Created | Updated Sep 6, 2007
Beauty is a concept that runs pervasively through all classes, races, and other such categorisations of mankind. Societies are built around it, great sacrifices are made in its name and it is accountable for pleasure and misery in equally enormous proportions. But what is beauty, and why does it appear to be of such importance? These are large questions.
Many interesting things have been postulated, argued and suggested in regard to evolution by natural selection; overly deep discussion here would be redundant and an unnecessary digression. In short however, Darwin (and many others) suggested that the traits humans - and all organisms - portray are those that afford some sort of advantage over competitors for environmental resources. This advantageous trait increases, in some way, the chances that its proprietor will produce offspring, and/or decreases the chances of said competitors doing likewise. One's offspring, moreover, are given his traits, both through the genes they inherit from him, and through the behaviour they learn through his example. Such traits (both genetic and behavioural), therefore, are said to be selected by our environment.
Some organisms, however, develop traits whose existence is entirely baffling. The peacock, for example, struts around with an enormous colourful tail that, at first and many subsequent glances, appears to be entirely disadvantageous. A great deal of energy is required to develop and maintain this ridiculous ornament. Furthermore, as the peacock is not exactly a large or powerful animal, it is a clear and easy target for potential predators. By natural selection principles, the thing should rapidly disappear from the species (in which case they would just be regular cocks; hardly the thing of wonder and beauty many people find the peacock to be).
The dilemma of sexual selection led Darwin to rethink his original hypothesis on natural selection. Why do animals often develop bright and conspicuous features such as the peacock's tail, or the robin's red breast? It was decided that these traits, which increase susceptibility to predation as well as the amount of energy intake required for an organism to survive, are required instead to attract members of one's own species, particularly potential mates. This phenomenon, which is called sexual selection, provides a great deal of insight into the function of beauty in Western society. Beauty in peacocks might be considered the size, the symmetry, the pattern of their tails, or a certain combination of these. One might experiment to determine which features are most selected for, but only peacocks know for sure! In humans, the phenomenon works along very similar lines. Certain proportions, symmetry, movements, facial expressions, colour, and a multitude of other factors determine what features we find beautiful, and which ones are distasteful to us. Even being a human, however, isn't sufficient to simply know what beauty is. Everyone has different tastes, desires, and preferences that determine beauty is for them.
So What Is It?
So how might beauty be defined, if it means so many different things to so many different individuals? And what exactly is its function? We can see that the peacock's tail has evolved because the pea-hens dig it, but why do they dig it? A mate with a smaller tail would certainly stand a better chance of evading predators, and thus be around to help raise the chicks. However, peacocks do very little raising of offspring. Their function, instead, is to attract and mate with as many females as possible. The females, on the other hand, want offspring that stand a better chance of survival than those of other females, and much of this survival depends upon the traits the chicks inherit. Big tails? One theory suggests that the colour, size, and symmetry of such a trait is an indication of the animal's genetic fitness, ability to resist parasites, and overall health. The fact that the animal is able to evade predation despite the cumbersome ornament may in itself indicate fitness. Another suggestion is that the evolution of the trait is more arbitrary; daughters prefer mates that resemble their fathers, and sons their mothers (a delightful subject in itself), so that the trait developed simply because it existed in a healthy line that preferred mates with which it had something in common. Whatever the case, certain forms of beauty seem prevalent in species, and humans are no exception. While varying in the specific things individuals find attractive, many trends can be found to underlie a general system of aesthetics, or how beauty is defined.
Sexual selection cannot fully explain the existence of beauty, however. In fact, an illustration of this has already been mentioned herein. What possible function can an appreciation of beauty in the peacock's tail have for the human being, assuming he has no intention of mating with it (which, although an easy assumption to make, is not entirely a sound one)? The crash of waves against a rocky shoreline, the collage of pastel hues in a quiet sunset, Michelangelo's statue of David, and other such things are typically considered beautiful. They seem to afford one pleasure in the mere sensation and proximity of them, and are said to be aesthetically pleasing. Aesthetics might be defined as the study of those things that afford one sensual (usually visual) pleasure, and the nature of this pleasure. Under such a category all manner of stimuli can fall, including pretty boys and girls, peacocks, and Van Gogh's Starry Night. The question remains, however- what purpose does it serve? Here one might again refer to natural selection, since according to Darwin's theory each trait must serve or have at one point in time served some purpose.
