The pleasure we take in beauty must have been shaped by evolution — but what adaptive advantage did it give us?
In every culture on Earth, people decorate their possessions and themselves, and enjoy visual art. They stare in awe at vast landscapes and the starry sky, and they sing and dance, and make instrumental music. Why? The answer seems obvious: it gives them pleasure. But why should it? What benefit does the capacity for aesthetic pleasure bestow on the human organism? Aesthetic pleasure is activity-focused, like cuddling, not drive-actuated or end-directed, like eating. The activity it accompanies is what I would generically call ‘contemplation’. Aesthetic pleasure encourages us to contemplate its object. But why is this good, from an evolutionary point of view? Why is it valuable to be absorbed in contemplation, with all the attendant dangers of reduced vigilance? Wasting time and energy puts organisms at an evolutionary disadvantage. For large animals such as us, unnecessary activity is particularly expensive.