This paper gathers a few points developed in my recent
book, The Indispensable Excess of the
Aesthetic: Evolution of Sensibility in Nature, where I explore the
processes that involve aisthesis from
their most primal manifestations to their more complex. I propose the concept
of bio-aesthetics as the study of all forms of sensibility in living beings,
and that, given the fact that it is a function of our corporeal condition, the
required starting point is the evolutionary paradigm. Another crucial tool for
understanding how different types of creatures value, understand, react, and
relate to their environment is provided by the recent field of bio-semiotics,
the study of the dynamics of signification in different forms of life. What
becomes particularly salient is the role of female discernment and evaluation
through mate selection and, consequently, in the future configuration of the
species, a phenomenon that can be denoted as phylo-genetic poetics.
Baumgarten, bio-aesthetics, bio-semiotics, Darwinism, epigenesis, evolution,
female choice, onto-poetics, phylo-poetics, sexual selection, theory of sensibility
For much of
our philosophical tradition, the realm of the aesthetic has been placed in a
superior, lofty position in a hierarchical relation compared to other human
endeavors. For Plato, beauty is an object of high-minded contemplation at the
top in the world of ideas and contiguous with goodness and truth. From Longinus
to Hegel, art, beauty, and the sublime are higher than and superior to nature.
Even a down-to-earth pragmatist as John Dewey placed art and the aesthetic at
the very pinnacle of everyday experience. By looking
at the world from above, this axiology of verticality predictably locates the
spiritual at the peak and the material underneath, artistic beauty up and
natural beauty down, the rational above the emotional, and the mind over the
body. Yet this insistence on enhancing the aesthetic to such elevated altitudes
seems to conceal what is, in fact, its original sin: the growing evidence that
the sense of beauty actually emerges from underneath, from our pudendum.
Judging beauty may be less an outcome of the spirit than of the body, less a
matter of culture than of nature, and less a fruit of virtue than of lust. To
understand the condition of the possibility of the aesthetic we must start with
life itself, from the cell to the plant to animals and humans. We
must, consequently, explore it from beneath.
also observe it from behind by looking into our past and reading backwards the
traces left during millions of years in our inexplicable tenacity to survive
and multiply. In our bodies we carry a legacy that includes not only organs for
metabolism, breathing, and locomotion but also, and especially, sensory organs
and neuro-cognitive processes that determine our modes of aisthesis and allow us to detect, select, and interpret the world,
so as to remain in it as long as possible and pass on this gift to our
offspring. Therefore, in addition to our genetic heritage, we have inherited an
aesthetic legacy in specific forms of sensibility for valuing and reacting to
our surroundings. Our senses, emotions, and preferences attest to an evolving
aesthetics stemming from where else but our body.
task we are required to re-dimensionalize the roles of art and beauty,
categories that are certainly relevant but not
to the degree so as to monopolize the entire concern of aesthetics, since they
share equal importance with aesthetic activities other than art and with
categories besides beauty, such as the grotesque, the comic, the sordid, the
cute, and the sinister. Furthermore, the full spectrum of the extra-artistic
still remains to be explored, such as the creativity and valuation in seduction and mating, in
assessment of the environment, in the fascination of rituals and celebrations,
in the joy of achievement, in admiring excellence, in the figuration of myths,
in the pleasure of playing, in empathy or sensibility with others, and
especially in the miraculous opening up of every creature to the world.
up the horizon explored and covered by what can be accurately called
bio-aesthetics as contrasted with and complementary to socio-aesthetics or the
display of the aesthetic in ordinary social interactions, specifically what I
have proposed as "Prosaica" (1994, 2007), or everyday aesthetics in
various social institutions. Prosaica is the other side of poetica, or artistic
aesthetics, each obeying specific cultural conventions.
This is a
complex task that requires more than propositional analysis, the usual
procedure of analytical aesthetics, to deal with these problems. On one hand,
we need semiotic tools for understanding how meaning and significance are
conveyed, and on the other hand we must stand upon evolutionary research for a
scientific account of the complexity of corporeal and perceptive processes.
Following Peirce’s pragmaticist view of semiosis, von Frisch’s spectacular
findings on communication among bees and von Uexküll’s work on animal
perception, Thomas Sebeok returned semiotics to its roots in biology,
initiating the field of zoo-semiotics that later became bio-semiotics. A
century earlier, Darwin was already working unknowingly as a natural
semiologist when he decoded the morphology and behavior in plants, animals, and
humans as indices of their past imprinted upon their anatomy according to
particular ecological niches.
