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Annotated captions of Denis Dutton: A Darwinian theory of beauty in English

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Delighted to be here

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and to talk to you about a subject dear to my heart,

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which is beauty.

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I do the philosophy of art, aesthetics,

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actually, for a living.

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I try to figure out intellectually,

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philosophically, psychologically,

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what the experience of beauty is,

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what sensibly can be said about it

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and how people go off the rails in trying to understand it.

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Now this is an extremely complicated subject,

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in part because the things that we call beautiful

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are so different.

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I mean just think of the sheer variety --

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a baby's face,

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Berlioz's "Harold in Italy,"

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movies like "The Wizard of Oz"

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or the plays of Chekhov,

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a central California landscape,

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a Hokusai view of Mt. Fuji,

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"Der Rosenkavalier,"

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a stunning match-winning goal

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in a World Cup soccer match,

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Van Gogh's "Starry Night,"

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a Jane Austen novel,

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Fred Astaire dancing across the screen.

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This brief list includes human beings,

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natural landforms,

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works of art and skilled human actions.

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An account that explains the presence of beauty

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in everything on this list

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is not going to be easy.

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I can, however, give you at least a taste

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of what I regard

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as the most powerful theory of beauty

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we yet have.

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And we get it not from a philosopher of art,

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not from a postmodern art theorist

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or a bigwig art critic.

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No, this theory

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comes from an expert

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on barnacles and worms and pigeon breeding,

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and you know who I mean:

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Charles Darwin.

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Of course, a lot of people think they already know

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the proper answer to the question,

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"What is beauty?"

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It's in the eye of the beholder.

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It's whatever moves you personally.

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Or, as some people,

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especially academics prefer,

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beauty is in the culturally conditioned

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eye of the beholder.

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People agree that paintings or movies or music

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are beautiful

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because their cultures determine a uniformity of aesthetic taste.

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Taste for both natural beauty and for the arts

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travel across cultures

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with great ease.

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Beethoven is adored in Japan.

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Peruvians love Japanese woodblock prints.

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Inca sculptures are regarded as treasures

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in British museums,

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while Shakespeare is translated

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into every major language of the Earth.

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Or just think about American jazz

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or American movies --

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they go everywhere.

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There are many differences among the arts,

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but there are also universal,

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cross-cultural aesthetic pleasures

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and values.

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How can we explain

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this universality?

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The best answer lies in trying to reconstruct

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a Darwinian evolutionary history

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of our artistic and aesthetic tastes.

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We need to reverse-engineer

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our present artistic tastes and preferences

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and explain how they came

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to be engraved in our minds

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by the actions of both our prehistoric,

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largely pleistocene environments,

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where we became fully human,

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but also by the social situations

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in which we evolved.

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This reverse engineering

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can also enlist help

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from the human record

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preserved in prehistory.

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I mean fossils, cave paintings and so forth.

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And it should take into account

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what we know of the aesthetic interests

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of isolated hunter-gatherer bands

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that survived into the 19th and the 20th centuries.

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Now, I personally

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have no doubt whatsoever

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that the experience of beauty,

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with its emotional intensity and pleasure,

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belongs to our evolved human psychology.

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The experience of beauty is one component

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in a whole series of Darwinian adaptations.

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Beauty is an adaptive effect,

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which we extend

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and intensify

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in the creation and enjoyment

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of works of art and entertainment.

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As many of you will know,

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evolution operates by two main primary mechanisms.

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The first of these is natural selection --

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that's random mutation and selective retention --

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along with our basic anatomy and physiology --

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the evolution of the pancreas or the eye or the fingernails.

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Natural selection also explains

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many basic revulsions,

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such as the horrid smell of rotting meat,

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or fears, such as the fear of snakes

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or standing close to the edge of a cliff.

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Natural selection also explains pleasures --

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sexual pleasure,

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our liking for sweet, fat and proteins,

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which in turn explains a lot of popular foods,

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from ripe fruits through chocolate malts

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and barbecued ribs.

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The other great principle of evolution

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is sexual selection,

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and it operates very differently.

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The peacock's magnificent tail

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is the most famous example of this.

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It did not evolve for natural survival.

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In fact, it goes against natural survival.

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No, the peacock's tail

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results from the mating choices

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made by peahens.

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It's quite a familiar story.

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It's women who actually push history forward.

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Darwin himself, by the way,

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had no doubts that the peacock's tail

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was beautiful in the eyes of the peahen.

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He actually used that word.

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Now, keeping these ideas firmly in mind,

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we can say that the experience of beauty

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is one of the ways that evolution has

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of arousing and sustaining

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interest or fascination,

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even obsession,

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in order to encourage us

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toward making the most adaptive decisions

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for survival and reproduction.

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Beauty is nature's way

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of acting at a distance,

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so to speak.

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I mean, you can't expect to eat

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an adaptively beneficial landscape.

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It would hardly do to eat your baby

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or your lover.

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So evolution's trick

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is to make them beautiful,

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to have them exert a kind of magnetism

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to give you the pleasure of simply looking at them.

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Consider briefly an important source of aesthetic pleasure,

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the magnetic pull

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of beautiful landscapes.

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People in very different cultures

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all over the world

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tend to like a particular kind of landscape,

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a landscape that just happens to be similar

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to the pleistocene savannas where we evolved.

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This landscape shows up today

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on calendars, on postcards,

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in the design of golf courses and public parks

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and in gold-framed pictures

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that hang in living rooms

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from New York to New Zealand.

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It's a kind of Hudson River school landscape

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featuring open spaces

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of low grasses

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interspersed with copses of trees.

