The Synergy of Objectivist & Darwinian Aesthetics

Most people know Ayn Rand from her novels Atlas Shrugged & The Fountainhead and know Charles Darwin for his evolutionary theory of Natural Selection which he puts forth in The Origin of Species. Most Ayn Rand readers don’t realize that she wrote another book called The Romantic Manifesto where she puts for the corollary, Romantic, art theory that corresponds to the novels she wrote. And then most biologists don’t often take the time to read about evolutionary aesthetic theory written about by authors like Dennis Dutton. However, these art theoreticians have analogous paradigms: one is promoting the reverse-engineering of a species tastes to understand why we view similar sights in nature as beautiful, one is promoting the reverse-engineering of an individual’s emotional reactions to art so as to discover their ethical framework.

At first glance, it may seem odd to compare the novelist Ayn Rand’s theory of art to a theory of art based off the work of Charles Darwin and worked out by the aesthetic philosopher Dennis Dutton. However, evolution is what brought about Man- the only species that Ayn Rand hails for having the capacity to think- which enables him to do things like create art.

Although Rand herself does not discuss Darwin much in her work- it is clear she sees the stark contrasts between Man and other animals. Dutton not only realizes that Man’s reasoning capabilities are what enable him to produce works of art, but also makes the conjecture that cross culturally we share a many of the same aesthetic inclinations, a sort of art instinct (The Art Instinct is the title of his book on Darwinian aesthetic theory) and that this can explain why cross culturally we deem the same phenomena in nature as beautiful.

Dutton sees that if we reverse engineer our species’ aesthetic tastes that we may discover why cultures of Man from across the globe share these tastes. He is “zooming” out, looking at what cultures can agree upon rather than what differentiates each individual’s specific aesthetic tastes.

He states:

“What evolutionary aesthetics asks for us is to reverse engineer our present tastes- beginning with those that appear to be spontaneous and universal- in order to understand where they came from.”

The key thing here is that Dutton thinks that we need to begin with our tastes that “appear to be spontaneous and universal.” These types of traits are far more likely to somehow be connected to our primal ancestor’s introduction of art. For Dutton, it doesn’t make sense for us to focus on what some pretentious art-critic-elitists declare to be universally beautiful (this applies to Rand as well)- but rather, he looks for evidence of patterns of aesthetic appreciation, one of which is that we often find calendars picturing the same types of landscapes in a wide variety of homes spanning the globe. He actually borrows a hypothesis made by Gordon H. Orians to describe the type of environment which humans may universally find appealing- “the Savannah Hypothesis” which includes the following elements:

  • Open spaces of low (or mown) grasses interspersed with thickets of bushes and groupings of trees;
  • The presence of water directly in view, or evidence of water nearby in the distance;
  • An opening up in at least one direction to an unimpeded vantage on the horizon;
  • Evidence of animal and bird life; and
  • A diversity of greenery, including flowering and fruiting plants.

Calendars are already universal in some sense, time is a universal concept that applies to everyone (unless you came here in a time machine). However, Dutton also sees how the same beautiful landscapes are seen universally in homes all over the world and he argues that these landscapes are universally seen as beautiful because they were the types of landscapes that enabled humans to survive and reproduce, which is the crux of Darwin’s theory of evolution.

Now, this is only one of many examples from The Art Instinct– but the focus of this essay is not solely concerned with Dutton’s theory of beauty- but on how this Darwinian aesthetic theory overlaps with Ayn Rand’ Objectivist aesthetic theory; I would like to assert that the two theories are not mutually exclusive, but in reality, operate synergistically and complement one another.

I would actually argue that Dutton’s theory is not the only one which happens to be evolutionary, it’s simply the Darwinian theory in a biological sense. The Objectivist theory is evolutionary, only in a different sense: Rand’s theory is focused on the evolving values of an individual and how these abstract values correlate to our idiosyncratic appreciation of art.

The key paradigm behind Rand’s theory is that the type of art that an individual enjoys is enjoyed because of his subconscious view of existence. She is ‘zooming in’ on individuals’ specific emotional response to art. She calls this a ‘sense of life’:

“As to the role of emotions in art and the subconscious mechanism that serves as the integrating factor both in artistic creation and in man’s response to art, they involve a psychological phenomenon which we call a sense of life. A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence.”

In each piece of art that an individual perceives or conceives there is something going on beneath consciousness that is playing a role in either the consumption of creation of the artwork.  It’s worth noting that some people have spent more time consciously thinking through their “appraisal of man and of existence”, and these people will be more likely to describe rationally why they enjoy a certain piece of art, whereas somebody who stumbles through life without growing their conscious metaphysical appraisal will have a hard time not just explaining why they enjoy a piece of art- but they will also have a hard time living life because they have not explicitly identified their values:

“A sense of life is not a substitute for explicit knowledge. Values which one cannot identify, but merely senses implicitly, are not in one’s control. One cannot tell what they depend on or require, what course of action is needed to gain and/or keep them. One can lose or betray them without knowing it.”

Don’t fret if you haven’t been explicit about your values and you don’t always see how your worldview is reflected by the time of art you like. We all start out as infants who have no conception of any of this stuff, and philosophy is not taught well in the very few places that it is taught- so it makes sense that most of us have not thought about aesthetic theory. The important thing is that we grow our explicit worldview and keep evolving so that it aligns more and more with the external world.

“It is only those values which he regards or grows to regard as “important,” those which represent his implicit view of reality, that remain in a man’s subconscious and form his sense of life.”

Just as the Earth grows to regard certain biological features as “important” through the law of natural selection, which is what causes us all to enjoy the gorgeous valleys like Yosemite’s, we must grow to regard the world around us in a more and more objective way so that we can live our lives to the fullest, and this philosophical growth will enable us to see clearer why we regard certain types of art as “important.” As we evolve our worldviews over our lifetimes, the types of art that we like will surely evolve- just as over Earth’s life time there has been a tremendous amount of art that people relish that is seemingly unrelated to that of the Pleistocene.

Although we may not begin our lives with the best philosophy to help us appreciate art, we have the chance to grow by reading books, introspecting, and taking criticism. As Darwin himself said, “We must, however, acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities… still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.” Analogously, Ayn Rand and Dennis Dutton may have noble aesthetic philosophies which will help us to better cherish our art, and yet these thinkers still bear the neuronal frame of their infantile origin, an origin that we all share.

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