The relevance of semiotics
to aesthetics has been surprisingly neglected, regardless of its fertility and
rich methodological contributions, in addition to the amazing yet little known
fact that in the mid-eighteenth century, at the very foundation of aesthetics
as an autonomous discipline, Baumgarten already attempted to follow a semiotic
approach avant la lettre,
as can be confirmed in the table of contents of his unfinished Aesthetica (1750). Notice that the first
part of Aesthetica Theoretica was divided into heuristica, methodologia, and semiotica, in a
different sense from modern semiotics yet significant in itself.
2. The body in theory
Since aesthetics is a natural result of evolution and not a divine
celestial gift, we must reflect upon it from the perspective of corporeality
and its evolution. Therefore, we ought to consider the umbilical cord that ties
it to biology in retrospection instead of projecting biology upon culture by a
prospective approach. Thus, it is necessary to proceed by the so-called reverse
engineering method that Darwin tacitly applied for understanding the conditions
that shape organisms by deducing the design of a body organ from the contexts
and needs from which it evolved. This method, together with the hard work of
observation and very detailed, often tedious, annotation, resulted in the most
important paradigm revolution in the natural sciences.
Focusing on aesthetics from the body means focusing on
it from its evolution as a biological phenomenon, since "nothing in
biology makes sense except in the light of evolution," as Dobzhansky’s
well known affirmation states. By
definition, every corporeal creature, no matter what its size, is a sensitive
creature relative to its organs and modes of perception. Since the body is
first and foremost a biological phenomenon, I propose the concept of bio-aesthetics,
as it accurately denotes the study of sensibility in the whole spectrum of
nature, from the cell to the plant to the bird to Bach.
was floating in the air in mid-nineteenth-century Britain that led both Marx
and Darwin to implement the in-corporation of the body into theory, if one may
be so redundant. The worker’s body is the source of labor for Marx, that is, what
is exploited is his or her very life and muscle. Marx understood commodities as
coagulated vital, physical energy. In turn, Darwin began a genealogy of the
body because evolution is precisely the development of corpo-reality. The
animal origin of humankind and the exploitative nature of capitalism sprung
forward to explain crucial social and natural phenomena, starting from the body
in theory. From such observation of the body emerges the concept of natural
selection that would prove as fruitful for biology as surplus value was for
the prolific consequences of Darwin’s approach were, in many cases, demonized
and reduced to superficial formulas such as “the survival of the fittest”,
translated by vulgar Darwinism as the law of the jungle in line with Hobbes’s
view of homo homini lupus. However, who really is the fittest? The
most aggressive? The richest? The most
fertile? The most beautiful, perhaps? It all
sums up tautologically as the survival of the survivor.
"red in tooth and claw" from Tennynson's famous poem, "In
Memoriam A. H. H." is frequently used as a metaphor among Darwinists
referring to the cruelty in nature by predators’ teeth and claws dripping with
their victims’ blood. This sense of ferocity has been exacerbated
in Richard Dawkins’ selfish gene theory explaining the process of evolution by
the dynamics of sheer gene replication. For Dawkins, evolution is a mechanical consequence of
blind genetic replicators that utilize bodies as gene vehicles or replicating
machines best suited to guarantee such replication in various ecological
niches. One wonders why, then, so much effort would be spent into producing
such an amount and variety of phenotypes when that energy could likely have
been more efficiently used in the multiplication of just naked genes, without
wasting resources on such excessive devices as bodies. I am inclined to think
that this waste could perhaps be explained by a sort of Hegelian curiosity of
objectifying for the sake of contemplating the inherent possibilities of
evolution and contradicting Dawkins. Moreover, as we shall see later, that a
blind and insatiable replicating machine is operating in nature does not seem
to be always or only the case. On the contrary, what we are witnessing is
really a very stubborn subject avid to live and play out by trial and error the
various possibilities of being in this world with the skill of an expert
gambler. This individual subject, whoever he or she may be, fits his or
her senses to see better, hear better and play better, as the wolf in Little
Red Riding Hood would have said.
This could explain
why such an impressive variety of species and prodigious forms of life violate
the law of entropy because, instead of tending to homogeneity, evolution
projects the physical world towards a never-ending diversity. One
suspects that what is at stake here is a perspicacity in integrating and blending
the simple towards the complex and peeking into the unknown. From the binding of matter and energy, to quarks
forming hadrons into a variety of atoms, to inorganic and then organic
molecules, to replicating DNA, plus the shuffling and combinatorial diploid
eukaryotic organisms to sexual preference choice up to the generation of varied
biomes with multiplied interactive webs and the emergence of human culture and
language, all appear to be the development of a world out of mere
curiosity. And God saw that it was interesting ...
and got excited.
3. The aesthetic compass
What is life? For
Schrödinger it is the property of self-assembly against the tendency toward
disorder and entropy. Gerald Joyce of NASA defined it as a self-sustaining
chemical system capable of Darwinian evolution.
