Evolutionary Aesthetics

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Result of a ranking, in which women’s faces were to be judged according to beauty. The higher the score, the more attractive the face. These were then sorted by rating and images with similar ratings were superimposed on the computer by morphing.

Evolutionary aesthetics deals with the evolutionary emergence and developmental history of the aesthetic sensibility. Evolutionary aesthetics draws on approaches from evolutionary epistemology.

In detail, the term “evolutionary aesthetics” – as well as the term “aesthetics” itself – is used in different ways,[1] especially for the investigation

  • the question of why people find something beautiful or ugly or why they are attracted to certain stimuli
  • the origins of art and artistic activity
  • the emergence of certain universal modes of perception, for example that the colours red and yellow, especially when combined with black, are perceived as signal colours all over the world.

Evolutionary theory of the aesthetic sensibility

According to the theory of evolutionary psychology, the aesthetic sensibilities of humans are also the result of evolutionary adaptation.[2] It is assumed that there is a genetic basis for certain aesthetic preferences that have developed in the course of the evolution of humans and their ancestors, as well as an evolutionary justifiable advantage through aesthetic preferences. Humans today continue to respond to certain key stimuli that were conducive to survival, reproduction, and the transmission of human genes in earlier millions of years. Accordingly, something similar to key stimuli should also apply to aesthetic sensations.

Adaptation of preferences to natural living conditions

Evolutionary aesthetics assumes that aesthetic sensibilities have adapted to natural living conditions. For example, it can be demonstrated that people in all cultures find riverine landscapes as well as semi-open parkland particularly appealing.[3] This, evolutionary psychologists suspect, is a legacy of life in the savannah, where landscapes that offered the prospect of food and water, but at the same time a certain degree of protection, were advantageous to early humans.[4] Evolutionary biologist Carsten Niemitz, on the other hand, sees the attractiveness of water landscapes as an indication that bodies of water were a central habitat for the early ancestors of man.[5]

Sexual selection

A second form of adaptation that plays a role in the evolution of the sense of beauty is sexual selection, as already described by Charles Darwin.[6] It can be used in particular to explain those aesthetic preferences that play a role in mate choice, such as physical attractiveness. The model of sexual selection can be used to explain a large number of aesthetic preferences.[7]

Certain features of the face are also almost universally rated as attractive. According to the results of Rhodes (2006)

  • Averageness,
  • Symmetry and
  • Sexual dimorphism

attractive in female and male faces.[8]

Experiments on computers revealed that in terms of facial proportions, an average female face is perceived as particularly attractive. Facial proportions that correspond exactly to the average of the population, the interpretation was, signal a high degree of health. However, it later became apparent that there were faces that were judged by the test subjects to be even more attractive, namely those in which certain proportions – such as the height of the cheekbones or the distance between the chin and mouth – deviated markedly from the average.[9]

Symmetry is a preferred trait in the face and physique because it has emerged as an indicator of health through sexual selection.[10] For example, research revealed that women show a preference for men who can dance well. In a study conducted in Jamaica, it was found that the bodies of those men whom the women liked to watch dance showed greater symmetry.[11]

In female faces, feminine features (e.g., smaller chin, higher cheekbones, fuller lips) are perceived as attractive, with femininity even being a stronger factor than averageness according to Rhodes. Masculine facial features (e.g., strong lower jaw) are also related to attractiveness, although the research results are partially contradictory and the relationship is less pronounced than for femininity in female faces, according to Rhodes. Very feminine features in female faces or very masculine features in male faces represent high levels of sex hormones (estrogen or testosterone, respectively) in the individual’s blood.[12] Some studies have shown that faces of men with high testosterone levels are perceived as more attractive by women,[13][14] while other studies have concluded that men with high testosterone levels are rated by women as more masculine and dominant, but not more attractive.[15][16] Faces of women with high estrogen levels are perceived as more feminine, attractive and healthy, according to a 2006 study.[17] Sex hormones have an immunosuppressive effect (the reason for this lies in their chemical structure; testosterone and estrogen are relatives of the well-known immunosuppressive drugs cortisone and prednisone). Therefore, according to Rhodes, very feminine or very masculine facial features can be a sign of an intact immune system, because only healthy women and men can afford very feminine or very masculine facial features. However, according to Rhodes, there are no meaningful studies on the connection between averageness, symmetry and sexual dimorphism and health.[8]

Difficulties and criticism

As with other model conceptions of evolutionary psychology, a central difficulty is that many theses can at best be plausibilized, but hardly reconstructed in a comprehensible way.[18]

