On the Discovery Docket: A Darwinian Theory of Beauty

by Katie Bowell, Curator of Cultural Interpretation

With the season of gift giving upon us, I find myself surrounded by advertisements for “beautiful” things. A diamond necklace, a new car, a flat screen television: all these objects ultimately end up being called “beautiful.” This somewhat cavalier use of the term “beauty” over such a broad spectrum of objects leads me to wonder about the real meaning of the word. What is beautiful, and how do we know?

Dennis Dutton, a professor of Philosophy at the University of Cantebury in New Zealand and the editor of Arts & Letters Daily, has an idea for an answer. What is beauty? Dutton argues that it’s a core part of our human nature – one with deep evolutionary origins that began before we even had the ability to speak.

In his fascinating and wonderfully illustrated Ted Talk, “A Darwinian Theory of Beauty,” Dutton explores the idea of a universal understanding of beauty. According to Dutton, it is possible to discover an evolutionary history of our artistic and aesthetic tastes, and to see how what we presently call beautiful is the result of millennia of influence from the environments our ancestors lived in and the situations they encountered.

My favorite part of Dutton’s talk is his discussion of Acheulian hand axes. Teardrop-shaped stone tools made 1.4 million years ago and found throughout Europe, Asia and Africa, Dutton argues that these are tools that became the first known works of art, functioning as sexually selective fitness signals of skill and intelligence the way a male peacock displays his feathers.

The next time you come to the museum, be sure to stop by our exhibit on the Lindenmeier Archaeolgical Site and look at the display of artifacts. It’s easy to look at the artifacts as stone tools: a projectile point, a knife, a scraper. It’s much more awe inspiring, however, to also look at the artifacts as works of art and things of beauty. You’ll be surprised just how much your perspective changes.

So, is anyone planning on giving a hand axe to someone special this year?

Read a transcript of Dutton’s talk here.

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1 Response to “On the Discovery Docket: A Darwinian Theory of Beauty”


  1. 1 Steve VanderMeer December 23, 2010 at 12:27 pm

    Thank you Katie for turning me on to Dr. Dutton’s presentation. Very enjoyable and compelling!


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