From a cybernetic
perspective, Bernard Korzeniewski understood "life ([as]a living
individual) is defined as a network of inferior negative feedbacks (regulatory
mechanisms) subordinated to (being at service of) a superior positive feedback
(potential of expansion)."  For Jack W. Szostak, "[w]e can consider life as a
property that emerges from the union of two fundamentally different kinds of
replicating systems: the informational genome and the three-dimensional
structure in which it resides."  Finally, from our aesthetic perspective, we can define
life as aisthesis, matter perceiving matter and thus ceasing to be only matter,
thus opening the dimension of subjectivity.
We thus embark on this
exploration with our compass aligned upon αισθητικός,
what relates to sensibility. Aisthesis
is receptivity, openness to the environment, the sentient and sensorial on any
scale. Not only
Beethoven and Rembrandt had sensibility but dragonflies and bacteria also do,
at a different level of complexity and qualia.
make aisthesis and semiosis possible:
detecting a stimulus or source, and linking it to a meaning. Whenever a process
of semiosis takes place, matter is no longer only matter, as it becomes also
meaning. Perception and signification, aisthesis
and semiosis, allow the body to open up and distinguish between self and other
by autopoiesis, to decide to go near
or distance itself from a signal by approaching or escaping, and to absorb nutrients
or avoid toxic substances by attraction or repulsion. The body cyclically
performs aisthesis by opening toward
its objects, semiosis by signifying
them, and praxis by acting in
accordance. In other words, it detects its object by aisthesis, signifies it in semiosis, and decides action in praxis
through a triadic survival cycle.
4. Problems in evolutionary aesthetics
Two major obstacles come up in various
attempts to apply evolutionary approaches to aesthetics. On the one hand is the temptation to automatically
project concepts from biology upon the field of culture without any mediation. On
the other hand it is common to transfer the traditional restriction of the term
aesthetics to the study of art and beauty; and thus when considering
evolutionism, reduce its scope to art in nature or to nature in art to qualify
objects instead of an activity that relates sentient beings with their world. In Baumgarten's foundational book Aesthetica (1750), aesthetics is clearly defined as scientia
cognitionis sensitivae, not as the theory of art but as the science of
sensitive knowledge or that acquired by means of the senses. Aesthetics has
been traditionally dedicated to dealing with other issues of greater social
demand at the moment of an emerging art market, namely establishing criteria
for assessing the value of art, of justifying a social class’s idea of good
taste, and setting up an objective basis for the judgment of beauty according
to a particular culture and social group.
Given the ambiguity of the
term, not only in everyday language but also in specialized texts on this
topic, we must comply with a protocol that seems to be a life sentence imposed
upon any research on aesthetics, the operational definition of the concept. Although
authors such as Thornhill deny that the domain of aesthetics can be defined, as
did other philosophers before him like Morris Weitz, and intend to work with only
the traditional topics of aesthetics from an evolutionary model. Many of the
problems that the emerging Darwinian aesthetics is inheriting also and again
result from the vagueness of the term and its implications. Works
of great erudition are less influential for not complying with this
requirement, as the imprecision they tolerate in the concept places before them
dangerous traps by the opportunistic use of its various and often contradictory
meanings, such as metaphorical or literal, or evaluative, descriptive or
prescriptive. These theoretical and terminological problems are common to
different neo-Darwinist works, where the term "aesthetics" keeps
metamorphosing to denote preference, pleasure, art, decoration, good or bad
taste, perception, fashion, style, or quality and beauty.
Among the directions taken by evolutionary
aesthetics we can count surveys of preferences in artifacts (Voland), in parks
and landscapes (Orians and Kaplan), experiments in neurological perception of
color and form (Seki), reactions in infants to attractiveness in photographs of
female faces (Etcoff), the anthropology of
customs, crafts, and rituals of native cultures (Dissanayake), an exploration of
aesthetic pleasure in animals (Welsch), the moving body (Grammer), the
evolution of artistic creation and imagination (Velez), and even debating
problems of art forgery and styles of avant garde and conceptual art, and
interpreting preferences in painting (Dutton).
The problem does not lie in
the variety of topics that Darwinian aesthetics addresses. On the contrary, it
is involved in a wide spectrum of phenomena that goes beyond established
notions of aesthetic aspects or the ontology of beauty. The difficulty lies in
the alteration of meaning in each case, as the term keeps slipping and shifting
for the sake of the argument. Against the uncertainty that Thornhill tolerates,
it is necessary to determine its definition, and the etymological denotation of
aisthesis is enough together with
Baumgarten’s foundational concept. From aisthesis
all the rest springs forth: attraction, valuation, appreciation, fascination,
interpretation, creation, and contemplation.
