Function as Beauty
Function as Beauty
November 3, 2009
Researchers tell us that we find other humans beautiful when those hotties appear as if they could produce healthy offspring. In other words, our minds translate the perception of species survival utility into the perception of beauty. I wonder if survival utility is the ONLY thing we find beautiful about our world, but we don’t realize it.
If you’re a guy, you know the joy of walking through a hardware store and seeing all of the well-made tools. To me, a good power drill looks like art. It’s literally beautiful. And of course tools have survival utility. So far, my hypothesis holds.
Little kids are drawn to playing with toy trucks and toy bulldozers. Kids wouldn’t describe those toys as beautiful, but those items must be visually attractive in their own way. Obviously construction equipment represents tools that are highly useful, and help humans survive. Even toddlers realize it.
Speaking of toddlers, adults find babies to be attractive almost automatically, without regard to what the little creatures look like. Clearly the adult response to babies has survival utility.
There are plenty of areas open for interpretation under this hypothesis. For example, a parking lot is arguably more useful than a forest, depending on the context, but the forest registers as being more beautiful. Perhaps that is because we’re not that far evolved from hunters and gatherers, for whom a forest means survival and a parking lot means no food.
In general, scenery that has a lot of variety in color and shapes looks more beautiful than something with less variety. That makes sense from a survival standpoint too, since eating a variety of foods is healthier than eating just one type. And it would be easier to hide in an environment with more variety. Variety seems highly correlated with basic survival.
I thought a lot about beauty as function during the design of our new house. At every step, it seemed as if we had to choose between function and some “standard” sense of beauty. In time, I came to see this as a false choice. The most functional choices register as beauty when you put them all together.
The best example of that idea, which I have mentioned before, is the formal living room. In a traditional home, the formal living room is somewhere near the front door, and it has no function but to look beautiful. To me this sort of room always looks hideous no matter how well the drapes match the furniture, because the space has no utility. In my view, beauty is a garage with some extra space on one end for a ping pong table. I might be stretching the “survival” concept to include recreation, but there’s no point in surviving if you’re going to be unhappy.
Another example of beauty as function is the layout of our ground floor. It has a circular flow, so you can head down the hallway, turn right twice, and end up where you started. You can never be cornered. The feeling you get in the space is one of beauty, but it probably stems from some sort of survival instinct. And you get that feeling before the paint, baseboards, furniture, floors, or drapes are in place. The beauty seems to come directly from some primal sense of how the space flows. At least that’s how it feels to me.
When you coordinate colors, for your outfit or your living space, you try to avoid introducing a color that doesn’t match at least one other color that is already there. To do otherwise makes the outcome less beautiful. Here again, I think the survival instinct is informing our sense of beauty. As an early humanoid, I would think that any time a color appeared in your view that was inconsistent with the surroundings, that meant something was wrong, and perhaps dangerous.
That’s my hypothesis: Beauty is nothing more than our recognition of functions that are related to current or past survival.
Okay, I’m sure other people have the same theory. But I’m the first one to write about it in The Dilbert Blog.