Another difficulty is to distinguish evolutionarily determined aesthetic preferences from culturally shaped ones. An evolutionary background would mean that the respective aesthetic preferences are universals, i.e. they can be observed in people of all cultures. However, this can only be proven in individual cases. Gábor Paál calls this type of preference “elementary aesthetic”.[19]

Moreover, evolutionary aesthetics cannot explain how fundamental changes in aesthetic preferences occurred within relatively short periods of time, for example, that in the 18th century mountains, the sight of which had previously been avoided, were now sought out for their aesthetic qualities – a change for which culturalist approaches are able to offer plausible explanations.[20]

Attempts to explain concrete ideals of beauty in evolutionary terms usually involve equating beauty with biological “attractiveness” or feelings of beauty with feelings of “pleasure”.[21] Paál points out, however, that the biological reaction to an attractive stimulus is usually unconscious, whereas an aesthetic judgement is a comparative, i.e. mental, decision.[22] In the meantime, there is also increasing evidence from neuroscience that different processes are active in the brain during the sensation of pleasure than during the conscious aesthetic judgement as to whether an object is beautiful or not.[23] There is also evidence that processes related to biological attractiveness tend to involve areas of the limbic system, whereas aesthetic judgments are made primarily in the cerebral cortex.[24]

Art theory of evolutionary aesthetics

Evolutionary psychologists are trying to figure out the cognitive prerequisites for the emergence of art as well as the function of early works of art. One starting point is to explain the apparently quite contemporaneous appearance of various forms of artistic activity. These include the oldest pictorial works of art and sculptures found in the Lone Valley in the Swabian Alb, which are about 35,000 to 40,000 years old.[25] The oldest known musical instruments – the flutes from Geißenklösterle – date from around the same time.[26] Early stone and cave paintings are also counted among the early forms of art.[27] Why early forms of art first appeared in this era of the Paleolithic and what their exact function was is unclear. Some anthropologists assume that religious or cultic motives played a role, but this cannot be proven in most cases.[28]

What is special about these early forms of art is that they are sophisticated in terms of craftsmanship from the very beginning: No “experimental phases” can be observed in the development of early art, in the sense that, for example, older sculptures would still have technical deficiencies. In Steven Mithen’s view, this shows that craft skills were already present before the first works of art were created.[29] For example, the ability to make an object from the visual imagination was a prerequisite for the production of hand axes thousands of years earlier. In contrast to workpieces such as the hand axes, the works that are considered art are distinguished by other characteristics: They make reference to something remote (depicting animals in the wild, for example) and they obviously have some kind of symbolic meaning.[30] This symbolic meaning is evident from the fact that many depictions are much more detailed than would be necessary for practical purposes, and that many depictions are not naturalistic representations of objects, but are stylistically altered or are depictions of unnatural creatures, as in the Lion Man of Hohlenstein-Stadel or in paintings in the French cave of Chauvet that show a hybrid creature of man and bison.[31]

Thus, one of the prerequisites for art is seen as the ability to think symbolically, which apparently was first developed by Homo sapiens.[32] Some early historians attribute the origins of symbolic thinking in turn to the fact that Homo sapiens was able to link different cognitive abilities.[33]

Theories about what social function early works of art really had involve the same methodological difficulties as the theories mentioned above about the roots of the sense of beauty: there are no sources that could provide information about the original “motives” of Stone Age people.