Without perception, there can be no artistic expression, nor appreciation of
the graceful or of the tragic, and certainly no beauty. As Berleant clearly
emphasizes, "For nothing is more
primary in human experience than sensory perception, and the satisfactions and
dissatisfactions of experience are a principal motivation in our behavior. I
take this primacy, then, as the originating idea of the aesthetic, aisthesis, literally, perception by the
the aesthetic compass we’ll use to guide us here has a trembling little needle
pointing to a very different direction from art-centric and beauty-centric
aesthetics with its tenets, but also from gene-centric Darwinian aesthetics and
its obsession with fitness, enabling us to concentrate on Darwin’s "small trifling particulars" that
are everything but trifling. Cyril Aydon, Darwin's biographer, points out his
"almost superhuman ability to see things that other people did not notice.
His powers of observation were as different from the average person’s, as a
hawk’s are from a mole’s. He also had a quite breathtaking ability to see, not
only the thing itself, but its significance."
5. What it like is to be a
remember well the time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I
have got over this stage of the complaint, and now small trifling particulars
of structure often make me very uncomfortable. The sight of a feather in a
peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick! …
really found the devil in the details, since to explain the evolution of
species, the starting point had to be in these "small trifling
particulars" of everyday life, be it the cricket’s elytra, the rubbing of
a petiole, a woodpecker’s beak, or the gesture of a monkey. It meant yielding
our metaphysical musings and instead being attentive to these minute details.
The enigma of the peacock, a
singular aesthetic and absolutely excessive event in nature, was so enigmatic
that it literally made Darwin sick, as he confessed in a letter to his friend
Asa Gray on April 3, 1860.
No wonder. This magnificent peacock tail questioned the explanatory principle
of evolution by random mutation and natural selection in The Origin of Species, which predicts that a peacock with a short
tail would have been selected over one with the long tail simply because it is
more practical for survival. So hard to maintain and show off, exhibiting its
flaws to females, so inconvenient by making its owner more conspicuous to
predators, heavier for escaping danger, in need of more nutrients and more
vulnerable to parasites, this huge tail did not seem to find a coherent
explanation in Darwinian theory. Facts fitted so wonderfully in place before
Darwin realized this anomaly until it became like a ghost that haunted the
evolutionary paradigm, threatening to collapse it.
Darwin’s sickness turned
into a real passion for explaining it. Despite the criticisms and objections
even from those who could help him solve it, like his co-evolutionist Alfred R.
Wallace, Darwin assumed this enormous challenge notwithstanding the great
intellectual cost of effort to write The
Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, which, at 899 pages, is almost
double in size of the Origin’s 502 pages, and the consequence of
having to remain almost in the darkness of academic publishing for a century.
In this second text, Darwin confessed that he collected notes on the origin of
man with the intention of never publishing them, since merely the slight
mention that "light will be
thrown on the origin of man and his history" in the Origin of
Species caused such commotion as to discourage anyone.
Under the new version, the
process of evolution is explained not only as the blind and fierce mechanism of
natural selection of the fittest by random mutations and selective retention of
traits in the struggle for survival, but as something different and more
radical: the idea that the female of
each species could be running part of the selection process. To top it off,
this occurs by aesthetic criteria, superfluous almost by definition under
standard and conventional practical criteria. Biology at the hands of the
aesthetic whim of females!
This attests to Darwin’s
intellectual honesty considering his misogynist bias, immersed as he was in the
Victorian milieu, with such bad taste as to write that: "The chief
distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man's
attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman—whether
requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses
and hands." So now the
eternal feminine billed Darwin's prejudice dearly. Again, as with Eve, Lilith,
Pandora, Malinche, Helen of Troy, and Cleopatra, evolutionary eccentricities
are entirely the female’s fault.
Darwin was ridiculed for his
idea of female selection, and still in 1960 an explanation holding that females
were wooed not because they could choose partners but because they were too
lazy to mate naturally and too afraid of being touched, since when a predator
touches them they die, was taken seriously. Such a
theory is false as proven by the highly selective sense of females in various
species, such as Physalaemus postulosus frogs in Michael Ryan's
experiment showing that they are able to accurately distinguish the size of the
male by the simple croaking tone, and therefore select the largest, one example
Thus, the female is at the
helm of the evolution of multiple species as she requires to be captivated by
the male whose particular features she chooses to pass on to the next generation.
