Thursday, May 17, 2007

Elegant Design

I was out walking today, and I noticed how beautiful the wild flowers were. Nature has presumably selected such structures because they attract pollen-transporting insects, which were simultaneously selected because they associated the flowers’ colours, or their ultraviolet shines, with food, or something along those lines. So why, I wonder, do we find flowers attractive? A story might have been told, of how those who did not find flowers beautiful did not pick them, and so were stung less often and had more honey (etc.), had we evolved to find flowers unattractive, which we did not. Similarly, one could have told a story of how we came to find raw potatoes beautiful, were they beautiful. Now, we do find fruit attractive, and so such stories are indeed told about fruit, but therefore the beauty of the wild flowers is all the more puzzling—why do we not find, for example, dead animals attractive? (Did those who found raw flesh as attractive as the furry creatures that contain it succumb more frequently to food poisoning, while those who discovered fire and cooking survived?) So, I’m wondering (as in all my posts, what others may know) about the evolution of our appreciation of art. I guess that the natural selection of chemical structures might in all likelihood produce beautiful physical objects, but I’m puzzled by how it could produce people who find them beautiful. (E.g. rooks are clearly elegant, to pick up an example from my previous post, but why do we find elegance aesthetically attractive? We admire aerodynamic shapes in nature, and have done so in our own designs, from stylised cave-paintings to futuristic furniture, but we are not birds, so why?) The thing is, when fans of ‘Intelligent Design’ accuse materialistic scientists of giving us a bleak, soulless world-view, many of those scientists respond by pointing out that it was the majesty, the beauty of nature that attracted them to science in the first place. But it seems, prima facie, quite unlikely that evolved matter should find such things beautiful—what could the evolutionary point of aesthetic attraction have been? Beautiful clothes need not be practical, or even sexy, and there is more to art than the cuteness that we find in our young.

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