The Evolution of Aesthetics: The Origins Of Music And Visual Art
One of the great mysteries of art is why it exists. Although our desire to create and enjoy art is so widespread that it appears as natural as eating or reproducing -– nearly every culture draws, dances, sings, recites poetry and tells stories -– the origins of human aesthetics are not clear-cut. What’s peculiar is that from a biological point of view art appears to serve no adaptive advantages whatsoever. Why, for instance, would our prehistoric ancestors spend time painting or decorating instead of hunting and gathering? And it seems unlikely that poetry ever helped anyone eat or reproduce. Our brain demands about 20 percent of our metabolic energy and 40 percent of our blood glucose even though it makes up only 2 percent of our body weight. It’s a costly organ, so why waste it on peripheral interests like art?
Of all the arts music might receive the most attention from evolutionary psychologists. The dominant theory is that music is about sexual selection. Naturally, Darwin was the first to riff on this idea in The Descent of Man. He put it this way:
The impassioned orator, bard, or musician, when with his varied tones and cadences he excites the strongest emotions in his hearers, little suspects that he uses the same means by which his half-human ancestors long ago aroused each other's ardent passions, during their courtship and rivalry.
Later on in the 20th century evolutionary psychologists including Geoffry Miller and Daniel Levitin endorsed (partially) and expanded this line of reasoning: music, they say, is about getting the girls. But other psychologists including Gary Marcus question this idea by pointing out several problems including the fact that females are just as capable musicians as men. In addition, says Marcus, an investment in music for the sake of propagating one’s genes seems like a horrible bet considering the disproportionate ratio between failed and successful musicians. Besides Hendrix, Jagger and a few others, musicians rarely garner enough success or recognition for their songs to give them a significant sexual advantage. Most importantly, as Marcus points out, musicians usually pursue music because they are passionate about it, not because they want to impress.
And that’s what’s puzzling about music: it’s ability to put us in a wondrous state of flow. What’s more is that music gives the musician and the listener meaning, purpose and comfort. As Nietzsche said, life without it is a mistake. It should seem strange, then, that we humans get so much from something that is so biologically frivolous. Whereas the deliciousness of cheesecake is obvious in the context of the African savannah where fat and sugar were hard to come by, the benefits of music are difficult to trace on evolutionary terms.
One way around this mystery is to say that music is not the direct product of evolution in the first place. Instead, it could be a byproduct of several other cognitive capacities including language and emotion. Good music, therefore, does a particularly good job of hitting certain pleasure points – it’s a type of “auditory cheesecake” in other words. This point of view was put forth by Steven Pinker in his book How The Mind Works. As Pinker says, music is, “an exquisite confection crafted to tickle the sensitive spots of at least six of our mental faculties.”
The origins of visual artwork might be clearer. For instance, across all cultures humans prefer environments where they have an advantage in height, there is an open-savannah terrain and a nearby body of water - such a landscape was ideal for our ancestors who lived on the African Savannah. So it hardly seems like a coincidence that we show a strong preference for paintings that depict wide-open landscapes that include flowers, fertile land and a body of water from a high vantage point. (This also helps explain why high-rises that over look Manhattan’s Central Park are so expensive.)
In The Social Conquest, E. O. Wilson posits that what we know from cognitive science about how brains perceive abstract design also helps us understand visual art on evolutionary terms. According to Wilson:
Neurobiological monitoring, in particular measurements of the damping of alpha waves during perceptions of abstract designs, have shown that the brain is most aroused by patterns in which there is about a 20 percent redundancy of elements or, put roughly, the amount of complexity found in a simple maze, or two turns of a logarithmic spiral, or an asymmetric cross. It may be coincidence (although I think not) that about the same degree of complexity is shared by a great deal of the art in friezes, grillwork, colophons, logographs, and flag designs.
Wilson also speculates that, “a quality of great art is its ability to guide attention from one of its parts to another in a manner that pleasures, informs, and provokes.”
The overarching point is that we don’t compose music for bats or dolphins and we don’t paint paintings for the naturally blind star-nose mole. Rather, our aesthetic output and preferences are bound by our biologies. The arts are actually quite limited in this context. Our sense of smell and taste are vastly inferior to most of the animal kingdom, and we only see a thin slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. As boundless as the arts appear, we can only perceive and express a narrow slice of reality; our audiovisual orientation of the world will always be confining.
Yet, artists insist on challenging expectations and breaking norms. Stravinsky did it with The Rite of Spring, Picasso did it with cubism, and Joyce did it with Finnegans Wake. What characterizes these artists is their craving for novelty – they wanted to keep their audience in a state of flow. And this craving – the desire to transcend form – might be the bigger mystery. How do you explain a Jackson Pollock or Andy Warhol on evolutionary terms?
It's strange that art exists; perhaps stranger is that we are constantly exploring new ways to express this unexpected cognitive byproduct.
It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction
- It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
- If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
- The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.
- The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
- You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
- This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.
Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.
Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.
The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.
Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv
Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.
The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.
While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.
One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.
"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"
Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.
The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.
Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.
Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.
- Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
- Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
- The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.
The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.
To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.
In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.
An "unthinkable" engineering project
"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.
One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.
The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.
Source: Wolovick et al.
An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.
But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.
Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.
"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.
"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."
A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.
"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."
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