See also

  • Evolutionary Ethics
  • Attractiveness Research


Trade literature
  • P. Baukus: Biology of Aesthetic Perception. In: R. Riedl, M. Delpos (eds.): Evolutionary Epistemology in the Mirror of the Sciences. WUV, Vienna 1996, pp. 239-261.
  • Colin Martindale, Paul Locher, Vladimir M. Petrov (eds.): Evolutionary and Neurocognitive Approaches to Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts. Baywood, Amityville 2007.
  • Ellen Dissanayake: What Is Art For? University of Washington Press, Seattle 1988.
  • Irenäus Eibl-Eibesfeldt: The Biological Foundation of Aesthetics. In: I. Rentschler, B. Herzberger, D. Epstein (eds.): Beauty and the Brain Birkhäuser, Basel/ Boston/ Berlin 1988, pp. 29-68.
  • Karl Eibl: Animal Poeta. Building Blocks of Biological Cultural and Literary Theory. Mentis 2004.
  • Karl Grammer, B. Fink, A. P. Møller, Randy Thornhill: Darwinian Aesthetics: Sexual Selection and the Biology of Beauty. In: Biological Review. 78/3 (2003), S. 385–407.
  • Cathrin Gutwald, Raimar Zons (eds.): Die Macht der Schönheit. Fink, Munich 2007.
  • B. L. van Lierop: Evolutionary Aesthetics. In: British Journal of Aesthetics. 44/4 (2004), p. 444f.
  • Winfried Menninghaus: The Promise of Beauty. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 2003.
  • Geoffrey Miller: Sexual selection for cultural displays. In: R. Dunbar, C. Knight, C. Power (Eds.): The Evolution of Culture – An Interdisciplinary View. Edinburgh U.P., Edinburgh 1999, pp. 71-91.
  • Geoffrey Miller, Jorunn Wissmann: Sexual Evolution. Mate choice and the origin of the mind. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, 2001, ISBN 3-8274-1097-5.
  • Steven Mithen: The prehistory of the mind. A search for the origins of art, religion and Science. London 1996.
  • Gábor Paál: Where does the sense of beauty come from? Basic Features of an Evolutionary Aesthetics. In: Helmut A. Müller (ed.): Evolution: Woher und Wohin. Answers from Religion, Natural Sciences and Humanities. Göttingen 2008, pp. 165-179.
  • E. Ralevski: Aesthetics and art from an evolutionary perspective. In: Evolution and Cognition. 6 (2000), S. 84–103.
  • G. Rhodes, L. A. Zebrowitz (Eds.): Facial Attractiveness: Evolutionary, Cognitive, and Social Perspectives. Ablex, Westport, CT 2001.
  • Klaus Richter: The Origin of Beauty. Grundzüge der evolutionären Ästhetik. Philipp von Zabern, Mainz 1999, ISBN 3-8053-2539-8.
  • P. Sitte: Bioaesthetics, biology between cognition and experience. In: P. Sitte (ed.): Jahrhundertwissenschaft Biologie. The major topics. Munich 1999, pp. 407-425.
  • V. Swami, A. Furnham: The Psychology of Physical Attraction. Taylor & Francis, 2007.
  • V. Swami, A. Furnham (eds.): Body Beautiful: Evolutionary and Socio-cultural Perspectives. Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  • Donald Symons: Beauty is in the Adaptations of the Beholder: The Evolutionary Psychology of Human Female Attractiveness. In: P. R.Abramson, S. D. Pinkerton (Eds.): Sexual Nature, Sexual Culture. University of Chicago Press, Chicago 1995, pp. 80-118.
  • Randy Thornhill: Darwinian Aesthetics. In: Charles Crawford, Dennis L. Krebs (eds.): Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Erlbaum, Mahwah, NJ 1998, pp. 543-572.
  • Eckart Voland, Karl Grammer (eds.): Evolutionary Aesthetics. Springer, Berlin 2003, ISBN 3-540-43670-7.(Contents, reviews by A. Tomlin, K. Eibl)
Popular literature
  • Desmond Morris: The Painting Monkey. On the Biology of Art. 1968.
  • N. Etcoff: Survival of the prettiest. The science of beauty. Doubleday, New York 1999.
    • german: Nur die Schönsten überleben. The Aesthetics of Man. Hugendubel, Munich 2001.

