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The Natural History of Art

Beauty is not just in the eye of the beholder. It's embedded in our genes

By Richard Conniff
Nov 1, 1999 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 4:44 AM
This savanna in Tanzania is typical of the kind of landscape that helped shape early human evolution. | Cederlund Tholin / Shutterstock


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Not long ago in Africa, I camped in what seemed like one of the perfect places on Earth, at the edge of a stand of trees overlooking a floodplain. The stars were spangled across the sky in smoky clusters of light, and I lay in my tent listening to the distant rumble of lions and the doleful keening of jackals. In the morning, my companions and I squatted around an open fire and watched the night fade gradually into dawn on the open plain. It might have been 100,000 years ago, when our ancestors were hunter-gatherers. It might have been millions of years ago, when we were apes.

It felt like home, and the biologist I was visiting suggested that perhaps our evolution in a landscape like this had shaped much more than the way our hips articulate or our hands grasp. Maybe evolution influences what we like, he said. Maybe we like glassy, sparkling surfaces because they suggest close proximity to water. Maybe we take comfort in a certain branchy tree shape because our Pleistocene forebears roosted in such trees at night for safety from predators. Perhaps things we regard as purely cultural and artistic—like the graceful way a ballerina’s ankle unbends when she is on point, in a way few men can manage—are actually products of anthropoid evolution. A woman’s ankle can rotate through a much greater arc, one biologist has suggested, because our early female ancestors had to stretch from one branch to another while foraging in the trees and bushes, whereas heavier-bodied males tended to stick to flat land.

The idea that there might be a natural history of aesthetics turned out, when I got home and began to read, to be more than idle campfire talk. Richard Coss, now a psychology professor at the University of California at Davis, largely invented the idea of evolutionary aesthetics in a paper he wrote 30 years ago as a young graduate in industrial design. Coss made the startling suggestion that we respond to art, and to our visual world, not just as aesthetes (or even Philistines) but as animals. Among other examples, he cited an abstract painting by Paul Klee, The Snake Goddess and Her Enemy. Coss noted that butterflies and other creatures often use false eyespots to produce alarm in predators. He suggested that Klee was eliciting an innate biological response in his viewers through similar “releasing mechanisms”—the S-shape of the snake and the use of a mask with two prominent eyes.

The idea of looking at art from the perspective of animal behavior also occurred to Gordon Orians at the University of Washington. Orians was studying how blackbirds choose where to live when he noticed that humans also select their habitat according to specific criteria, like the presence of water, large trees, open space, and distant views—criteria evoking the savanna where humans evolved. Moreover, when Orians asked test subjects to rate landscape paintings, they tended to prefer the ones that met those criteria. A John Constable landscape like Dedham Vale appeals to us, Orians argued, at least partly because it gives the viewer clues to finding resources and avoiding danger. Looking at it is an unconscious exercise in habitat selection: Could I live here? Is it safe to explore? Should I turn and run?

The ideas pioneered by Coss and Orians have gained increasing currency. But to many people, the animal behavior perspective on art still seems like an affront to our idea of what it means to be human. We tend to think that few things are more individual than art, and it’s difficult to accept that our idiosyncratic tastes might have a common biological basis. Orians argued, for instance, that the celebrated landscape of the English country house was an unconscious attempt to recreate the environment of the African savanna. I tried this idea out recently on a British aristocrat, who replied, in a horrified tone, “No. The idea was to bring out the natural character of the English countryside.” But the means her family had employed over the centuries to achieve a “natural” effect at their house included cutting down forests to create open vistas, introducing water holes, and otherwise turning the grounds into a savanna.

The evolutionary perspective has also been slow to take hold because research on the biology of aesthetics tends to be fuzzier than scientists (and some art historians) might like. Orians, Coss, and others quantify preferences that are expressed both verbally and by such physiological measures as pupil size and blood pressure. Then they compare these preferences across cultures (and sometimes across species) to discern whether they are a product of nature or nurture. Skepticism is the typical reaction: A curator at one prominent museum argued that art is far more likely to be influenced by cultural developments, such as the invention of photography or the rise of Impressionism, than by evolution.

But biologists believe that ancient history—the rise and fall of different body types, survival strategies, and instincts for habitat—has a way of shaping the DNA, where it becomes a sort of ghostly puppeteer. In humans, the strings tying us to our past may stretch back to more than 2 million years ago. These strings take the form of innate propensities, things we do unthinkingly and without having to learn from our parents. As in the Klee and Constable paintings, artists often unconsciously express these same propensities.

