasure taken in eating teaches me nothing else about its object. Aesthetic pleasure is object-directed too. For example, the Rockies may give one aesthetic pleasure. This is because the Rockies are good to look at. And parallel to hunger, aesthetic pleasure tells me nothing other than this—it is not informative about eating these objects or making love to them. Of course, it may also be pleasurable to gaze upon the Rockies because doing so makes me anticipate climbing or skiing in them. And looking at one’s habitat may similarly be pleasing because it makes one feel secure and well provided for. But this is not aesthetic pleasure. Gazing at the Rockies is aesthetically pleasingonly if gazing at them gives me pleasure without the intermediary of some other activity. 

Let me reiterate this point. Gustatory pleasure tells us that something is good to eat. It is uninformative about other values. Aesthetic pleasure tells us that contemplating a certain object is desirable. It is uninformative about any other value of the object. To explain the aesthetic value of an object in utilitarian or evolutionary terms, we must show how contemplating that object contributes to flourishing. It won’t work to cite how some other activity directed to that object contributes to flourishing.

So what is the evolutionary value of looking at something? I’ll come back to this in another post. But in the meanwhile remember: it doesn’t do to cite why it’s valuable to do something else with what you are looking at. Beauty is as beauty does.  


  1. Mohan writes and seems to endorse the claim that “almost all humans find some things beautiful, but most of our ancestor species find nothing beautiful—that response is not in their repertoire.”
    Why suppose that other animals don't have a sense of beauty? It seems that they sometimes visually attend to things that they neither plan to eat, run away from, nor have sex with.

  2. P. D.: I take your point. It's possible that animals do have an aesthetic sense. This can't be ruled out, for just the reason that you mention. In a larger paper on art, from a part of which this post is distilled, I have a section on animals, and take it to be one possibility that some might have an aesthetic sense. I also mention two other possibilities. The first is that our pleasure in attending to things is self-reflective and that this is what makes it distinctively aesthetic. The second is that our sense of beauty is derivative from our sense of art. (I was just mentally crossing out the first possibility here.)

  3. I realize I'm late to the party, so please feel free to ignore me if I'm just inviting you to retread old ground.

    I suppose I'm a little uncertain about the target, here. Are we looking for an explanation of our sense of beauty, or for what Dr. Matthen invokes at the end, this “aesthetic” pleasure/experience?

    If it's the experience of beauty that requires an evolutionary explanation, then it seems likely that it's actually roughly action-directed, to put it in Dr. Matthen's terms: the taking of pleasure in “beautiful” things resembles a directive to seek out/cherish objects/places/people with certain (advantageous) features, and to avoid the sorts of things that prompt the opposite reaction (of disgust or revolt). In the last several thousand years of human history we've obviously put this faculty/sense/whatever you want to call it to very different uses, and that's muddled the mixture a bit. But that doesn't seem like such a huge mystery, nor does it seem particularly implausible to me.

    More mysterious is this special kind of “aesthetic” pleasure or experience. But if that's the target, then I think that two questions need to be answered before we go looking for an evolutionary explanation: (1) is there any evidence for a special kind of experience like that in the first place? and (2) why think it's anything more than an accident or evolutionary spandrel (if you'll forgive the slight misuse of the term)? I suppose I should confess that I'm not really convinced in the first place that “aesthetic” appreciation is any different from any other kinds of appreciation, and so it doesn't seem to stand in need of more biological/evolutionary grounding.

  4. I think I am using the term in a different way. The experience of beauty is something that strikes you after you have found the beautiful object. It is a reward, as it were, for finding it, rather than a directive to find it.

    Why don't you think aesthetic appreciation is different? Isn't it, for example, different from appreciation of food, or of a drink?

  5. Well, it seems like it differs only inasmuch as we (arbitrarily!) tend to think of it in non-gustatory contexts. When I seek out an experience of a work of art, I attend to a few different things. Beauty might well be one, pleasure another, and also reflection on the work's formal properties and its place in art history. For ease of communication, we might call that jumble an “aesthetic experience” (or attitude, or whatever) and distinguish it from its component experiences taken in isolation.

    Phenomenologically speaking, I'm pretty sure that's an accurate description of what goes on with me. But I'd hesitate to go the extra step to positing a distinct kind of experience that I undergo when faced with artworks. If your artwork involved taste, and I had a bite, I'm pretty sure my experience wouldn't be all any different from eating (except that I might care about slightly different things—so, e.g., the unpleasantly bitter taste might be interesting rather than a hindrance to satiation).

    Apologies if I've misunderstood something!

  6. “Why have we evolved to have a sense of beauty?”

    there is a an actress, I watched an interview of her on Letterman, she had to shoot a film in a very beautiful location, a countryside location. She said she prefers the city much more.
    Letterman seemed very puzzled. After seeing so much beauty?

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