Argument from Beauty
While many of the ancient Greeks abandoned their gods once philosophy and science arose, they were so impressed by the beauty of art (especially music) that their belief in the Muses endured. The drive for artistic expression is thought to be divine, since it is innately human -- it occurs in all human societies and cultures, making it a “cultural universal.”
However, the cultural universals have their bases in human evolution. For example, the Westermarck Effect (i.e., an unconscious anti-inbreeding imperative which causes sexual disinterest in the people you knew closely between ages 3-6) explains the incest taboo which spans across all faiths and cultures. Likewise, art evolved a means to attract mates, since art is a means to:
- Directly induce pleasure.
- Display skill and virtuosity.
- Exhibit style.
- Express novelty, creativity, and imagination.
- Invite criticism.
- Expresses individuality and emotion.
- Emotionally saturate.
- Embrace intellectual challenge.
- Relate to existing artistic traditions and institutions.
- Display affluence.
- Display badassery, via "peacocking." The extreme weight, energy cost, and conspicuousness of a peacock’s tail render them more vulnerable to predation. However, these flamboyant tails show peahens which peacock would produce the most powerful offspring, since he can endure despite living his life on hard mode, and therefore, must be a badass.
Even a slight sexual preference towards artists causes artistic traits to flourish and propagate throughout a species. A variant which produces 1% more offspring than its alternative would increase from 0.1% to 99.9% of the population within 4000 generations. Subtle changes, which are unobservable within any individual or a single generation, can completely alter a species over thousands of generations. This is a double-edged sword; a 1% difference in mortality rates among geographically overlapping Neanderthal and modern human populations could have led to the extinction of the former within 30 generations, or a single millennium. As a result, humans have unknowingly selectively bred themselves to be artists.
Children prefer portraits to landscapes, because they are dependent upon other people for their survival. Children still enjoy landscapes, just to a lesser degree than adults. Children hold a distinct preference for savannahs and forests over jungles and deserts. Children under age 8 love savannahs, even if they’ve never been to one. Savannahs are imprinted into human brain structure, because humans understandably evolved strong preferences for ideal African survival condition, especially when they depict:
- Open spaces of low or mown grasses, interspaced with thickets of bushes or trees.
- Water sources nearby, or in the distance. There is a universal cultural preference for blue landscapes.
- An opening in at least one direction to allow an unimpeded view of the horizon.
- Evidence of animal and bird life.
- Diverse greenery, especially flowering and fruiting plants.
At age 15, people’s preferences shift from portraits to landscapes, and they view all landscape types as equally pleasing (e.g., seascapes). Still, there is a distinct preference for idealized conditions; the most pleasing landscapes tend to offer a vantage point for prospecting a large area, and a place of refuge from apex predators.
Human reproduction is two-fold, in that in addition to seducing females, males must outcompete other males. Courtship has done more to affect the evolution of the mind and personality than any other factor. Females biased the selection process to reward mates capable of long-term commitments, since humans have the longest maturation time of all animals. As a result of women selecting men who are kind, intelligent, attractive, wealthy, exciting, adaptable, generous, dependable, industrious, creative and funny, humans are self-domesticating animals.
Human speech evolved to a high degree of refinement to serve as a fitness signal -- a marker of health and intelligence. The English language has 170,000-220,000 words, even though 4,000 words are responsible for 98% of daily communication, and only 850 words are needed to conduct international business. Large vocabularies evolved because eloquence is seductive, like a peacock’s tail. Likewise, metaphors, analogies, jokes, memory, and telling narratives with relevance, coherence, and drama were all developed for this same end. This is what drives average Britons to spend 6% of their waking life viewing fictional dramatic performances (e.g., TV, movies, and plays).
Storytelling in particular, is a valuable, evolutionarily advantageous experience because:
- Stories provide a low-cost, low-risk surrogate experience. They satisfy a need to experiment with answers to “what if?” questions regarding problems, threats, and opportunities life might present to as individuals or collectives, or might have presented to our ancestors. Fiction prepares us for life and its surprises.
- Stories are informative. Whether overtly fictional, mythological, or representing real events, stories can be rich sources of factual (or at least accepted) information. The didactic purpose of storytelling is diminished in literate cultures, but prior to writing, a vivid and memorable way of communicating information had actual survival benefits. Hunter-gatherer life was “a never-ending stream of tasks, obstacles, and hazards, the local situations to which the individual is not born knowing.” The folklore of contemporary foragers uses stories to enable “people to acquire information, rehearse strategies, or refine skills that are instrumental in surmounting real-life difficulties and dangers.”
- Stories offer alternate perspectives. Stories allow the exploration of viewpoints, beliefs, motivations, and values of other human minds, inculcating their potentially adaptive interpersonal and social capacities. Stories provide regulation for social behavior.
Likewise, there is a constant repetition of elements, themes, situations, and plots in all of the world’s literary traditions as indicated by Campbell's monomyth of the Hero's Journey, Polti’s 36 Dramatic Situations, and Booker’s 7 Basic Plots. Christians have ruthlessly exploited this, as it is extremely difficult to write any story that cannot be construed as an allegory.
Music is enjoyable because the human brain is hardwired to scan for language, and to pick up spoken words out from background noise. Music and vowel sounds are both pure tones. The complex and unique sound from the "attack" of an instrument is like the more complex consonant sounds, after which the pure tones of instruments are hard to distinguish apart from one to another. The words “play”, “bay”, “stray”, “day”, and “stay” all have a few milliseconds of complexity followed by a pure tone.
Music ruthlessly exploits this language perception instinct through a degree of repetition that no other art form allows. 94% of all musical passages longer than a few seconds are repeated at some point within the same work.
- P. Kreeft, Faith and Reason: The Philosophy of Religion (Recorded Books, 2005).
- D. Dutton, The Art Instinct: Beauty, Pleasure, and Human Evolution (Bloomsbury Press, 2010).