Evolutionary Aesthetics: Part I


In the last essay, we tackled the question of how poetry does its magic as it is created and as it is received. I promised that I would then move on to consider further how it has come to function in the way that it has. And this will require a detour of sorts in this essay. For to discuss the origins of poetry is to discuss the origins of the human capacity to seek out meaning in general within the world.

And when I say meaning, I mean two things: truth and beauty. Truth concerns that which is and Beauty is that appearance of Truth to us which resounds to our very core. Reason can discover much truth about the world by further interaction with it. But we have a set of intuitions deeply linked to our emotions which respond to certain appearances of the world to us. Sometimes those appearances are direct, false, or true.

By direct, I mean that unaltered immediate perception of the world in which the world seems to fill us up with its own massive reserves of being. We become a cup into which an ocean pours, and whether this experience is painful or pleasurable moment by moment, it is ultimately pleasurable and desired by us in any moment we have the hope of its tipping over above our heads. In such a state, we are not affirming false beliefs about the facts of the world. If I think the sun is god rising above and falling below the Earth from death and rising to life at morning, or whether I think it is a sphere of hydrogen and helium undergoing a process of fusion-created outward pressure and gravitational collapse at once, in both cases I can experience this immediate enjoyment without reference to my view concerning the facts of the case.

Direct observation like this is rare. More often, we have either true or false judgments about what we perceive, and we may not be in a position to correct our ignorance if we are in the wrong. It is true that in the modern world more and more people have become aware of the physical facts concerning the universe and its processes. Indeed, one key struggle of our times has been how to adapt our awareness of beauty to the new facts.

There have been generally three different ways of affecting this reconciliation. No one has tended to deny the scientific facts of the matter (with rare and inconsistent exceptions). No one believes the sun is a god anymore, or, if they do, they must believe it is a god in some metaphysical sense, somewhere along similar lines with the doctrine of transubstantiation, whereby the accidents of the sun are physical and its essence is divine. But I imagined this formula1, and no one I know has really proposed it, at least not in the neo-pagan sense.

Instead, one option some people have taken is to remove themselves completely over to the rational and scientific side of the matter and call art a lie which has no real value or function. And even if they do not do this in thought or in word, they at least do so in deed. The second response has been to separate the world into two realms: the realm of the imaginative and the realm of the factual. Something like this was a common practice among the Romantics. Generally, such Romantics would end up privileging the imaginative as more important that the rational. I prefer a third option, which is to recognize the equal value of the factual with the imaginative, and the ways in which they succeed in complementing each other in a kind of symbiosis of understanding.

Let us proceed on the basis of this model. The mind seems to function in three different spheres, which overlap in the manner of a Venn diagram:

  1. The mental function
  2. The physical function
  3. The social function

As for the mental, this is our internal awareness and activity, our consciousness and its contents. And we tend to exercise this internal life on a spectrum of reason to intuition, and upon both of these functions our emotions tend to react and direct. A poet is a good example of someone who primarily functions in the mental realm, but so are mathematicians and logicians. As for the physical, this has to do with how we coordinate with the external physical world through our bodies to accomplish tasks and create tools to accomplish those tasks. A violinist is a case and point of a kind of union between the mental music and the physical act of playing an instrument. A carpenter’s uncanny awareness of how to interact with his materials and tools is representative of the physical aspect of our mental life. Finally, the social is a rather distinct realm which has to do with our abilities to relate to other human beings in social life.

In general, all the arts rely to some extent on all three functions of the mind. But the intuition of beauty, which we began with, that lies at the heart of art is mental in nature. And, as I hinted, poets specifically tend to rely on the mental life over direct interaction with the physical or social world since the instrument of the poet is language. A musician or a painter has a closer relationship with the physical than the poet. What I wish to propose in the rest of this essay is how this mental intuition of beauty came about, and then what that origin has to do with poetry by matter of cultural descent.


