Michael J. Ryan


On his book A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction

Cover Interview of January 08, 2018


Beauty is all around us and it is intoxicatingly diverse. Much of this diversity exists because beauty enters our sexual brain through different sensory modalities, which strains our ability to make comparisons: we cannot objectively rank the beauty of a dance, a song, and a fragrance. The diversity of beauty is no less astounding within a single sensory domain—the collage of colors of many fishes and the vocal repertoires of songbirds are both overwhelming. The existence of all this diversity makes it obvious that there is no single platonic ideal of beauty. This is true within our own species and also amongst the hundreds of thousands of species that reproduce sexually. The diversity of beauty springs from the diversity in how different species and even individuals of the same species sense the world around them. Our sexual aesthetics, those of humans and other species, are not handed down from above but are generated from within, specifically from within our brains. We are the ones who define beauty, and understanding the existence of beauty as well as our taste for it is not possible without viewing beauty through the brain of the beholder.

Of course, beauty is not restricted to sexual beauty. The perspective I present here also leads us to wonder how the idiosyncrasies and quirks in our own brains influence our own appreciation of a work of art, a field of flowers, or an expertly executed move on the football field. Might any of these percepts of beauty be a side-effect of our sexual aesthetics? Or, alternatively, can our appreciation of beauty in other domains influence what we find to be sexually beautiful? What is it about our senses, our brains, and our cognitive architecture that gives us an appreciation for beauty all around us? Why does beauty matter so much?

Like Darwin, we will continue to be confounded by aspects and elements of beauty as we encounter them, but we have come to understand so much more about the evolution of beauty since his time. As scientific exploration continues, we are sure to expand even further our ability to see the ways that beauty is woven into existence, the many forms it assumes, and the wild appreciations it elicits.