The illusion of beauty

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Humphrey, N.K. (1973). The illusion of beauty. Perception, 2: 429–439.



"Beauty is truth, truth beauty" to the poet. But a biologist is bound, I think, to regard beauty—at least man-made beauty—as something closer to a lie. A lie, admittedly, of a unique kind, but a kind to which both men and animals are specially vulnerable. If I give a hungry dog a solution of saccharine it will lap it up; if I show a cock robin a bundle of feathers with a red patch on its underside the robin will attack it; and if I show a man an abstract painting or play him a piece of music he will, if he thikks it beautiful, stop to watch or listen. There is, I believe, a formal similarity in all these cases. In each we have an animal performing a useful and relevant piece of behaviour towards an inappropriate sensory stimulus. But there is, I agree, a rather basic difference, namely that in the first two cases we have a good scientific explanation of what is going on, while in the third we're almost ignorant. With the saccharine and the red-breasted bundle of feathers we know what the artificial, 'illusory', stimulus corresponds to in nature and we know how the dog's or the robin's behaviour would in normal circumstances contribute to its biological survival. ...

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