One of the most basic inherited propensities in animals is a tendency to select a habitat where past generations have thrived. For instance, prairie deer mice live only in the grasslands of the Midwest. When scientists rear them in isolation and give them a choice between grassland and other habitats, untutored youngsters almost always choose grassland. It is in their genes, and natural selection keeps it there. For most animals, including humans, an instinct for suitable habitat—a place that offers adequate food, breeding opportunities, and shelter—is the difference between life and death. Individuals in past generations who chose badly left fewer offspring to perpetuate their foolish ways. On the other hand, individuals with an instinct for choosing good habitat tended to produce more offspring, thus spreading their instincts through the population. What has gotten programmed into our genes as a result, says Orians, is an emotional or psychological response to good habitat—and also to paintings and photos of good habitat.

Most animals appear to be biologically prepared to recognize highly specific indicators of good habitat. When yellow warblers arrive in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, each spring, the trees are still leafless and there’s snow on the ground. But the warblers seem to recognize by the shape and color of the bare willow branches that this will soon become good habitat. Likewise, when scientists offer cage-reared chipping sparrows both deciduous and coniferous branches, they perch on the coniferous ones, which are a cue to their ancestral habitat.

Even if having an eye for the right habitat is hardwired into the genes, individual animals can often ignore or alter these innate propensities, within limits. Peregrine falcons have evolved to nest on cliff faces. But if a falcon finds its way to New York City, which has no suitable cliffs, it doesn’t suddenly act like a robin and nest in a tree in Central Park. Instead it nests high up on the next best thing to a cliff—a Fifth Avenue apartment building overlooking the park. Biologists believe people adapt in much the same way. The tenants in that building make more elaborate nests than the falcon. But evolutionary biology suggests they are also embellishing on innate propensities: Humans and falcons alike choose their roosts for the same reasons—that is, the proximity of good habitat and a safe prospect from which to view it.

It is relatively easy to demonstrate that humans have a genetically prepared negative response to nature. For example, we know rationally that handguns and frayed electrical wires pose a greater threat in the modern world than snakes or spiders. But our evolution has prepared us to fear natural threats more viscerally, and these fears stay with us even though it may be thousands of years since deadly snakes or spiders were part of our daily lives. Scientists have conducted Pavlovian conditioning experiments in which subjects are repeatedly exposed to threatening images. Fear of handguns and frayed wires vanishes relatively quickly. But fear of snakes and spiders, as measured by heart rate and other autonomic nervous system activity, persists long afterward. It’s in our genes.

Demonstrating that we have a biologically programmed positive response to nature is more difficult, because we don’t respond as dramatically to something that’s not a threat. But numerous studies since the 1970s suggest the subtle power of natural scenery to heal both body and mind. Texas A&M researcher Roger Ulrich, for instance, has shown that people who watch a calming nature video after a stressful experience have markedly lower muscle tension, pulse, and skin conductance activity after less than five minutes. This translates into significant medical benefits. Ulrich monitored patients after gallbladder surgery and found that those assigned to a room looking out on trees needed far fewer painkillers than patients in rooms that faced a brick wall. Heart surgery patients in rooms with nature scenes on the wall experienced less anxiety and smoother recoveries than patients with blank walls or abstract art. Likewise, cosmonauts confined for months in outer space quickly lose interest in video programs and other diversions. They prefer to stare out the window at the untouchable Earth.

We seem to be biologically prepared to look for very specific cues about the natural world, in much the manner of chipping sparrows choosing coniferous branches. In separate surveys, Ulrich, Orians, and others have found that people respond strongly to landscapes with open, grassy vegetation, scattered stands of branchy trees, water, changes in elevation, winding trails, and brightly lit clearings, preferably partly obscured by foliage in the foreground. It’s a landscape that invites exploration, promising resources and refuge at the same time. The changes in elevation—a view of distant mountains, for instance—provide a landmark to help the viewer orient himself in the scene. The winding trail and the partly obscured clearing provide mystery and entice our innate curiosity to explore. Flowers are valuable not merely for their beauty, but also because they promise fruit and honey. Orians and co-author Judith Heerwagen note that we prefer flowers to be big and asymmetrical, traits that indicate greater nectar content. They argue that we bring flowers to hospitals because they are literally good medicine: They soothe us with the promise of better times ahead.

