Evolutionary Aesthetics: Part II

In the last essay, we tackled the evolutionary elements that were necessary for life to follow to arrive at where we are, as human beings who can experience the world consciously. We are trying specifically to arrive at poetry, or the poetic use of language. But that does require getting through some other territories first. Those landscapes are these in order:

  1. Consciousness
  2. Language
  3. Beauty
  4. Art
  5. Poetry

CONSCIOUSNESS AND LANGUAGE

Consciousness is a massive subject, and it was only addressed briefly in the last essay. Let it be taken for granted at this point that it was evolution that arrived at consciousness, which exists in varying degrees among many species of animals. It is safe to assume that human beings have,  what is so far as can be told on planet Earth, the most intensive possession of this quality, though not the peak I would presume (whatever that may be).

What factors were responsible for intensifying human consciousness to our present exalted state? Of all the factors that could be named, language is likely the most salient.1 Language requires two main factors (among others) to function as it does for us. 1) First, we have to have the physiological ability to vocalize as many individual sounds as we do in order to allow for as much informational differentiation as we need. But this is not enough, we need 2), the neurological and mental capacities to perceive and then communicate that amount of information. So, we are faced with what looks like a chicken and egg problem in some form. What comes first, the physiological or mental resources require for language? At some level, it is obvious that development of our larynx in relation to our airways had to come first to some certain extent, in order to allow for linguistic vocalization at all. But, once some thresh-hold was crossed, it is likely that the mental developments began to race into and through the barriers of vocalization. At that point, both would have developed together in a feedback loop toward greater linguistic capacity.

Such transformations are not necessary (as in inevitable) by any means, but they can follow rather unsurprisingly from a number of conditions being in in place prior to such transformations. I can only reflect on a couple obvious conditions attended to by biologists. One is that natural selection would have played a role in this metamorphosis. Increased linguistic and, thus, social capacity, would no doubt have increased the chances that a member of a species could survive in order to reproduce. Partly, this would have taken place because groups of individuals who were better at communicating with one another would manage through the generations to preserve a social arena in which such developments could continue to take place through time.

All this is not just a matter of surviving against the odds in the physical environment; it is also necessary that a group out-compete others if such is required. A cursory reading of recorded history indicates that human groups have been in constant conflict throughout all of it, at least when their interests run up against others, and there is no indication that this just started at the point when we began to make such records. History begins at the end of a long era of violence. Now, it may be true that conflict was less intense and less common at some point in the past, when human groups were more spread out when their populations were not so great. It would have been more advantageous to avoid conflict and find other resources rather than risk conflict in more cases than not under such conditions. War must have become more common as more of the Earth was covered by more of humanity. But such conflict would tend to favor such groups as could manage to intelligently manage its conflicts, and such abilities are directly related to the ability of groups to communicate with one another.

Another condition would be sexual selection. Males who were better at communicating with members of their own sex as well as with that of the opposite sex would be more likely to be selected by females. Of course, in certain societies, this natural propensity for female sexual selection to be dominant can be over-ridden by males successfully gaming society so that males rather than females retain a monopoly on sexual selection. But, as it is less likely to have been this way when human linguistic abilities were first developed, sexual selection likely did play some major role. Much of this was likely unconscious, in that females did not always realize consciously what role male linguistic ability played in their own choices. The reason for assuming this is that the differences in linguistic abilities among males in any given generation may not have been so severe so as to always require some kind of obvious conscious choice to be made (as conscious as it might be at any given point in human evolutionary history). Besides, there are many other factors that go into sexual selection that are either indirectly or orthogonally related to linguistic ability.

Let me make brief note as well that females who were themselves better at communicating with not just males but also other females (who might gossip about the opposite sex) might have done a better job at picking the right mates. This would be a case of “birds of a feather flock together.” Given that these more intelligent lineages on average might stand a better chance at survival, those lineages would be favored over time. Thus, it would not simply be a matter of males being selected for their traits by females, but of females doing the selecting on the basis of their own internal traits and capacities. Human beings, at least in part, may have bred each other into language and consciousness.

We are already nearly home at this point, as we have gained not only consciousness but also language along with it. And since poetry is the only art completely made up of language, the connection is clear enough. Poetry could be simply called the peak development of any culture’s language (or languages, but cultures have generally possessed some sole, common, or majority tongue). Not a good working definition, as much that is called poetry is by no means the “peak” of a culture’s capacities. Nevertheless, once we find that peak in any place, we tend to call what we find there poetry. Abraham Lincoln was not technically a poet, but I consider him the greatest American poet of the 19th century, above Whitman or Emerson (Many great American poets like them were universalists in their concerns. Truly great national poetry in America has been hard to come by where it is not simply sentimental or nature-based). Why? Because, within American culture, he gave expression in his words to the past, present, and future of the American social and political body in a manner that surpassed his contemporaries, if not in accuracy most certainly in poetic breadth. And he did this not by writing poetry per se, but by communicating poetically the vision of an imagined nation that might still be. Thus, poetry has to be separated from the poets sometimes in order for us to find it in any given place.

