Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty (TED talk of the week)

This week’s TED talk is an amazing and aesthetically pleasing talk on a Darwinian theory of beauty. The talk is given by Denis Dutton but is done in collaboration with animator Andrew Park to produce a truly beautiful, but controversial presentation.

Dutton argues for a universal philosophy of beauty that, much like Sam Harris’ universal morality, is based on science. In this case, Dutton believes that our universal appreciation of beauty is an evolutionary adaptation with deep origins.

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the talk, I disagree with Dutton. While it is possible that there are aspects of beauty which are universal (and perhaps the appreciation of and longing for beauty is itself the universal aspect), I don’t believe the reason for this is because of evolution. Yes, natural and sexual selection are essential in our development as a species but to say these determine artistic preferences seems like *just* a bit of a stretch.

I’d encourage everyone to watch the presentation and enjoy it simply for its creativity and beauty. Then come on back and share what you think about his ideas. Do you agree with him or with me?

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About justintopp

Biology professor/mentor who loves sports, laughter, science & religion/theology (especially mind, evolution, soul, and what it means to be human), and most of all, his bride and baby girl.
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5 Responses to Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty (TED talk of the week)

  1. dsholland says:

    I thought Mr. Dutton made a leap (jumping to a conclusion – somewhat akin to faith) very early in the talk that set the basis for the discussion. Which was that there is no other basis for our existence than “natural selection” and “random chance”. Once you accept that premise the logic is pretty consistent (if it must be explained in those terms). It did occur to me that the idea of the beautiful landscape ignored the Golden Ratio even while mimicking it. I’m not sure how well that (what I always thought was a well established) fact fits into the narrative ;-)

  2. Bill says:

    I thought it was a fascinating talk, but he didn’t cite enough evidence to support his conclusions. I’m not convinced that he is wrong, only that he doesn’t produce enough data. I found the landscape and hand axe arguments unconvincing. It seems reasonable to me that there may be some artistic preferences that are universal and based in our evolutionary history, but I’m skeptical of these and even if they’re valid examples that wouldn’t necessarily mean that all art appreciation derives from natural or sexual selection. Very interesting premise though and I hadn’t seen this talk. Thanks for posting it.

  3. Aaron says:

    Why couldn’t it be because of evolutionary mechanisms? Is it because it precludes the need for a God who bestows this “ability” upon human beings?

    Dutton’s theory seems plausible, although he only concentrated on visual beauty. There is also the role of the other senses in the appreciation of beauty, e.g. the olfactory – which evolutionarily may be more ancient than the visual system. It is perfectly reasonable to assume that even beauty through those senses may have a deep evolutionary explanation. It may not necessarily be darwinian, it could also be some form of lamarckian evolution through epigenetic causes, similiar to what VS Ramachandran speculates about mirror neurons in the brain.

    With regard to this theory of beauty somehow robbing the “glory” of a God-bestowed ability, I would refer you to Justin Barrett’s work on the psychology of religious feeling, wherein, human beings may be “born believers” precisely because God through evolution (not necessarily “God-guided”) made them so.

  4. Aaron says:

    Also, as someone mentioned, this theory cannot account for beauty in the mathematical sense.

  5. justintopp says:

    Hi Aaron. In an effort of being brief in this blog post, I didn’t explain what I meant by evolution enough. Of course, beauty and the ability to perceive it is a product of evolution. What I’m saying is that what we find beautiful usually has a subjective component. And it’s difficult to foresee a biological mechanism for that. So while there may be a universal desire for beauty which finds its cause in evolution, what we find beautiful is more difficult to explain by natural selection.

    I would encourage you to read more of my posts. You’ll see I do not attempt to ignore or discard scientific explanations for the sake of God nor do I think they rob God of glory. I also don’t believe there are questions that are off limits to science.

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