Theoretically. If we’re going to be pro-evo (not the computer foot-to-ball game, but pro-evolution, which we are, because it’s right) it either must have a survival advantage, or its a random accident, or it’s something that came up as a coincidental side blessing of something useful.
My understanding of evolution is shaky, and I have doubts about projections into ‘how and why’ things evolve, because (a) evolution isn’t teleological and (b) basically it’s just a way for people in the modern era to project their prejudices onto the past. This most commonly happens in discussions of gender, as previously flag posted, and it winds me up. It’s a circular argument. You state that today’s actions are based on what you percieve to be the behaviours of pre-historic humanity, but then your perception of those behaviours is based entirely on today’s actions.
Anyway, the point of that rant is that anything I say on this subject is likely to be bent by my personal prejudices, so I should probably avoid evolutionary arguments.
But, well, that’s what the question is looking for. The implicit statement of that phrase ‘survival advantage’ is ‘how did beauty evolve’?
The answer depends on how you define beauty. If you’re willing to apply a utilitarian aesthetic (‘nothing useless is truly beautiful’) then appreciation of beauty can be seen as ‘knowing when something is useful’. It’s not exactly sexy, but it’s an advantage. Filtering through meaningful material around you and working out what everything is and how useful it could be, that’s an advantage.
Which leads to the idea that ‘beauty’ is actually an offshoot of simply the massive expansion in brain size that aided survival by creating community, and allowing us to imagine possibilities. The brain didn’t evolve each individual feature in isolation. It just got bigger, and got used in different ways. Much of this will have been taught.
And of course, beauty is useful both for creating community and for imagination. Beauty sparks the imagination. Beauty is useful, even when it’s useless. It makes our brains work differently. It opens minds to new possibilities. It wakes us up and forces us to look at something new. It asks us to explore meanings. It asks us to use our brains.
And then there’s the non-artistic beauty.
That’s nigh on spiritual. Cresting the top of a hill and drinking in a gorgeous landscape. Feeling a part of an immense world that was not shaped by you.
Seeing beauty is this weird extension of memory, imagination and whatever it is that makes us feel like unique entities. It’s a confluence of different bits of brain operation. It’s social, but it’s also creative and personal. It’s finding stories and identifying with them. It’s exploring somebody else’s imagination.
It’s inefficient communication at its best.
I think beauty grows out of trying to understand the world, which has always been useful. It’s finding things, working other things out, communicating the findings and then trying to read them again.
Its beautiful, really.
Illustration by Helen