Archive for January 11, 2016

Our Beauty Bond

On New Year’s Day, after attending a wedding the night before in St Louis, I drove with my lovely to see the Gateway Arch.  The skyline of St Louis looks like its sister river cities until your eye finds the Arch.  Once you see it, you can’t take your eyes off the Arch.

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We walked with the crowd through the chain link fences and rubble of construction, the mounds of dirt and broken concrete, to one base of the Arch.  Most of the Park was closed for six months of construction, and the Mississippi River at flood stage had piled a hundred foot wedge of driftwood flotsam upcurrent of the flatboat docked near the park.  But nobody paid much attention to the swollen river or the ugly rubble.  All eyes looked up, tracing this parabola against the pristine sky.

We were mesmerized kids and Asians and Africans and aging tourists and St Louis natives still itching to look more.  The Arch is celebrating its 50th anniversary; it looks like it was built this year.  What’s the universal magic here?

How can a tower of steel excite in all of us a sensation so moving that we call it by the same word that we apply to movie stars and daffodils, sunrises and symphonies, the Golden Gate Bridge and the gentle bend in the river?  What is it about our aesthetic brain that draws us all irresistibly to these inanimate wonders, all over the world?  Why should we be moved by the beauty of flowers?  Flowers are for the birds and the bees.

The argument that our sense of beauty evolved to favor selection of healthy mates helps us understand how we have developed a common view of beautiful people.  But physicist David Deutsch argues in The Beginning of Infinity (2011) that our shared sense of beauty is rooted in something broader than mate selection.   In a chapter titled “Why are Flowers Beautiful?” he explores the role of taste and attraction in the co-evolution of flowers and insects.  For both the insects and the flowers survival has depended on sharing a system of signaling that insured both feeding for the bees and fertilization for the flowers.  We humans find flowers beautiful too, not for their food but for their colors and symmetry and sometimes their aromas and for what they mean to us as complex signals of life and the process of procreation.  It’s a good thing that we’re fascinated by life.  The more we study it, the better we survive.

It’s not hard to imagine the survival value for our species of sharing common attractions.  In hunter-gatherer settings we are likely to hunt and gather more efficiently if members of our group are attracted to the same sights and smells and sounds and places.  And we do better if we share the same revulsions, as in teaching our toddlers not to play with their feces or eat rotten food.  And it’s easier to organize multiple groups into tribes if we’re all attracted to sunrises from the mountaintop and drumbeats and ceremonial dancing.

This shared sense of beauty may also reflect our collective imaginations at work.   If we have evolved to be attracted to mates who radiate signs of sexual health through the “eight pillars of beauty,” isn’t it possible that we’re also attracted to variants of those features in inanimate objects?  The arc of the rainbow tickles our love for symmetry and curves and motion and bright colors.  The shape of the ring on your finger and the crescent moon and an outline in a Matisse drawing capture our fascination with graceful motion, circles, and the arc of the sun.  The melodies we love evoke some magic blend of the best of the human voice and rhythms rooted in heartbeats and the gait of our footsteps and our craving for harmony.

To test this guess I tried identifying which of the eight pillars of beauty (youthfulness, symmetry, averageness, motion, body scents, complexion, hair texture, gender clarity) I could easily associate with some common inanimate icons of beauty: the egg, sunrise, pyramid, rainbow, snowdrift, rose, Beethoven’s seventh symphony, Mt Everest.  For each it was not hard to find associations with at east two or three of the eight pillars of beauty.   Guided by genes and learning, our imaginations cultivate this bond of beauty, another form of mortar for the human mosaic.

As we were leaving the Gateway Arch we ran into a couple who had been at the wedding.  In fact, that morning at breakfast they had told us they just got engaged at Christmas.  The future groom’s father, who lives just a couple of hours away, had come to town to see them and they had just visited the Arch, natives itching for another look, lovers drawn to this parabola of steel.  For them and for us, this icon captures, in addition to the mesmerizing power of its size, our love of symmetry, the parabolic motion of an object tossed upwards, simplicity (or averageness) on an enormous scale, clean lines, and the symbolic welcome that invites us in.

Our species loves to be welcomed in.  The Gateway Arch may be our largest and most beautiful icon of welcome.