Posted September 22, 2014 by Bernard J. Baars in archeology of mind

The Kim Kardashian hypothesis of beauty.

Venus_of_Willendorf_frontview_retouched_2Here is a response I just wrote to a new article by Leonid Perlovsky, “Aeshetic emotions, what are their cognitive functions?” (See here, here, and here).

Perlovsky raises the classical question, “Why do we feel pleasure experiencing the things we consider to be beautiful?” “Why do we seek beauty and pleasure in experiences that do not seem to have any practical use?”

My response is a little more jargony than I normally post on *A Conscious Brain.* But you can handle it…

Notice the sources of these hypotheses — Dan Zahavi, Nicholas Wade, Stephen Brown, and other  bio-anthropologists who have thought a great deal about this question. All cited sources can be found readily on the web and Wikipedia.

Dear Leonid,

I admire your range of interesting papers on fundamental questions. 

In regard to esthetic pleasure and attraction, I would call your attention to a sizable evolutionary anthropology literature on the biological costs and benefits of sexual signals — the classical case being the male peacock, with its beautiful but very expensive mating display. 

Dan Zahavi called this the Handicap Principle in 1975, and the idea is essentially that sexual selection for mating with the fittest mates is so important as an evolutionary driver that hominins like us, and all of our ancestors among primates, mammals and vertebrates, dedicated a great percentage of biological resources to it.

The male peacock posing for sexual selection by the well-camouflaged females is endangering his life by attracting predators by blatant visual, auditory, and presumably olfactory signaling. The female peahen takes no such chances. Thus the male handicaps himself to look beautiful, and interestingly, humans have long used peacock feathers to decorate themselves as well.

It is precisely the apparently inutility of esthetic enjoyment that is evolutionarily important, along the lines of Thorstein Veblen’s “conspicuous consumption.” Biologically, the male peacock is signaling “looking how strong and fertile I am!!! I can even afford to risk attack by cats, snakes and birds of prey, vast metabolic energy, attacks from competing peacocks in heat, the strength to shiver my tail feathers and preen for hours, simply to attract the best female! What healthy offspring we shall have!

The easy analogy would be to men with muscle cars or Harley-Davidsons when they could drive a mini-car instead. Among recent entertainment stars, Kim Kardashian leads a trend of women spending fortunes on breast and buttocks enlargements. Much earlier in our evolution some varieties of H sapiens evolved large breasts, steatopygous buttocks, and large stomachs to win the competition for sexual selection. 

The ability to store fat and muscle is a great advantage in cold climates. Siberian-descended Inuits and Amerindians are a good example.  But it handicaps survival in the face of hot droughts. Since human ancestors are known to have barely survived centuries of  drought in the desertification of the Sahara in the millennia before the “African Exodus,” (60,000 YA). Our ancestral population is thought to have collapsed to only 5,000 individuals in North East Africa. Drought adaptation is a major Darwinian constraint on survival. 

(Note that the term “African Exodus” is not the right word for Africans who escaped the desertification of the Sahara by migrating south, nor does it apply to the peoples who remained outside of the Sahara, like the Khoi San of the Kalahari Desert. Khoi San body morphology is gracile rather than robust, as befits a desert-dwelling people, and their knowledge of semi-arid survival tactics is vast. 

Nicholas Wade has pointed out  that tribal peoples perform frequent, vigorous and long-lasting community dancing, and universally harbor other-worldly religious beliefs, both of which are thought to enhance group harmony and therefore survival. Mating in tribal peoples tends to obey strict kinship rules, either within the birth group, or between allied groups. These appear to be Human Universals (Stephen Brown’s Human Universals (1992)). 

More than 200,000 years ago humans dug out colored clay deposits in South Africa, thought to have been used for body decoration by men and women. Those colored clays were apparently traded over long distances. 

Esthetics — the study of beauty — seems to come from at least a 100,000 years of sexual display crafts. Jewelry like pierced seashells and beads are also found far from their origins in North Africa. Body painting, hair styles, special clothing, fierce or charming masks, prominent head gear, vigorous dancing, music-making, singing and use of instruments, seductive movements and gestures, competition within genders, verbal facility, display of cooking and hunting skills, and an unlimited number of creative attention-catching behaviors can be related to sexual display.

Among the Amerindian Sioux male warriors showed off their physical size and strength (often 6′ or taller), and created new clothing fashions each year, while women took a more modest role. “Counting coup” — rushing into an enemy village, physically touching a fierce enemy warrior, and rushing out again to safety was a quantitative measure of masculine heroics. Somewhat like today’s military ribbons, Sioux warriors decorated their clothing to signal the number of times they counted coup. 

Precisely analogous behavior can be seen today in ever-changing female fashions, in male body building, and in military uniforms for men, including medals and honor ribbons displayed on the left chest, reflecting exemplary combat experiences, military skills, and rank in the warrior hierarchy. Military headgear can be especially spectacular, as any tourist who has attended the Buckingham Palace Horse Parade can attest. Today a ritual of competitive marching display is carried out in some Pakistan-Indian border towns, derived directly from the stamping and balletic displays introduced by the British Raj. 

The bodily posture of “pride” is also on display — see palace guards throughout Europe, including the Kremlin in modern Russia. Mammalian positions of pride are anti-gravity postures (head back, torso erect, high goose-stepping) which require physical training, and which oppose the gravitational body postures of social defeat, depression and surrender (head down, bowing low, slow appeasement posture while approaching the victor, etc.) Notice that we instantly recognize those body postures in lions, horses, cats, dogs and humans.

The standard Napoleonic pride statue in European capitals is a forward-facing man on a war horse, bearing a sword. The upward pointing of the sword, spear or rifle in heroic European sculptures may hark back in evolution to the upward-pointing penis during courtship display in chimps and other primate relatives. In the Romantic art of Jacques-Louis David Napoleon Bonaparte appears as the idealized hero on a white horse, the model for hundreds of similar statues and paintings of the time.

Therefore the link between male heroics, female fashions, secondary and primary sexual signals, music and the arts is unavoidable in the arts. Obviously this does not explain all of the arts all the time. The evolution of sexual display is a simple explanation covering a very large amount of evidence. 

Notice that this bio-anthropological hypothesis accounts for a number of features of esthetics you raised in your interesting article.

Bernard J. Baars