BEAUTY AND ART

What of beauty? Not a simple question and one probed by many great and wonderful minds throughout many cultures. Beauty is a simple word and it means many, if not too many things. It is an appearance in consciousness, related by cultural means to a particular way of feeling about that appearance (which feelings are themselves an appearance in reaction upon what is attended to). The experience of beautiful things, whether they be objects or thoughts, is universal enough. Where does it come from?

To answer this, let us look at a more obvious realm in which human experience seems easier to decipher: sex. When a human being finds another sexually attractive, let’s say, visually, there is a change in inner experience as well as in the body. The correlation is clear, the purpose not too hard to guess from an evolutionary perspective.

For a general model, let us note that there is far more going on in the world than we could ever be aware of and understand. Minds are built so that they “choose” where their attention is in relation to some hierarchy of choice. Why one kind of choice architecture rather than another is built into the mind does have an evolutionary explanation. Sexual selection, for example, tends to highlight certain features in the sex being chosen over many generations, since not only do the features that were attractive get passed on, but so does the feature of being attracted to those features. Both parents of a successful pairing succeed in reinforcing the cycle of selection. My suspicion is actually (and this is a leap as of its being stated) that the experience of beauty has much to do with sexual selection in its reinforcement if not in its beginnings.

Let me explain. And I add that this is all hypothesis on the basis of the knowledge I have ever learned on these topics. Hopefully, some information that could disprove or reinforce this line of reasoning may be sufficiently provided in the future through my own continuing research as well as that of others. First, I think by beauty we mean all aesthetically powerful experiences. Beauty refers to countless unique states of mind that occur to us as a class. There are some common features though among the whole class: 1) these are positive experiences and 2) they are generally desired proportionally with one’s capacity to experience them; 3) they can, when powerful enough, be transformative of our psyche; 4) they are revelatory, in that they reveal something about our experience of the world we did not know before – something hidden in plain sight as it were. We do know that certain chemical substances, such as psilocybin, can dig deep and fast into that portion of the mind that is pointed at such experiences. Obviously, we could have these trips all the time if our brain chemistry was not so prohibitive of them sans drugs. But there must be a good reason why we are so closed to them; likely it would have been a death sentence to any ancestors who spent most of their time flooded with that much aesthetic experience for any extended period of time. But all that potential does lie dormant. Why? Why has our big brain developed this remarkable somewhat concealed corner, to be revealed on special occasions?

You see, it is already remarkable, given the pressures of selection, that we sacrificed so much energy and potential to our big noggins in the first place. And to grant such a remarkable capacity to us as the experience of beauty is an oddity within an oddity, even if it does make sense given the evolutionary context. Let me take note of what beauty seems to be polar opposite to: suffering. Not pain, but suffering; the intolerable itch of having one’s attention dragged away constantly to a biting or nagging or excruciating sensation that is more powerful than all else in the mind. Pain demands attention and attention prioritizes it, and that prioritization is suffering. The evolutionary reasons for this are, again, not hard to see. The survival benefit of pain as an experience is obvious enough (while presenting a terrible cost). But pain is also transformative and revelatory in a rather extreme way – to the point of what we call “trauma” – while of course being a negative experience rather than a positive one. And another general rule of thumb evolutionarily speaking is that negative experience is attempting to prompt avoidance, whereas positive experience is attempting to prompt seeking. So what are we to seek from beauty?

The late Sir Roger Scruton would sometimes note (I paraphrase multiple instances) that the experience of beauty was about seeking the sense of belonging, of being at home, of longing for a home. And I think that this seems about the right inquest. When one experiences beauty, one senses that one has found one’s place in the world; not just physically but spiritually as well. To find the universe beautiful and to find it a home is almost to say the same thing. That does not mean that beauty is never threatening. But what is the difference between the dreadful fear of the prey animal we feel and the feeling of sublime fear provoked by a great and terrible sight? Well, in the former case we do everything to avoid the predator; in the latter, we would almost welcome the swallowing, the engulfing of ourselves by the danger, by the horror even that we have seen. Sublime fear is fear at its most pleasant; it scarcely is related to undesirable states of mind. To belong is not just warm stomachs and lazy day dreams under a cloudless sky. It does mean also that we accept the reality of our situation, that we have a universe with which to contend but that this is what we are “meant” to do. Part of the experience of beauty is coming to terms with that very pain which seems the opposite of it: to transform it from suffering into some kind of contemplation.

Indeed, the darkest kind of any evolutionary hypothesis I could think of was that human beings, as they became more conscious and more capable of suffering, maybe became so vulnerable to the phenomenon of suicide that only individuals who had this capacity to find meaning in this world of agony were able to survive this “suicide-bottleneck.” It is actually not a much more dark hypothesis than anything else found in the story of natural selection. Consciousness has always come with high costs, but since evolution always ramps up higher benefits above such high costs (as it must), we may be super-benefiting from a remarkable cost increase in the past; namely, the capacity to suffer. We must believe that the experience of beauty, which is that of meaningfulness, truly does outweigh, in our own estimation, the price we’ve paid. If you have ever wondered at what the value of the arts might be, then it may indeed be this: mining the only gold to come out of the furnaces of hell.