The Path to Beauty

I begin with a caveat. What is going to follow is all musings. It hardly can even be justified as hypothesis beyond what is already generally accepted by some quarters of academia, most relevantly here, biology. I claim the freedom here to throw thoughts around, even carelessly. For now, speculation is the game not meticulous care. I will rely on certain fundamental notions in evolutionary biology (which rest upon some solid ground) to found my own far flung guesses.

It must go without saying that the question of the origin of the sense of beauty, defined as broadly as possible, has occupied many minds over the last 200 years. Since Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, the possibility of describing the origins of certain attributes of the human species became possible. Indeed, this has been wildly successful as an enterprise, but only to some extent, since it would be immense folly to say that a good account has been given of the entirety of human experience.

Simply put, it is not so hard to look into the world at something that one can call an object and try to discover what it is and from whence it came. But turn inwards toward the subjective life of yourself and you face a paradox. On the one hand, consciousness is nearer than its objects in the world, and so we have more access to it; we have insider information. But, on the other hand, it is as amorphous and elusive as spilling water and beyond difficult to quantify. This does not mean that we do not make remarkably accurate models for predicting human behavior, and even some that can help make sense of internal experience. But, there is always the sense that something is missing in the explanations. The seer and the feeler seem to be forgotten in all this.

Attention is the key aspect of consciousness. It is never an object of consciousness, for it makes objects of the world. We infer its existence because without it we could not make sense of the “I” that knows anything about the world. And even if I deny the existence of the phenomenal “I,” I cannot avoid the necessary “I” (whatever it may be), which makes such a denial possible. And a functional self is a self. But the self is created by the existence of attention as a phenomenon.

And attention weaves the world out of its objects, which it relates carefully according to a previously built structure within the mind, that on one side of our spectrum of attention is logically ordered and precise, and on the other pole is imaginative and metaphorical. By one we relate to the physical world, by the other to the social world. But, we tend to perceive both worlds through the lenses of the others at times. And so it is possible to treat a human being as a mere physical obstacle, as an object; it is also possible to see the world as full of personhood and sociality, for, often, in some sense, it is. This is not the only spectrum that exists in the mind: there is also the spectrum of understanding/creativity, aversion/attraction, differentiation/similarity, etc. These are mental symmetries which are equivalent to the bilateral symmetries of the body, and specifically of the brain.

There are circumstances which tip us toward one end of these spectra and then back again. Generally, our minds seem to be attempting to both engage with each circumstance appropriately and also maintain homeostasis, so that one end does not imbalance us completely against the other side. Indeed, some pathologies of the minds seem to result from one side of a spectrum pulling our attention completely over without some mechanism kicking in to pull the mind from the brink of disaster.

But where does this system of homeostasis come from? All living things exist in a balance between many different forces at play within them. This back and forth wave like pattern of life, the ways in which competing forces resist and surrender to one another is how life accomplishes  anything, and it has always been so, and, arguably, given life’s function, it must be so.

There are deep reasons for this fact that lie in physics, but we’ll leave those realities at rest under us for now. Living things have two functions: (1) survival (the maintenance of homeostatic balance against threatening extremes) and (2) reproduction (the passing on of the traits which allow for survival). Organisms can fail to accomplish the first before they accomplish the second, and that is checkmate. They must at least accomplish (2), and then they have succeeded enough, for in the end all the living die.

Organisms develop complex strategies in order to meet the goal of survival, and among these strategies has been that of locomotion, the ability to move the body of the organism between points in order to survive and reproduce. This is different from growth, which is an expansion into space, but locomotion is that which goes out through space (though, no doubt, there is likely a deep ancestral connection between the two). And it is also different from letting one’s environment carry one from place to place.

I am going to set out here what is a commonly stated idea, and that is that the path up to consciousness requires first getting on the path of locomotion. That one moves through space seems to be a fact that begins to require certain mental functions to develop that can potentially reach consciousness. We must notice more things if we move, and we must notice them quickly and react to them. At what point does this process become conscious? No one yet knows, though there is likely some kind of phase transition in which consciousness comes about and the self can mark itself out in the world.

