Few would say that they don’t find nature to be beautiful. Perhaps some would point out that they don’t like creepy, crawly things, or biting insects. But they might also admit that, upon closer examination, these creatures show beauty in their design. Why do humans find beauty in nature? Is there some immanent quality of nature that makes it beautiful? Is nature inherently/intrinsically beautiful?
Creationists will argue that the beauty of design that we see in nature has been bestowed by God, the designer. They maintain that you cannot have design without a designer. And, if so, we find beauty in nature because God designed nature and designed us to find beauty in nature. But, as a Darwinist, I would counter that the design we see in all organisms is the product of natural selection, operating over the full length of time that life has been present on Earth – 4 billion years. Evolution by means of natural selection has produced the wondrous diversity of life on Earth we call nature. Can this evolutionary perspective also answer the question of why we find it beautiful?
Humans arrived late on the scene, in this story that stretches back so unimaginably far. Whereas life on Earth appeared billions of years ago, human life (the genus Homo) is between 2 and 3 million years old. All of nature, therefore, was present when we humans first “opened our eyes”, and our subsequent evolution shaped us to live and make a living in those natural settings that were our first homes. All evidence points to Africa as our first home, as we diverged from our ape-like closest kin. The common ancestor of ourselves and modern apes ate mainly vegetable matter, as chimps and gorillas do today. But, somewhere along the line, humans began to scavenge animal remains and then hunt animals, and our way of life thus evolved into a combination of hunting meat and gathering vegetable food. This means of subsisting continued unchanged for at least a million years, until the end of the last ice age (10,000 yrs ago), when humans invented agriculture and domesticated animals.
People who “live off the land” get to know that land very well. They gain intimate knowledge of the terrain, weather patterns, the habits of the prey animals that live in the area, the locations of plant foods and the times of the year that they are available, which plants can be used to make poisons or dyes, which rocks make the best stone tools, which wood makes the best spears, which materials can be used to make huts and clothes, and on and on and on. Stone-age hunters-gatherers educated themselves about every element of the environment that bore on their physical and emotional well-being, and each individual had, by adulthood, acquired PhD amounts of understanding of the subject. As humans spread over the globe, this was accomplished in every habitable environment on Earth. For example, those who have lived with, studied and reported on the Inuit people (Eskimos) of the arctic region have been amazed by the ingenuity of their subsistence technologies. From fashioning igloos, to making kayaks out of skin, bones and driftwood, to making clothes out of animal skins, to hunting seals at breathing holes in the sea ice, to carving hearths from soapstone, so as to have seal oil cooking fires in their igloos, to building weir dams to catch migrating fish in rivers, to domesticating dogs to pull sleighs and much much more, these people have/had mastered the arctic environment. A case in point – in 1845, the Franklin Expedition left England to explore the Canadian arctic. Their wooden ships became icebound and were crushed, with the loss of the complete expedition – 129 men. Meanwhile, nearby Inuit families were going about their daily routines, and it was they who first came upon the wrecks, taking useful materials home with them.
Hunters/gatherers found the subjects they studied to be of great interest, and this interest, along with intellect, are the products of natural selection. Satisfying the basic needs of food and shelter are called (in evolutionary science) the “ultimate” (or underlying) cause of subsistence activities, whereas the “interest” in the things and activities involved in subsistence are the “proximate” (closer at hand) cause. What exactly do I mean by “interest”? Do we not all have hobbies, which we pursue with great “interest”? Think of collecting rocks or fossils, gardening, building models, dancing, archery and hunting, tying flies for fly fishing and fishing, knitting and sewing, re-enacting historical events, skiing and snowboarding, rock climbing and mountaineering, birding, scuba, running whitewater, hiking, caving, horseback riding and keeping pets, ball games and other chase and capture games, throwing a javelin (!) and travel to new places. We find all of these, and many more pursuits, to be “interesting”. And why is that? It’s because we are innately predisposed (evolutionarily-inclined) towards finding these sorts of things interesting. The engagement with such activities is, in other words, self-rewarding – the proximate cause of the behavior is that it is fun. We are built to enjoy these things, and look forward to doing them. What commonalities do we see in the above list? There is fabricating things (e.g. shelters, clothing, weapons, tools, ornaments), there is classifying things collected (e.g. rocks, fossils), there is engagement with plants and animals (e.g. gardening, raising animals, birding, plant collecting, hunting, fishing, scuba diving), there is the acquisition of fine motor skills (e.g. making stone tools), there is motor activity that includes walking, running, chasing, climbing, swimming and other kinds of motion over the surface of the land or water (e.g. skiing, roller skating, surfing, sailing etc. etc.) and exploring new terrain. These self-rewarding activities are otherwise known as play (and no different from what we call play in animals).
What this tells us is that we are innately predisposed to enjoy doing the kinds of things that we needed to do in order to survive as hunter-gatherers in the world of nature. And, along with that, our play is practice. Along with fun, there is yet another motivating element that needs mentioning. That element is joy. The fine-tuning of an adaptation in higher organisms provides an experience of joy (again, as a proximate cause) to a creature that successfully performs adaptive behavior. What is the most adaptive behavior that we humans perform? It is pair-bonding and parenting. It is falling in love and having sex with the object of that love, and then welcoming into the world the child you have jointly created. These are the most joyous experiences available to us. And what comes next? It is being loved by one’s relations and friends. Our fundamental reproductive and social behaviors provide joy in amounts equal to their adaptive importance. But, is our capacity to love limited only to our romantic partners and our closest allies? Decidedly not. We love Earth and all of nature. We love animals especially, along with everything else that is part of nature – trees and forests, grass, coral reefs, flowers, sky, clouds, sunsets, rain, snow, bodies of water, lightning, glaciers, rivers and waterfalls, plains, mountains, canyons, seashores and on and on. We find beauty and joy in nature because we are predisposed to do so. Joy is the result of an evolutionary fine-tuning that can make life especially rewarding, and a joyous creature, happy in what it does, functions at the highest level. It’s critical to our emotional well-being and, therefore, to our adaptive functioning that we find joy in the world, and we do.