Enter the 'pleasure principle'. Pleasure, and its nemesis pain, have been the subject of much debate over a wide range of topics varying from 'How does Rattus norvegicus maintain water balance?' to 'What's to be done?' to 'What possible motive could Tim McVeigh have really had?'. The ultimate advantage to an organism of possessing such a system can be seen in its effect upon behaviour. Typically, things that are pleasant encourage interaction, whereas things that are unpleasant are promptly avoided, and such instances of learning allow organisms to survive in many diverse environments. This might be applied to beauty, until it falls prey to yet another contradiction: why should the human find a tiger beautiful (as many do)? It is certainly not an especially adaptive behaviour to interact with tigers on any regular basis, unless it is to hunt them. On that note, the cow is one of the most widely consumed animals in human society, and, according to general consensus, has nowhere near the beauty of the tiger, whose meat is, to the limited knowledge of this Researcher, basically inedible. Moreover, few humans feel pleasure in the presence of a tiger, unless it is a tame tiger, or behind inch-thick iron bars. This introduces the issue of context.
Beauty in Context
As mentioned, different individuals find beauty in different things. The purposes of beauty thus appear to be varied and complex. This apparently arbitrary behaviour may be best understood through consideration of the 'context effect'. A tiger, to extend the above example, may only appear beautiful to the observer who considers himself secure from the threat of attack by the beast. The admiration may wane considerably as the observer is faced with a toothy snarling predator1. One's perception of beauty, therefore, is dependent upon the context in which an object is being perceived. The purpose of this phenomenon, of course, is less easily elucidated. Perhaps it was at one juncture in human evolution advantageous to admire the tiger. Those who did so might have been able to gain a better understanding of the creature and its habits, and thus avoid unfavourable interaction with it (rather than simply flee in unmitigated fear and ignorance). Or, as humans became more social, it became a sign of courage and, consequently, social status to admire (or at least feign admiration for) things that posed a threat to one's social group. Alternately, the admiration might simply have allowed a male to demonstrate his 'soft side' to the female, who was possibly wooed by such things2.
Beauty in Action
Apart from the science of it, beauty is apparently a constant influence upon the actions of human beings and serves as a primary motive for these actions. Many modern-day capitalist institutions, such as the fashion industry, the advertising industry, the communications industry, et cetera; have developed around ideas concerning what people consider beautiful. Within the social systems man has constructed for himself, his pursuit of beauty often seems amazingly illogical. He might agonise long hours over lack of personal beauty, or inability to attract a beautiful mate, or whether his buddies will think ugly something he finds beautiful. Success is also measured in terms of beauty: grand, luxurious homes, sleek cars, classy restaurants are a good measure of social esteem. The acceptance of something (or someone) of 'mediocre' beauty, for some reason, seems to put one on a lower level than those who consider the thing (or person) to be so. This makes little practical sense; nonetheless, it is a principle instilled in virtually every human culture. Modern society is obsessed, perhaps, with the idea; beautiful models adorn products from electric razors to Lexus cars. This gives rise to the 'contrast effect'3, which, simply put, forms impossible ideals in one's head and causes much distress for both himself, who stands a rare chance of attaining such beauty, and those people and places that fall short of his ideals, which constitute the vast proportion of his environment. He becomes miserable and alienated.
What's to Be Done?
Beauty doesn't have to be a bad thing. It is only when it is warped by context into something more grotesque than pleasant that problems arise. Social stigmas, perhaps, are mostly to blame for this; everyone wants what he finds beautiful, but to an even greater extent he wants what others find beautiful. That is, the context wherein appreciation of beauty is reinforced by one's neighbours might be one of the strongest factors in determining the classification of things into degrees of aesthetic value. If others like it, it must be good. In consequence, a person desiring power might horde things of beauty, and power thus can be judged based upon the fraction of his neighbours that want what he has. Why else would one horde gold? In such ways, both people and the distribution of beauty have become segregated. It is arguably a sad state of affairs, but how can it be prevented? It might all merely be a matter of modifying the context in which we observe things. A stray cat can be many times more beautiful than a $10,000 purebred (and typically is, in this Researcher's humble opinion). Likewise, a beat-up car suffused with years of memories might be much more pleasant to behold than a cold, grey, lifeless Mercedes Benz. And personal beauty can arise from infinitely more factors than simple physical symmetry or body proportion. Turning things around in this way undermines much of the power attributed to the things that conventionally stand as aesthetically superior. And is changing context really so difficult? All it requires is an exchange of ideas, some kind words of admiration for beauty in others, a smile, an act of kindness, et cetera. An open eye.