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Defending the Function-as-Beauty Hypothesis

Defending the Function-as-Beauty Hypothesis

    Yesterday I blogged that beauty is nothing more than our recognition of functions that are related to current or past survival. Many of you chimed in with counterexamples and arguments. I will address them here.

    Q. Music is beautiful. Where’s the survival benefit there? 

     A. Even the most famous musicians are generally only enjoyed by 10% of the population. Someone mentioned Miles Davis. I can’t stand listening to him. But every person reading this blog would agree that a lush forest is beautiful. So while music in general is universally enjoyed, any given song does not register as beautiful to the public at large. 

    Q. What about art?

    A. We speak of “appreciating” art, and I think that’s a good word. Most art wouldn’t be described as beautiful. The Mona Lisa, for example, is skillfully done, but the subject is homely. If other people hadn’t told you it was worth a fortune, you wouldn’t hang it in your living room. And like music, there is no universal standard for beauty in art.

    But there’s still a correlation between art and survival impulses. It’s probably no coincidence that so much art includes food, babies, and well-fed women during childbearing years.

    Q. You can concoct an argument that ANYTHING has a survival benefit.

    A. What’s the survival benefit of a spider or a human turd? If you break down either of them for their color and form, you’d find the elements that would be considered beauty in some other context. But since spiders and turds have no survival benefit, they don’t appear beautiful to the public at large.

    Q. What about an ocean? Or a sunset?

    A. The ocean is full of food. That one is easy. And if you are an early human living outdoors, sunset and sunrise are probably the best times for hunting and gathering. Midday is too hot. After dark, you’re more prey than predator.

    Q. Why does a Corvette or a Porsche look more beautiful than an Edsel?

    A. Fast cars have more function than slow ones. Most of the beautiful ones are fast. You need speed to catch prey and avoid predators.

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