Web links

Individual references

  1. Gabor Paal: Where does the sense of beauty come from? Basic Features of an Evolutionary Aesthetics. In: Helmut A. Müller (ed.): Evolution: Woher und Wohin. Answers from Religion, Natural Sciences and Humanities. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2008, p. 172 ff.
  2. Denis Dutton: Aesthetics and Evolutionary Psychology. In: Jerrold Levinson (ed.): The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2003, ISBN 0-19-927945-4, pp. 693-705.
  3. Gordon H. Orians An Evolutionary Perspective on Aesthetics. In: Bulletin of Psychology & the Arts: Evolution, Creativity, and Aesthetics.
  4. J. H. Heerwagen, G. H. Orians: Humans, Habitats and aesthetics. In: Stephen R. Kellert, E. O. Wilson (eds.): The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, D. C. 1993.
  5. Carsten Niemitz: Das Geheimnis des aufrechten Gangs. Munich 2004, pp. 56-59.
  6. C. Darwin: The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. Princeton University Press, 1981.
  7. An overview is given in: Geoffrey F. Miller, Sexual Evolution. Mate choice and the emergence of the mind. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg/ Berlin 2001, ISBN 3-8274-1097-5.
  8. a b G. Rhodes The Evolutionary psychology of facial beauty. (PDF; 312 kB) In: Annual Review of Psychology. 57, January 2006, pp. 199-226. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.57.102904.190208.
  9. H. Rehm: Beauty – but more than mere average? In: Spektrum der Wissenschaft. 7, 1994, S. 20.
  10. I. S. Penton-Voak et al Symmetry, sexual dimorphism in facial proportions and male facial attractiveness.(Memento of Originals january 14, 2016 on the Internet Archive) Info:The archive linkwas automatically inserted and not yet checked. Please check original and archive link according to instructions and then remove this notice.@1@2Template:Webachiv/IABot/ (PDF; 202 kB) In: Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. 268, no. 1476, 2001, pp. 1617-1623. doi:10.1098/rspb.2001.1703.
  11. W.M. Brown et al: Dance reveals symmetry especially in young men. In: Nature Vol. 438, 2005, pp. 1148-1150.
  12. Bernhard Fink et al: Second to fourth digit ratio and face shape. In: Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences. 272, no. 1676, October 2005, pp. 1995-2001. doi:10.1098/rspb.2005.3179. PMC 1559906 ( free full text)
  13. Anthony F. Bogaert, Catherine C. Fawcett, and Luanne K. Jamieson: Attractiveness, body size, masculine sex roles, and 2D:4D ratios in men. In Personality and Individual Differences. 47, no. 4, September 2009, pp. 273-278. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2009.03.011.
  14. Camille Ferdenzi et al: Digit ratio (2D:4D) predicts facial, but not voice or body odour, attractiveness in men. In: Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences. 278, no. 1724, December 2011, pp. 3551-3557. doi:10.1098/rspb.2011.0544.
  15. Nick Neave et al: Second to fourth digit ratio, testosterone, and perceived male dominance. In Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences 270, no. 1529, October 2003, pp. 2167-2172. doi:10.1098/rspb.2003.2502.
  16. John P. Swaddle and Gillian W. Reierson: Testosterone increases perceived dominance but not attractiveness in human males. In: Proceedings of the Royal Society Biological Sciences. 269, no. 1507, November 2002, pp. 2285-2289 doi:10.1098/rspb.2002.2165.
  17. M. J. Law Smith et al: Facial appearance is a cue to estrogen levels in women. In: Proceeding of the Royal Society Biological Sciences. 273, no. 1583, January 2006, pp. 135-140. doi:10.1098/rspb.2005.3296.
  18. Stephen Jay Gould: Evolution: the pleasures of pluralism. New York Review of Books 44(11), 1997, pp. 47-52.
  19. Gábor Paál: What is beautiful? The aesthetics in everything. Würzburg 2020, pp. 47-58.
  20. Majorie H. Nicolson: Mountain gloom and mountain glory. The development of the aesthetics of the infinitive. Cornell University Press Seattle, 1959; Ruth Groh, Dieter Groh: Weltbild und Naturaneignung. On the Cultural History of Nature. Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1996.
  21. Gábor Paál: In Aphrodite’s footsteps. Brain and Mind. 2004, 66.
  22. Gábor Paál: What is beautiful? Aesthetics and cognition. Würzburg 2003, p. 11.
  23. Breiter et al. In: Neuron. 8, 2001.
  24. Paál, 2020, pp. 32-36.
  25. Mithen 1996, p. 176 ff.
  26. Nicolas Conard, Maria Malina: Final excavations at the Geißenklösterle near Blaubeuren, Alb-Donau district. In: Arch. Ausgr. Bad.-Württ. Theiss, Stuttgart 2001, pp. 17-21.
  27. Jean Clottes: Art in the Morning Light of Humanity. In: Reinhard Breuer et al: Modern Archaeology. Spektrum der Wissenschaft Spezial 12 (2), pp. 6-9.
  28. The Tübingen pre- and early historian Jörg Petrasch, in the SWR2 broadcast about the origins of religion (RTF; 57 kB).
  29. Mithen 1996, p. 179.
  30. Mithen, 1996, p. 181.
  31. Steven Mithen: The prehistory of the mind. London 1996, p. 187.
  32. Steven Mithen: The singing Neanderthals. London 2005, p. 272 ff.
  33. Steven Mithen charts this development in The Prehistory of the mind. London 1996.
  34. Archive link(Memento of Originals of June 7, 2007 in the Internet Archive) Info:The archive linkwas inserted automatically and not yet checked. Please check original and archive link according to instructions and then remove this notice.@1@2Template:Webachiv/IABot/