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Ann Gauger: Beauty as part of the design of the universe

A photograph of the Greek letter pi, created as a large stone mosaic embedded in the ground.
pi in mosaic, Berlin/Holger Motzkau

From Ann Gauger at ENST, from her essay, “Beauty leads us home,”

Evolutionary biologists attribute our perception of beauty in nature to our evolutionary history. In 2004 two Russian artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, commissioned a poll to determine which kinds of art people from various countries found beautiful, and which kinds they found ugly. The poll revealed that people in almost every culture liked landscapes with a heavy dose of blue.

Why? Denis Dutton explains:

The lush blue landscape type that the Russian artists discovered is found across the world because it is an innate preference. This preference is not explained just by cultural traditions…. This fundamental attraction to certain types of landscapes is not socially constructed but is present in human nature as an inheritance from the Pleistocene, the 1.6 million years during which modern human beings evolved.

Supposedly the preferred “blue landscape” resembles the savannah where we evolved. But then, why do we also find rugged mountains, seashores, glaciers, and sand dunes beautiful? No Pleistocene history there, or even a hospitable environment. Nor does an affection for Pleistocene scenery explain music, fine art, literature, or poetry.

Something Firmer

There is also this: our surprising ability to discover the beautiful mathematics that governs the universe. Indeed, Einstein and many other physicists and mathematicians regarded the elegant beauty of an equation as evidence of its truth. These equations describe fundamental relationships built into the fabric of the universe, and they have great explanatory power. Evolution cannot account for this — natural selection is blind to abstract things, and it has no power over the mathematical structure of the universe. Yet the math is beautiful. More.

As it happens, many find the weird landscapes of the moon beautiful, though “savannah” doesn’t come to mind when describing them.

Here’s a thought: If evolutionary biologists decided that the preponderance of evidence showed that humans evolved in forests instead of on a savannah, wouldn’t the evolutionary psychologists start claiming that that origin “explains” local urban dwellers’ fight to save city park trees. Of course they would. And they can never be proven wrong. That’s the nature of a discipline without a subject (not quite humans).

See also: Carting out bad science writing and demolishing literary Darwinism


“The evolutionary psychologist knows why you vote — and shop, and tip at restaurants”

We prefer sunny days to cold rainy days. It could be as simple as that as to why we like landscapes with blue a lot of blue in them. Allan Keith

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