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Saturday, September 20, 2003

Adele Tomlin reviews Evolutionary Aesthetics edited by Eckart Voland and Karl Grammer in Human Nature Review.

We rely on our aesthetic senses and the feelings they provoke in matters great and small but don't often question the basis of these judgements. It is difficult to ground them without reference to biological reality yet diverse and culturally inflected opinion makes this hard to do.

The meaning of the experience plays no part in the scientific experience. In our increasingly science-worshipping world, the meaning comes to be viewed as a fiction. Many people accept this conclusion and lapse into a state of cynical hedonism, scorning the old fogeys or romantics who believe there is more to sex than biology. The scientific attempt to explore the ‘depth’ of human things, therefore, is accompanied by a significant danger - it threatens to destroy our response to the surface. Yet it is on the surface of the world that we live and act: it is there that we are created, as complex appearances sustained by social interaction which we, as appearances, also create. A reckless desire to scrape this surface away - a desire which has inspired the ‘sciences of man’ - deprives us of our consolation, for it is the surface on which human happiness and relations are dependent. The classifications which inform and permit our actions, cannot be replaced with anything better than themselves, for they have evolved precisely under the pressure of human circumstance, and in answer to human needs: in particular our need for meaning. Philosophical analysis of the surface can uphold and makes sense of those more elusive classifications which form the background to personal life: classifications relative to emotions (the fearful, the lovable, the disgusting) and to aesthetic interest (the ornamental, the serene, the graceful); it gives sense to our interpersonal attitudes and it explores the meaning of the world, in moral and religious experience.

"Despite this weakness, Evolutionary Aesthetics certainly made me reassess my own thoughts about human aesthetic experience and response. Furthermore, in my opinion, the evolutionary analysis has the potential to add another layer of meaning or value to our aesthetic experiences. As Thornhill eloquently states: “We can conclude with great confidence that beauty and ugliness were important feelings in the lives of the evolutionary ancestors of humans...A beautiful idea of evolutionary psychology is that the discipline allows discovery of how human ancestors felt about various aspects of their environments; the discipline allows discovery of our emotional roots”. A beautiful idea indeed, and one which I also found to be extremely moving."

posted by back40 | 9/20/2003 04:43:00 PM


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