Beauty

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Why Beauty?

Why in an evolutionary sense would we be tuned to what we call Beauty? How in a pedagogical sense could it be considered an educational experience? Do we teach Beauty? Can we even define it? Does Beauty matter or is it strictly window-dressing? Is it important? Is it universal? These are the questions that animate me in this essay.

Once, before we were romantically involved, before I was even in the “friend” zone, I caught my future wife pretending a certainty that her posture belied. We worked together in the same architectural office, and she responded to a question from our spectacularly hateful boss with a definitive answer that I could see she was making up on the fly. I couldn’t believe no one else could see the pretense, but even more absurd, I felt an immense attraction to this besieged individual pretending confidence. Her beauty I’d found daunting, but this dishonesty I found fetching. It would be five years and massive intercontinental machinations to finally bring us together, but this enduring feeling of appreciation and love that I have to this day started with that little piece of pretend: it started with signs of uncertainty and insecurity, with a “flaw”.

What kind of evolutionary error is this, that I am attracted not to perfection but to flaw, to striving and not to attainment? Is it no error at all, because “striving” has an evolutionary advantage over attainment, the insight behind that fable of the Tortoise and the Hare: effort and guile trumps resting on your laurels? Possibly, or perhaps evolution is more complicated than we think.

Evolution is perhaps understood as “Survival of the Fittest”, with an underlying assumption that not just traits or behavior, but the genetic foundation for those traits and behaviors is being advantaged in a dog-eat-dog world beyond human caprice. Beauty in this scenario is understood as an “honest signal” of some greater underlying fitness. Beauty must be a sign of general durability in other words, and simply evidence of other traits driving selection.

Human behavior suggests otherwise though, and even Darwin in his observations of animals in the wild recognized that:

“…natural selection could not account for the ornaments seen in many animals, especially males, all over the world — the bright buttocks and faces of many monkeys and apes; the white legs and backside of the Banteng bull, in Malaysia; the elaborate feathers and mating dances of countless birds including bee-eaters and bell-birds, nightjars, hummingbirds and herons, gaudy birds of paradise and lurid pheasants, and the peacock, that showboat, whose extravagant tail seems a survival hindrance but so pleases females that well-fanned cocks regularly win their favor. Only a consistent preference for such ornament — in many species, a “choice exerted by the female” — could select for such decoration. This sexual selection, as Darwin called it, this taste for beauty rather than brawn, constituted an evolutionary mechanism separate, independent, and sometimes contrary to natural selection” (1).

Beauty endures in other words as a commodity in the mating dance, and often at the whim of the female. It traces an independent evolutionary path by inviting and inciting procreation, a gene survival mechanism no less powerful than fitness. Beauty, and perhaps the ability to create Beauty, are traits promoting reproduction: evolutionary survival.

Is that the complete picture though? Beauty is sexy? It’s the survival mechanism of the weakest? Let’s take flowers for example. They are a vital component in the propagation of plant species, they attract bees and have a symbiotic relationship with them, and we humans find them beautiful. We’ve been enlisted, in other words, in the survival of flowers. It seems ludicrous, except that our own survival is linked to the survival of both flowers and bees (2). Our attraction to flowers is self-serving. Beauty here is a key systemic trait, a key component of a pattern upon which our survival depends. When we sense Beauty then, we might sensibly ask: what makes this beautiful thing important?

Jonah Lehrer, in an article in Wired magazine (3) calls the perception of Beauty: “a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity”. Neuroscientific studies of music found “that our favorite moments…those sublimely beautiful bits that give us the chills – were preceded by a prolonged increase of activity in the caudate, the same brain area involved in curiosity”. Lehrer suggests that:

“The aesthetic emotion [of Beauty] might have begun as a cognitive signal telling us to keep on looking, because there is a pattern here that we can figure out it. In other words, it’s a sort of a metacognitive hunch, a response to complexity that isn’t incomprehensible. Although we can’t quite decipher this sensation – and it doesn’t matter if the sensation is a painting or a symphony –the beauty keeps us from looking away, tickling those dopaminergic neurons and dorsal hairs. Like curiosity, beauty is a motivational force, an emotional reaction not to the perfect or the complete, but to the imperfect and incomplete. We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t what” (3).

So Beauty is attraction to something missing or damaged? I think we are using the term “Beauty” in different ways. I think we should distinguish between “Beauty” and “Attractiveness”.  Psychologist Vivian Diller makes the distinction powerfully in her article “Beauty vs. Attractiveness: A Matter of Semantics?”:

“Take a look at Webster’s definition of beauty: “A pleasing physical quality. An assemblage of properties pleasing to the five senses.” In today’s culture, its meaning has been narrowed mostly to the visual sense, and further still, applied often to youthful looks. Synonyms include prettiness, cuteness, loveliness, exquisiteness and splendor. Webster’s definition of attractiveness, on the other hand, is, “The quality that arouses interest and pleasure. The power to attract.” Synonyms include appealing, captivating, charismatic, charming and engaging” (4).

Webster, I fear, does us all a disservice with the definition of Beauty. A concept, after all, can be beautiful. Lehrer, if we accept this distinction, is talking about Attractiveness.

Beauty admits to no flaws, but Attractiveness demands them. Beauty projects perfection, Attractiveness romances us with foibles. We hold up Beauty as the goal, the paragon, the end condition, but it is Attraction that inspires action, curiosity, humor, and that essential human need to improve. When we seek to nurture action we do well to focus on flaws, even as we hold Beauty as our goal.