As a final note on beauty, if sexual selection had any role to play in this case, the only one I can think is that happier individuals might tend to be more likely than others to be selected by mates. And those who could experience more beauty in life would tend to be happier generally speaking. But this is a rather lame and half-hearted attempt at theory, I think, compared to some previous ideas already discussed.

As for art, it has always been an expression of our sense of meaning and beauty, but made external in some manner and by some craft. No more complex definition is required here. Combine the dexterity of human hands with the experience of beauty within consciousness in all its various shades and qualities, and I think that the development of art was perhaps inevitable. Art I do not think has a direct, that is a genetic evolutionary explanation. I think it is rather a consequence of what has been discussed thus far: a confluence of conditions. That does make it, of course, caused by evolution per se, but I don’t think it was selected for directly in a way that can be isolated (I, of course, could be wrong in this musing).

POETRY

Now, poetry is an art. It requires skill acquired by practice, something passed on through generations, as tool-making of various kinds was. It is unfortunately not possible to know who the aboriginal poets were because of the lack of written speech in that era in which poetry first took flight. It might be oldest art, as language is closer to us than any other material for artistic manipulation. But, whereas we do have visual artworks from tens of thousands of years ago, during the heady days of the Cognitive Revolution (c. 70,000 to 50,000 years ago), alas, as noted, it would have been impossible for poets to represent their work. Now, I am sure that some of the figurines and paintings we have found probably had poems associated with them. Indeed, I am sure to those original artists, the carved or painted object was often just a representation of a poet’s words.

That seemingly simple jump to symbols for speech waited for long past probably some remarkable poetic developments now lost to us. Homer is a latter poet if a timeline of 70,000 years is utilized. The only difference of course is that the development of poetry was limited by the lack of a long written record of poems to build upon. The tribe was the locus of culture, and their records were as good as their collective memories. And those individuals who remembered all the stories so they could be recited as needed (the prehistoric “hard drives”) I am sure developed many methods within their minds between the generations that added to their people’s unique poetic craft. But such developments would have been localized, and, thus, vulnerable to loss. It is hard to imagine the thousands of languages and cultures lost to time before time was within the reach of recorded speech.

These musings lead one to the same conclusion as above. If art is a consequence of conditions caused by evolution rather than being a directly selected condition, then poetry, I think, counts as the same. And I am not playing deductive category games. I genuinely think that there is a broad class of arts, and that poetry is one of them, sharing the attributes of the set. Poetic development has been a matter of cultural development on the basis of memory and improvement (or at least change) over time. Evolution doesn’t have much to do with the differences between the English Romantics and Virgil, but it did grant them both their capacities. Just as language can be seen as “one” thing – there is just a single human language – so can poetry be seen as one phenomenon, genetically speaking, but multiple phenomena, culturally speaking. This is why we can speak of an underlying basis to all language or to all poetry, some absolutely essential features and properties that cannot be adjusted. Nevertheless, we recognize that variety is the rule of the game when a supple capacity encounters differing circumstances. Indeed, we humans have always been remarkable for our adaptivity to varying circumstances, which has allowed for our diverse number of languages and cultures. It is not the environment that constrains diversity amongst human groups, it is the social group. The variation in physical environment seems to encourage diversity, whereas the social environment has tended to constrain diversification within its group confines according to the necessities of the environment. This balance has helped secure human survival, but doomed us to provincialism as well. Our capacity for beauty and art may help us to overcome some of these inherited difficulties.

And poetry may be exceedingly fit for helping overcome such group conflicts and troubles. Communication for the purpose of understanding has always been essential to the resolution of conflicts. And poetry is made of language, and of careful language most often, and so it is a good olive branch of commonality. Yet we must not think that the price of peace is conformity. Compromise of some kind is always unavoidable. Some price must always be paid. But we know how to absorb the cost of life, if we have paid attention. It is in wonder, in the expression of it, by our crafts, and by the written word offered up to each other that we can communicate candidly and creatively that which is held in common each in our own way. Then maybe some of that cost hidden in our past origins and revealed at present can be continuously outweighed by the contemporaneous and collective experience of beauty. And that is something of an evolutionary aesthetic.

Featured image: ‘Hasui Kawase Print Collection II,’ by Hasui Kawase (1932), image in the public domain.

  1. Jared Diamond, in the eighth chapter of The Third Chimpanzee, ‘Bridges to Human Language (141-167),’ lays out the relationship between vocal communication among other species and that of humans. As he points out, the difference is immense. We are remarkably unique in our vocalizational abilities, being able to communicate and understand ridiculously more information than any other species. The fact that we have such a remarkable ability to process as much information as we do solely among the animal kingdom is unlikely to be accidently coincident with our linguistic abilities. []

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