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The trees, by the way, are often preferred

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if they fork near the ground,

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that is to say, if they're trees you could scramble up

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if you were in a tight fix.

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The landscape shows the presence

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of water directly in view,

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or evidence of water in a bluish distance,

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indications of animal or bird life

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as well as diverse greenery

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and finally -- get this --

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a path

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or a road,

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perhaps a riverbank or a shoreline,

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that extends into the distance,

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almost inviting you to follow it.

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This landscape type is regarded as beautiful,

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even by people in countries

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that don't have it.

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The ideal savanna landscape

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is one of the clearest examples

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where human beings everywhere

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find beauty

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in similar visual experience.

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But, someone might argue,

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that's natural beauty.

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How about artistic beauty?

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Isn't that exhaustively cultural?

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No, I don't think it is.

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And once again, I'd like to look back to prehistory

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to say something about it.

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It is widely assumed

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that the earliest human artworks

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are the stupendously skillful cave paintings

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that we all know from Lascaux

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and Chauvet.

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Chauvet caves

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are about 32,000 years old,

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along with a few small, realistic sculptures

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of women and animals from the same period.

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But artistic and decorative skills

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are actually much older than that.

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Beautiful shell necklaces

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that look like something you'd see at an arts and crafts fair,

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as well as ochre body paint,

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have been found

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from around 100,000 years ago.

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But the most intriguing prehistoric artifacts

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are older even than this.

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I have in mind

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the so-called Acheulian hand axes.

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The oldest stone tools are choppers

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from the Olduvai Gorge in East Africa.

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They go back about two-and-a-half-million years.

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These crude tools

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were around for thousands of centuries,

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until around 1.4 million years ago

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when Homo erectus

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started shaping

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single, thin stone blades,

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sometimes rounded ovals,

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but often in what are to our eyes

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an arresting, symmetrical pointed leaf

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or teardrop form.

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These Acheulian hand axes --

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they're named after St. Acheul in France,

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where finds were made in 19th century --

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have been unearthed in their thousands,

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scattered across Asia, Europe and Africa,

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almost everywhere Homo erectus

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and Homo ergaster roamed.

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Now, the sheer numbers of these hand axes

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shows that they can't have been made

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for butchering animals.

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And the plot really thickens when you realize

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that, unlike other pleistocene tools,

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the hand axes often exhibit

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no evidence of wear

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on their delicate blade edges.

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And some, in any event, are too big

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to use for butchery.

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Their symmetry, their attractive materials

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and, above all,

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their meticulous workmanship

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are simply quite beautiful

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to our eyes, even today.

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So what were these ancient --

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I mean, they're ancient, they're foreign,

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but they're at the same time

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somehow familiar.

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What were these artifacts for?

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The best available answer

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is that they were literally

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the earliest known works of art,

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practical tools transformed

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into captivating aesthetic objects,

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contemplated both for their elegant shape

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and their virtuoso craftsmanship.

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Hand axes mark

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an evolutionary advance in human history --

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tools fashioned to function

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as what Darwinians call "fitness signals" --

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that is to say, displays

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that are performances

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like the peacock's tail,

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except that, unlike hair and feathers,

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the hand axes are consciously

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cleverly crafted.

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Competently made hand axes

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indicated desirable personal qualities --

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intelligence, fine motor control,

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planning ability,

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conscientiousness

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and sometimes access to rare materials.

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Over tens of thousands of generations,

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such skills increased the status

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of those who displayed them

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and gained a reproductive advantage

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over the less capable.

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You know, it's an old line,

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but it has been shown to work --

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"Why don't you come up to my cave, so I can show you my hand axes?"

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(Laughter)

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Except, of course, what's interesting about this

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is that we can't be sure how that idea was conveyed,

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because the Homo erectus

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that made these objects

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did not have language.

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It's hard to grasp,

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but it's an incredible fact.

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This object was made

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by a hominid ancestor,

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Homo erectus or Homo ergaster,

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between 50,000 and 100,000 years

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before language.

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Stretching over a million years,

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the hand axe tradition

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is the longest artistic tradition

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in human and proto-human history.

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By the end of the hand axe epic, Homo sapiens --

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as they were then called, finally --

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were doubtless finding new ways

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to amuse and amaze each other

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by, who knows, telling jokes,

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storytelling, dancing, or hairstyling.

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Yes, hairstyling -- I insist on that.

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For us moderns,

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virtuoso technique

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is used to create imaginary worlds

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in fiction and in movies,

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to express intense emotions

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with music, painting and dance.

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But still,

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one fundamental trait

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of the ancestral personality persists

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in our aesthetic cravings:

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the beauty we find

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in skilled performances.

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From Lascaux to the Louvre

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to Carnegie Hall,

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human beings

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have a permanent innate taste

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for virtuoso displays in the arts.

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We find beauty

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in something done well.

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So the next time you pass a jewelry shop window

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displaying a beautifully cut

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teardrop-shaped stone,

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don't be so sure

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it's just your culture telling you

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that that sparkling jewel is beautiful.

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Your distant ancestors loved that shape

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and found beauty in the skill needed to make it,

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even before

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they could put their love into words.

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Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?

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No, it's deep in our minds.

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It's a gift handed down from the intelligent skills

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and rich emotional lives

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of our most ancient ancestors.

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Our powerful reaction to images,

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to the expression of emotion in art,

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to the beauty of music, to the night sky,

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will be with us and our descendants

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for as long as the human race exists.

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Thank you.

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(Applause)