But why would consciousness be favored? The function of consciousness seems to be to determine among many options of locomotion. Hence, why our conscious mind is rigged to control our skeletal muscular system and not the beating of the heart. It would be disastrous for something that needs to be timed so precisely as the heart to depend upon conscious attention to regulate it. But it seems perfectly a good idea to have the locomotion of the body through space and the locomotion of the body to manipulate objects to be under the purview of consciousness.

But in order to determine where to move we must first know something about the world around us: we must have the power of perception to some extent. Now, different organisms have differing kinds of perception; there are many options. The contents of our consciousness have been selected over time for what was most valuable for us to know in order to act. If an octopus, for example, does indeed have any kind of experience (which it seems likely to have), the content of that experience is likely quite different from ours. Only the experience of altered states of consciousness, such as might be brought on by certain substances, can allow one to appreciate how different mental experience can be and how much it can vary, even within a single mind of a single species.

Now, as this power of perception increases in its precision (whatever its contents), let us make that assumption that a point is reached beyond which there is an “inside” taking place within an organism. There is no such thing in a bacterium presumably, but there is such a thing in a human being, and likely many other species as well, though not as acutely it would seem. But consciousness seems to increase as the ability of the organism to distinguish elements in its environment more distinctly is developed. There is a direct correlation between the kind of mental model of the world we have and the kind of self that is acting on the basis of that model.

Thus, the conscious self is a function. Physical sensations caused by events are translated by the nervous system into signals which are then organized unconsciously which are then served up to the conscious self for a decision to be made in response to the external world. Once the decision is made, the body takes some relevant action of locomotion or manipulation in order to instantiate that decision. We experience this as what it is like to make a choice on the edge of locomotion and manipulation, the root of our sense of activity, colloquially and controversially called “free-will.”

But since we are able not only to locate ourselves in space, but also in the dimension of time, we have developed the capacity for conscious memory of the past and for conscious imagination, by which we might predict and prepare for future possibilities and events. The fact that we have an awareness of time that goes almost all the way back to our infant days (and for some rather sharp memories does go back that far) is what grants us a broad niche in time as well as the one we have gained in space, the potential for our locomotion. Thus, having developed a capacity to experience much in space through time, the mental stage has been set for the breadth and depth of our experience.

So what connection can there be between these strategies that have been developed for survival and reproduction and the sense of beauty which underlies all art? Many have often presumed that there is no good connection between the two, and so the true explanation must be either odd (that is, unexpected, or even random) or be extra-natural (a term I prefer to supernatural, as that term is best to refer to transcendent reality, whereas “extra-natural” simply connotes something in addition to the observable material elements). I believe the former is unlikely, and the latter should not be so quickly dismissed. But, for the moment, let us presume that we can choose a third option; namely, that we can have natural explanation for such things. Besides, if God has indeed intended humanity to experience beauty, I wonder whether or not the introduction of souls as a local addition to the natural scheme would be superfluous. Surely he could have created a world in which the resources for developing creatures who could experience anything would be contained in the whole without requiring the introduction of completely new elements that have no direct relationship to the materials or the patterns of the universe. But, I’ll leave aside theological speculation and return to scientific hypothesizing.

But that I shall do in the next essay I write. In it, I will attempt to reach the end of the path to beauty. It has been some time, for personal reasons, that I have posted another extended essay. And now that I return to it, it grows too long. Thus I shall, for the sake of the reader, cut the beast down to size and give it a proper treatment in two weeks. 

Featured image: ‘Setting Sun, Ichinokura, Ikegami, from the series Twenty Views of Tōkyō,’ by Hasui Kawase, in the public domain.

  1. Though C.S. Lewis hints at an idea along these lines in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, chapter 14: “‘In our world,’ said Eustace, “a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.’ ‘Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.'” []

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