All this may seem like a long way from a John Constable landscape. But Orians and Heerwagen found that these habitat cues abound in landscapes by Constable and other artists. When they compared sketches Constable made on the spot with the finished paintings he produced later in his studio, they found that the artist consistently “savannafied” reality to enhance the desirable cues—stripping away foliage to expose tree branches or adding houses for refuge. Habitat cues turn up even in a portrait like Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. It’s not just the woman who is serene; it’s the setting: A winding road in the background leads through scattered trees to a brightly lit clearing, with a bridge across a river and mountains in the distance, all under a blue sky. In a subsequent study, Orians and Heerwagen applied their evolutionary perspective to 35 paintings of sunsets, by such artists as Frederick Church and Martin Johnson Heade, on the theory that sunset would have been fraught with tension for our ancestors. “When you’re out walking on the African savanna,” says Orians, “and the sky is getting pink, and in a half hour the lions and hyenas are going to be coming out, sunset is terrifying. We really worry at sunset about where we’re going to spend the night.” Orians and Heerwagen found that two thirds of the paintings included a refuge clearly accessible to the viewer—a church or a house, often with a light in the window.

Anxiety about lions is of course irrational in the context of an English or American landscape. But biologists say we are built to make snap judgments about such landscapes, without conscious thought. “Behavioral sciences were dominated until fairly recently,” says Ulrich, “by theories that put emphasis on conscious, deliberate thinking as a source of feelings. But such an animal would have been highly dysfunctional: ‘There’s something moving. By golly, it looks like a snake. Last time I saw a snake somebody got bitten. Hey, maybe I should feel a little bit afraid.’ Well, no.” When we see a snake, it pays to jump faster than we can say the word. It takes less than a quarter of a second for the body to register a physiological response to a threat, and somewhat longer—a second or two, according to Ulrich—to register a positive stimulus.

But wait. Unless they are deranged, don’t people in a museum know they are looking at paintings on a wall, not real landscapes or real snakes? In traditional criticism, our aesthetic responses are practically defined by being unreal and having no practical application. Seeing an Andy Warhol painting of a Campbell’s soup can does not make us reach for a spoon, and neither should a painting of a sunset make us imagine we are out on the savanna with no place to sleep.

But biologists argue that aesthetic and real-life responses differ only in degree. “Alfred Hitchcock was great at this,” says Nancy Aiken, author of The Biological Origins of Art. “You see a knife coming down and you don’t have to see the victim; you know it hits. You might actually gasp and grab hold of the arms of the chair. The blood pressure is going up, the palms are sweating. It’s this internal, visceral alerting response. We’re physiologically preparing for flight from danger.” It takes the conscious brain a moment to remind us there’s no real danger.

So should we judge art by what makes the palms sweat, or by what soothes the troubled brow? One art historian who dismissed the idea that biology and art have anything to do with each other suggested that I look up a recent book called Painting By Numbers: Komar and Melamid’s Scientific Guide to Art. Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Russian immigrants, commissioned polls in various countries of what people want in their paintings. To Melamid, the uniformity of the results suggested genetic imprinting: “In every country the favorite color is blue, and almost everywhere green is second. . . . Everywhere the people want outdoor scenes, with wild animals, water, trees, and some people.” The two artists then painted each country’s “most wanted” image. Kenya’s, for example, featured Jesus Christ rising out of a lake with Mount Kilimanjaro in the distance, a hippo grazing on the shore, a family preparing dinner with mortar and pestle, and a blue sky. The point, of course, was parody.

At times, the biological point of view seems to come perilously close to Komar and Melamid’s perspective, without the satiric edge. Ulrich, for instance, writes about “the need for research to establish scientific guidelines to help interior designers select art that is reliably stress reducing and physiologically supportive. . . . ” But he is talking only about art in hospitals and in other medical contexts, where he believes the sole critical standard is whether art “improves outcomes in patients, and if it doesn’t, it’s bad art.”

The idea of any scientific guidelines for art is guaranteed to raise hackles. And listening to Ulrich, you can easily imagine the tort already festering in some medical malpractice lawyer’s brain: “That Jackson Pollock painting killed my client.” In truth, figuring out just what constitutes therapeutic art can be difficult. In the mid-1990s, Duke University Medical Center installed a whimsical courtyard sculptural arrangement called The Bird Garden, inspired by Florence Nightingale’s belief that good art in hospitals can be an “actual means of recovery.” It consisted of 10-foot-tall steel pieces commemorating birds that are now extinct, like the dodo and the passenger pigeon. Patients looking at the courtyard sculptures soon began to project their troubles onto the art. One piece reminded them of hands reaching up from the grave. Another piece, depicting an owl, disturbed them by seeming to stare with one glowering eye. A psychologist like Coss might have informed administrators that chimpanzees will avoid looking at a toy with prominent eyes, gorillas feel threatened by the blank stare of binoculars, and “one of the most primitive avoidance responses to form exhibited by man today is gaze aversion to the unyielding stare of a stranger.” The hospital has since removed the sculptures and redesigned the courtyard with inoffensive plants.