In many cases, she does not wait to be seduced but goes straight to the male
that is most attractive to her and copulates with him. The selection of exotic
luxuries of nature, such as birds of paradise, pheasants, and peacocks, has no
other explanation than this aesthetic taste of females in total rebellion
against evolutionary instrumentalism. Thus, the peacock phenomenon is a
challenge not only to theoretical misogyny but to the pragmatic heart and
marrow of evolutionary theory, because choosing the beautiful rather than the
useful requires some explanation. We must at least recognize that we owe to the
females of each species the variety of colors, shapes, and ornaments of nature
by selecting and cultivating the finest for reproduction.
Just as man can give
beauty, according to his standard of taste, to his male poultry, or more
strictly can modify the beauty originally acquired by the parent species, can
give to the Sebright bantam a new and elegant plumage, an erect and peculiar
carriage—so it appears that female birds in a state of nature, have by a long
selection of the more attractive males, added to their beauty or other
attractive qualities. No doubt this implies powers of discrimination and taste
on the part of the female which will at first appear extremely improbable; but
by the facts to be adduced hereafter, I hope to be able to shew that the
females actually have these powers.
And he was! This female
frivolity implies that at stake is not only a direct instrumental criterion
but, and who would have imagined, aesthetic criteria. This is a scandal that
not only upsets misogynists with their biases by recognizing that females drive
the evolution of certain species but also puts into question the evolutionary
formula of blind mutation and natural selection to the opposite, a deliberate
and very discerning mode of selection. Darwinian functionalism derives,
paradoxically, in hedonism and caprice.
During the 1920s, Ronald
Fisher proposed an answer to the peacock enigma by the runaway process
hypothesis that assumes that preferences are inherited, and thus traits that
are preferred have an advantage in selection. For Fisher, the case of the peacock is a result
of female preferences transmitted to their daughters just as the preferred
traits in males are inherited by their male offspring, who subsequently will be
favored for mating. What we do not understand yet is how preferences are
inherited, and why some particular eccentric phenotypes are preferred to
others. But we may come to understand this.
6. Phylo-genetic and onto-genetic poetics
The process by which females
select particular traits for the next generation can be properly called phylo-genetic poetics, or the
conformation of the species through many generations as a result of female
sexual choice of particular male traits in color, size, sound, attitude, or
posture. On the other hand, we can denote as onto-genetic poetics the activity generally performed by males when
deliberately constructing attractive artifacts like bowers or decorating nests
for their alluring visual effect, in addition to training themselves and
developing individual dexterity in song, dance, or antics to impress the
female. Phylo-poetics centers on alteration of the phenotype, whereas
onto-poetics deals with the extended phenotype or acquired features through
individual display of adroitness.
Females in many species are
not necessarily forced to mate with the bravest and most competitive male that
wins contests at the birds’ lek or public square but rather are seduced
by the most charming. "The rock-thrush of Guiana, birds of Paradise, and
some others, congregate; and successive males display their gorgeous plumage
and perform strange antics before the females standing by as spectators and
choosing the most attractive partner," Darwin notes. He adds
that "the exertion of some choice on the part of the female seems a law
almost as general as the eagerness of the male." By "eagerness," Darwin is implying
males’ low discriminatory sense, as in turkeys, which is very low indeed, as
some can get sexually aroused by a mere wooden female head.
This explanation opens up
yet another puzzle even more difficult to solve: Why do females require beauty to mate? Do they
feel pleasure at the sight of a male peacock's tail? How important is the
beauty of the male to a female, if she stays away from him immediately after copulation
anyway, as is the case with peacocks, since they are polygamous? To these
enigmas we may add the riddle of whether the female cricket is actually moved by
listening to the stridulating music of the male? Does she really interpret it
as something close to beautiful or consoling or something else? Does the peahen
admire colors and proportions or is she just calculating the quality indexes of
the genotype and its resistance to parasites by the phenotype? As Nagel asked,
"What is it like to be a bat?" To solve this mystery, I would really
like to know what it is like to be a
7. Aesthetic adaptations
assumes that our choices and reactions are a product of mental and anatomical
conformations that our ancestors acquired 2,000,000 years ago when they roamed
the savanna as nomadic hunters and gatherers. We should
therefore recognize that we partly contain, as matrioshkas, elements of our antecessors
homo ergaster, erectus, habilis, hominids, primates, mammals, vertebrates,
metazoids, eukaryotes, and prokaryotes, from whom we ramified and descended,
and thus of their forms of perception. The origin and development of human
adaptation to living conditions in this stage gradually determined the
morphological stability we acquired. Isn’t it amazing that already 200,000
years ago a creature existed that played the flute, learned to sew, and painted
animal and human figures with great expressivity?