Beauty is what you want to be, Attraction signals what you want to be near. Beauty is daunting, Attraction is irresistible. Beauty projects energy outward from the source, but Attraction is centripetal, an irresistible vacuum. Attraction to the incipient, to what might be if we but persevere, that is what drives evolution. It is also what drives culture. Beauty is just the final note, the last piece of the puzzle, the pattern finally discerned, resolution achieved. Beauty is attainment.

Joseph Brodsky, the great Russian poet, in an address to the Library of Congress in 1991 said:

“The purpose of evolution, believe it or not, is beauty, which survives it all and generates truth…” (5).

Beauty in life can be an abstraction: nothing is really that perfect. It is in some sense a disguise, a shell, a cover, a mask, this Beauty. If it inspires curiosity, it is to find the hidden flaws. It is useful in Science to believe in the Beauty of our models and theories, if only to inspire critique and the search for inconsistencies.

Beauty is a seductive lie, yet we constantly rub our students’ noses in the ideal: in perfection. We speak from both sides of our mouth, exalting paragons and perfections at the same time that we demand authenticity with the admonition to “be yourself”. Which is it: be perfect, or be imperfect? Be ideal, or be real? Perfection highlights our own imperfections, and taunts us with our inability to measure up, or the long road ahead of us to achieve the awesome. Beauty thwarted makes enemies of our mirrors, and it can make us jealous or angry or vain, but it can also offer hope. If we can conceive it, perhaps we can make it or become it.

Brené Brown extols the Gifts of Imperfection (7), but Perfection nonetheless inspires us. The possibility of perfection inspires us. We realize therefore that we need both: Beauty and Attraction. If we are to nurture student engagement then it will be by inspiring Attraction. Attraction, that Wabi-Sabi (8) seduction by imperfection, pulls us out of our lethargy and complacency into the present, inspiring us to action. Beauty on the other hand points us towards the future, towards the ideal. Attraction captures our attention, but Beauty inspires us to strive. Attraction and attention ignite love, while Beauty…well, it gets frustrating sometimes to find it ever slipping through your grasp, but to believe in it is much, I imagine, like believing in the Garden of Eden. You have this niggling feeling that such perfection doesn’t exist, but the possibility alone gets you out of bed in the morning. It is an inspiring fiction.

A dangerously seductive one.

Dangerous because craving the ideal will ultimately demoralize you. Craving the ideal, you will reject anything less. If your intention is to make or design or invent, then you will never get past your initial efforts, those tentative hypotheses and half-baked ideas that may or may not yield productive results. All of those preliminaries are ugly and easily rejected. This mindset, this desire for ultimate Beauty, is the death of productivity. As architecture students we were admonished to “suspend disbelief” and trust our early efforts no matter how ugly, but I could never do it. I needed something to believe in.

Of far greater utility is Evolution, with Attraction as a comparative tool and Beauty the ultimate goal. This is more attractive than that, and so I choose among a number of early efforts: I favor, I cull. Attraction is the equipment of selection. As an architect, Attraction is my guide. Not: ”this is prettier than that”, but much deeper: “this addresses so many more issues with less fuss than that”. Simplicity, wholeness, harmony, connection, a palpable relaxation, a reduction of tension, of stress: these are promising portents. I get a peculiar feeling in or just below my intestines, between composting and reproduction, when I begin to believe that Beauty is nigh. This is the essence of Beauty as a learning experience: it is a kick in the pants. It is possibility. The deeper we can teach our students to go, the better their questions, the more critical their thinking, the more discerning their choices, then the deeper their appreciation of Attraction and expectation of and attainment of Beauty. Such a simple and penetrating question: “Is this more beautiful than that”? It was never asked in my 12 years of public school. It was never even asked in architecture school! The problem was this: Beauty was poorly defined as “exceptionally pretty”. It was understood as superficial: as eye-candy, as surface, as mask.

Better to understand Beauty as a shimmering pool inviting us to dive deep, to explore and imagine, and to ask penetrating questions. If we are to succeed in teaching critical thinking, than Beauty will be our goal and Attraction will be our guide. If we are to inspire critical thinking, then it will be through lust: lust for better, for simpler, for more whole, for more beautiful. That deep dive is curiosity. We will know we have succeeded when the experience is not just intellectual but physical, when the dopamine rush of desire and attainment becomes a physical craving, when Beauty becomes the drug of choice.

1. Dobbs, David, Survival of the Prettiest” (The New York Times, September 18, 2017), commenting on Prum, Richard, The Evolution of Beauty (Penguin Random House, 2018)
2. “Humans must change behaviour to save bees, vital for food production – UN report” (UN News, 10 March 2011) https://news.un.org/en/story/2011/03/368622-humans-must-change-behaviour-save-bees-vital-food-production-un-report#.WBrx-ndh3Vo
3. Lehrer, Jonah, “Why Does Beauty Exist?” (Wired science, July 18, 2011)
4. Diller, Vivian, “Beauty vs. Attractiveness: A Matter of Semantics?”, Huffpost (04/01/2011 08:27 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011)
https://www.huffingtonpost.com/vivian-diller-phd/beauty-attractiveness_b_841300.html
5. Brodsky, Joseph, “An Immodest Proposal” (https://www.scribd.com/document/46913137/Brodsky-an-Immodest-Proposal)
6. Brown, Brené, The Gifts of Imperfection (Hazelden, Center City, 2010)
7. Wabi-Sabi: “In traditional Japanese aesthetics, wabi-sabi (侘寂) is a world view centered on the acceptance of transience and imperfection. The aesthetic is sometimes described as one of beauty that is "imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete". (Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wabi-sabi)

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