But all of this raises the question of why the rest of us, who don’t happen to be in hospitals, actually seek out disturbing art. If evolution shapes what we like, why don’t we stick with tranquil savannafied landscapes? Why go to a museum to see a painting by George Stubbs, who never left Europe but depicted lions sinking tooth and claw into the necks of terrified horses? What do we find so compelling about a J.M.W. Turner seascape of a storm, which seems to swirl across the canvas without horizon or anything else to give the viewer a foothold? From an evolutionary perspective, says Orians, we find such paintings fascinating because they help us prepare. We look at them for same reason that we rubberneck at car wrecks, or watch “Shark Week” on the Discovery Channel: to learn how to avoid getting into the same situation. Seeing Hitchcock’s Psycho terrifies us—and reminds us to lock the bathroom door. Art is a message about survival. We are also built to seek thrills, preferably in a safe context. A painting in a museum allows us to experience Turner’s perfect storm without strapping ourselves to a mast and risking shipwreck, as the artist did.

Some of the most intriguing ideas about the interplay between visual pleasure and peril continue to come from Coss, who has studied everything from the predator response of California ground squirrels to the design of visual stimulation for astronauts on nasa spacecraft. In his current research, Coss is learning how various primate species protect themselves from leopards, which have preyed on them (and us) for more than 3 million years. Crab-eating monkeys, for example, have a visual system that is highly sensitive to the color yellow, apparently for easier detection of leopards. Coss has also found that a patch of spotted fur no larger than a football will produce alarm even in bonnet macaque populations that have not been exposed to leopards for generations. He theorizes that leopard spots also elicit an innate predator response in humans. This may be why heads of state like Mobutu Sese Seko, the late dictator of Zaire, wear leopard-skin robes and hats.

The zigzag scaly pattern on snakes also appears to elicit an innate arousal in many animals. Coss flips through a clothing catalogue to a photograph of a woman in a Gottex bathing suit. The pattern comes, he says, from a venomous Asian pit viper. It makes him wonder about the intended effect: “If you have something that catches your attention in clothing and you combine that with the body of a person who is not going to harm you, it might make you more interested. It’s not going to make you fearful, because it’s not a frightening context.”

Churches and temples seem to use snakeskin patterns to slightly different effect, Coss suggests. The snakelike tile patterns in old mosques and cathedrals “might enhance the religious, fervent emotions,” eliciting a mix of “awe and reverence.” Or these patterns may simply help keep worshippers awake: “These are things that attract attention,” he says, “and it doesn’t wane, we don’t habituate well to it, the pattern doesn’t become neutral.” Our visual world is full of these biological cues, says Coss, often deployed without conscious thought to their origins, and responded to in the same unthinking fashion.

In certain public spaces, particularly stairways and corridors, Coss believes complex visual details, such as patterned wallpaper or conspicuous graphics in the carpeting, may serve a social function by deflecting the gaze of approaching strangers. In other contexts, these details may be subtly oppressive. Not long ago, for instance, I stayed in a beach rental that I came to think of as “knotty pine hell.” After a while, I figured out what was making me so uncomfortable: The knots in the wood paneling were paired like unblinking eyes all around me.

The evidence, says Orians, is that our visual environment profoundly influences our physical and mental health, much as a suitable habitat makes for healthier animals in the zoo.

I was thinking about all this back home, on the porch of the house my wife and I recently built on the Connecticut shore. The porch columns around me suddenly felt like tree trunks and the ceiling became the forest canopy, with the paddle fan fluttering overhead like leaves in the breeze. It dawned on me that what we had created was no more than an elaborate replica of that camp site at the edge of a forest in Africa. From my refuge, I looked out at a perfect shopping list of biological habitat cues: There was a grassy lawn, a footpath winding through a scattered stand of branchy trees, a brightly lit clearing in the distance, partly obscured by vegetation, and beyond that, a deep-blue swath of water. I closed my eyes and could feel the puppet strings of evolution tugging at my turn-of-the-millennium soul.

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