Darwin used the strategy of
studying the organism in reverse as a set of adaptations through thousands of
generations to explain the mechanics of evolution. Certain traits and organs
are formed by infinitesimal changes until structures emerge as spectacular as
the spherical eye lens of fish and fly, or the canine sense of smell able to perceive
traces left by others not only in space but in time, and as the Broca and
Wernicke's area in the neurocortex that enables sophisticated human language.
It must also be stressed
that the transformation of the phenotype is due not only to the random genetic
mutations and selective retention of favorable traits in Darwin’s formula but
also to the impact of an environment that can cause changes without mutations
in the development of an organism simply by activating dormant traits of the
genotype that reveal genetic variants already present in a population. These
variants are later captured by natural selection to be reshuffled in sexual
reproduction, the combinations of which result in more effective survival
phenotypes. The fact that alterations during cell development may become
hereditary is explained by an interaction between the epigenetic level (epi,
around) and the genes which affect each other in both directions. Therefore,
the variation of species depends not only on mutations but also on
environmental changes that accelerate evolution to produce different phenotypes
from the same genome.
Whoever was able to detect
dew drops on leaves or on desert stones, discern the resistance of ice on a
lake, and quickly identify the fur of a bear or a tiger through the foliage,
the scales of a reptile among the weeds, or ripe fruit at a very long distance
had an evolutionary advantage and passed its own life to its descendants. In
other words, our survival and reproduction depended on our keen sense of aisthesis or perception and the
attribution of meaning to a variety of relevant cues. Perhaps the origin of our
passion for gold and precious stones, for the color red, and the craving of
many for animal furs may be found in our ancestors' experiences in life or
death situations that depended on these perceptions.
Cosmides et al. propose a
basic distinction between two key terms of Darwinism, adaptation and adaptive,
and note that "an adaptive problem is a problem whose
solution can affect reproduction, however distally. Avoiding depredation,
choosing nutritious food, finding a mate, and communicating with others are
examples of adaptive problems that our hominid ancestors would have
Adaptive implies a particular purpose and is focused on the
future, contrary to adaptations, which result from the past and are read as
evidence of interactions with the environment. In the discussion between
Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin against Edward Wilson and Richard
Dawkins’s neo-Darwinism, the main quid of debate was located in the relevance
of this relation to the environment. Gould and Lewontin argued that organisms
not only adapt to their surroundings but are also part of it and transform it,
all within a multi-way interactional dynamic between organisms and others that
constitute their life milieu. Such
dynamic interaction, moreover, has been reinforced by the advances in our
understanding of these epigenetic processes on the activation or the silencing
of genes by context effects. As pointed out by Eva Jablonka, a learned response
to the environment can become an innate behavior. We do not
yet know how, but it points to the fact that the rejection of Lamarckism needs
to be reconsidered.
the key concept in evolutionary theory and it is as crucial to the Darwinian
paradigm as the concept of commodities to the Marxist, since each adaptation
can be read as an index of the evolutionary processes that have shaped it, as
commodities are indexes of congealed workers’ labor. Thornhill defines an
adaptation as "a phenotypic feature that is so precisely organized for
some apparent purpose and that chance cannot be the explanation of the
feature’s existence." An
adaptation is the effect of a response to material selection, where the
selection is defined as a non-random differential reproduction of individuals.
Every organism is an integrated web of phenotypic adaptations to survive and
reproduce. The body of a creature can be deciphered as a map of the
environmental pressures it had to confront throughout its evolution. On the
other hand, adaptiveness is not a criterion in evolutionary paradigm. According
to Thornhill, the only criterion for understanding evolved adaptation is
functional design. Therefore, each adaptation is a physiological
and cumulative memory of the past forces and choices that shaped it. There are
adaptations that help to integrate the organism to the environment, and
maladaptive adaptations that obstruct it, as pointed out by Boyd and Richerson.
Thornhill believes that
"the psychological adaptation causally underlies all human
feelings, emotion, arousal, creativity, learning and behavior" and assumes
that these adaptations are always defined by fitness. Consequently for that author, perception of
symmetry, harmony, truth, unity, and order have a specific purpose in sexual,
social, or environmental selection, rather than merely for contemplation. He
proposes ten categories of human psychological adaptation for aesthetic valuation:
1) of landscape features; 2) of nonhuman animals; 3) of the acoustic behavior
of nonhuman animals; 4) arising from daily or environmental cues that signal a
need to change behavior; 5) of human bodily form; 6) of status cues; 7) of
social scenarios; 8) based on skill; 9) of food; and 10) judgments of ideas. As with
the Chinese encyclopedia mentioned by Borges with the most bizarre classification of animals (embalmed, trained, suckling pigs, mermaids, fabulous,
stray dogs, those included in this classification, those that shake like crazy,
the innumerable, and so on), it is difficult to know what criteria
operate in this taxonomy, what is meant by acoustic behavior, what is the
difference between the first and fourth, why doesn’t he include movement,
animals’ body language, smell, ornamentation, and other elements of sensory
evaluation that were so important to Darwin and that have such a key role in
selection and evolution. But the main problem with this characterization is its
anthropocentrism, which is inconsistent with a Darwinian perspective, and which
I attribute to the projection of very culture-specific notions of beauty and
art from mainstream aesthetic tradition unto biology.
explanation that random changes in organisms favorable to their survival and
reproduction are retained while the harmful are lost by limiting the
reproduction of their carriers, and now reinforced by DNA and molecular biology
breakthroughs, game theory, computer simulation models and population genetics have
consolidated a paradigm that extends its elucidation power from the field of biology
to the humanities. However, such a formula would be only part of the
explanation, and Darwin was the first to acknowledge it. Other types of selection must be considered, namely sexual selection,
to which we can now perhaps add organic (Baldwin), genetic, epigenetic,
symbiogenetic, and behavioral, group, social, and cultural forms of selection
that are still under debate.
caused by the controversy surrounding nineteenth-century social Darwinism and
twentieth-century neo-Darwinism and Wilson’s sociobiology are still in the air.
The differences within evolutionary theory are also many and intense but they
have kept the discussion of humanities at ground, empirical level. Aesthetics is not exempt
from these debates.
On sexual selection, Darwin
emphasized "their courage and pugnacity—their various ornaments—their
contrivances for producing vocal or instrumental music—and their glands for
emitting odors, most of these latter structures serving only to allure or
excite the female." The main
consequence of this approach is that the evolution of creatures appears not to
be blind at all but very smart, sensual, and selective to the extent that by
contributing to it we are now rewarded with the sense of beauty, and warned by
the sense of ugliness. In other words, the sense of beauty is what points
towards the direction of evolution as the sense of ugliness towards involution
and decay. This implies that beauty and usefulness are not contradictory, as
mainstream aesthetic theory has held, particularly derived from Kant’s concept
of aesthetic disinterest, but complementary.
1. There are species that contradict
the law of natural selection in that they are focused on reproduction not
precisely of functional fitness.
2. There is evidence on the
preference of certain traits over others in some species that do not appear to
relate directly to any useful purpose.
3. To our knowledge we have
no proof, nor can we be sure, that there is some sense of beauty in other
species but that their preferences for vivid colors, symmetry, proportion are
consistent with human aesthetic evaluation criteria is a fact.
God could be a bad
mathematician when he calculated the origin of the world at 5,777 years ago
instead of 13.73 billion years, an error of only seven zeros. Nevertheless, by
the biblical command to Abraham, "Be fruitful and
multiply," God proved to be an excellent Darwinian. He is also a superb
aesthetician for having elected female sensibility as the guiding direction
through much of evolution.
Katya Mandoki is a scholar
specializing in everyday aesthetics, biosemiotics, and evolutionary aesthetics.
She is the author of Everyday Aesthetics: Prosaics, the Play of Culture and Social Identities (2007) and "The Third Tear in Everyday
Aesthetics," Contemporary Aesthetics,
Vol. 8 (2010), reprinted in Arnold Berleant and Yuriko Saito (eds), Perspectives
on Contemporary Aesthetics (Providence: Rhode Island School of Design, 2015).
Published on February 14, 2017.
article sums up a few points dealt with in my most recent book The Indispensable Excess of the Aesthetic;
Evolution of Sensibility in Nature (New York London: Rowman &
 John Dewey, Art
as Experience (New York: Perigee Books, 1980).
 On the concept and
scope of Prosaica or everyday
aesthetics in various social practices, institutions, and conventions and its
method of analysis, see Katya Mandoki, Everyday
Aesthetics: Prosaics, the Play of Culture and Social Identities (Aldershot,
UK: Ashgate, 2007).
 Charles Sanders Peirce,
Philosophical Writings of Peirce, ed.
Justus Buchler (Courier Dover Publications, 1955). Karl Von Frisch, The Dancing Bees: An Account of the Life and
Senses of the Honeybee (London: Methuen and Company Ltd., 1954). Jakob Von
Uexküll, "A Stroll through the Worlds of Animals and Men: A Picture Book
of Invisible Worlds (1934)," Semiotica,
89:4 (1992), 319–91. Jakob Von Uexküll, "The Theory of Meaning," Semiotica, 42:1 (1982), 25–82. Thomas
Albert Sebeok, "Review of Communication among Social Bees; Porpoises and
Sonar; Man and Dolphin," Language,
39:3 (1963), 448–66.
 Alexander Gottlieb
Baumgarten, Aesthetica Scripsit Alex and
Gottlieb Bavmgarten ... (Hildesheum Zurich New York: Georg Olms Verlag,
Dobzhansky, "Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except under the Light of
Evolution," The American Biology
Teacher, 35 (1973), 125–29.
 Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford; New York:
Oxford University Press, 1976).
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"Cybernetic Formulation of the Definition of Life," Journal of Theoretical Biology, 209:3 (2001): 275–86,
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Szostak, "Origin of Life on Earth," Scientific American, 301:3 (2009), 40, 54–61.
have amply argued this position in Mandoki, Everyday
Aesthetics: Prosaics, the Play of Culture and Social Identities. In
particular, for the concept of aisthesis, see Part II, chapters 5-8.
Thornhill, "Darwinian Aesthetics Informs Traditional Aesthetics," in Evolutionary Aesthetics, ed. Eckart
Voland and Karl Grammer (Dordrecht: Springer, 2003), pp. 9–35. Morris Weitz,
"The Role of Theory in Aesthetics," in Philosophy Looks at the Arts, ed. Joseph Margolis, 3rd ed.
(Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987), p. 153.
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Karl Grammer, Evolutionary Aesthetics,
ed. Eckart Voland and Karl Grammer (Dordrecht: Springer, 2003). Gordon H.
Orians and Judith H. Heerwagen, "Evolved Response to Landscapes," in The Adapted Mind, ed. Jerome H. Barkow,
Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press,
1992). Stephen Kaplan, "Environmental Preference in Knowledge-Seeking,
Knowledge-Using Organisms," in The
Adapted Mind, ed. Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby (Oxford;
New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), pp. 581–600; Semir Zeki, "The
Neurology of Ambiguity," in The
Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity, 2006;
Nancy Etcoff, Survival of the Prettiest:
The Science of Beauty (New York: Anchor Books, 2000); Ellen Dissanayake,
"What Art Is and What It Does: An Overview of Contemporary Evolutionary
Hypotheses," in Evolutionary and
Neurocognitive Approaches to Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts, 1st ed.
(Amityville New York: Baywood Publishing, 2007); Wolfgang Welsch,
"Animal Aesthetics," Contemporary
Aesthetics, 2004. Karl Grammer et al.,
"Darwinian Aesthetics: Sexual Selection and the Biology of Beauty," Biological Reviews, 2003, 385–407; Ana
Cristina Vélez Caicedo, Homo Artisticus:
Una Perspectiva Biológica-Evolutiva, 1st ed. (Medellín: Universidad de
Antioquia, 2008); Denis Dutton, The Art
Instinct; Beauty, Pleasure and Human Evolution (Bloomsbury Press, 2009).
 Arnold Berleant, Sensibility and Sense: The Aesthetic
Transformation of the Human World (Exeter and Charlottesville: Imprint
Academic, 2010), p. 9. Also see note 10.
Aydon, Charles Darwin: The Naturalist Who
Started a Scientific Revolution (New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003), p.
 Charles Darwin, Descent
of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, p. 296.
Trivers, Social Evolution (Menlo
Park: Benjamin/Cummings Pub. Co., 1985), pp. 333, 336.
J. Ryan, "Female Mate Choice in a Neo-Tropical Frog," Science 209 (1980), 523–25.
 Charles Darwin, op.cit., p.
 Sir Ronald Aylmer Fisher, The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection: A Complete Variorum Edition,
ed. J. H. Bennett (Oxford University Press, 1999).
Indispensable Excess of the Aesthetic, pp. 102-103.
 Charles Darwin, Origin of Species (London: John Murray,
1876), p. 89.
Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation
to Sex, p. 222.
Jerome H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture
(Oxford University Press US, 1992).
Jablonka and Marion J. Lamb, Evolution in
Four Dimensions: Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the
History of Life (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2005).
H. Barkow, Leda Cosmides, and John Tooby, The
Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture (Oxford
University Press US, 1992), pp. 8-9.
C. Lewontin et al., Not in Our Genes:
Biology, Ideology, and Human Nature (Pantheon Books, 1985), Stephen Jay
Gould, The Mismeasure of Man (New
York: Norton, 1996). Steven. J. Gould and Richard. C Lewontin, "The
Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm: A Critique of the
Adaptationist Programme," Proceedings
Of The Royal Society Of London, 205:1161 (1979), 581–98.
and Lamb, Evolution in Four Dimensions:
Genetic, Epigenetic, Behavioral, and Symbolic Variation in the History of Life,
"Darwinian Aesthetics Informs Traditional Aesthetics," p.13.
J. Richerson and Robert Boyd, Not by
Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution (University of Chicago
Press, 2005), ch. 5.
 I want to thank my
reviewers and editors for their encouraging and pertinent commentaries on this