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aesthetic experience in the evolutionary perspective

The Evolution of Aesthesis

Katya Mandoki
p. 117-133


Based on the understanding of aesthetics as the study of all processes and activities related to aesthesis in his original etymological sense as «sensibility», this paper argues that an evolutionary approach must follow the evolution of aesthesis from its inception. A degree of sensibility may perhaps be traced already at molecules sensing borders in DNA replication. The next stage, which may be defined as “cyto-aesthesis”, refers to evidence of cells’ actions to antigens, virus, enzymes or bacteria and other significant elements in the intercellular fluid by their receptors’ sensibility to ligands. Darwin explored plants’ irritability specifically at their tendrils and petioles and there are studies on their sensibility to surface, nutrients, touch, water, temperature, seasonal cycles, color, gravity, and light. All animal species, including human beings, have evolved a keen sensitivity to predators and mates upon which their survival depends following evolutionary priorities and conditions. There is consequently no particular experience that we may call «aesthetic experience», a redundant term, since the whole spectrum of activities and effects of various species’ sensibility involves experiencing the world, namely, aesthesis.

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Testo integrale

  • 1  Margulis 1996: 139.

Thought and behavior in people are rendered far less mysterious
when we realize that choice and sensitivity are already exquisitely
developed in the microbial cells that became our ancestors.
Lynn Margulis1


1Why are we attracted to flowers? Why are we moved by songs? Why do rhythms captivate us so intensely? Where do preferences come from? What is there in a voice that encourages us, freezes or stirs us so deeply? Can creatures other than humans appreciate beauty?

  • 2  Smith 1990: 446.
  • 3  Cf. Mandoki 2013, where I fully develop an approach to evolutionary aesthetics outlined in this pa (...)

2Evolutionary theory proposes that the answers to a variety of seemingly unrelated questions must be found in our distant past two and a half million years ago during the Pleistocene when our hominid ancestors’ corporeal morphology evolved to its present configuration. Random changes favorable to an organism’s survival and reproduction were retained while the harmful lost by limiting the reproduction of their carriers. «How extremely stupid of me not to have thought of that!» exclaimed Thomas Huxley when he realized that Darwin and Wallace’s simple formula of «random variation and natural selection» sums up evolution’s basic mechanism2. Darwinian perspective later reinforced by molecular biology and DNA discoveries, games theory, computer simulation models and population genetics consolidated the evolutionary paradigm that is extending its explanatory power beyond the field of biology to humanities and social sciences. The reverberations caused by this move and the controversy surrounding nineteenth-century social Darwinism and twentieth century neo-Darwinism from Lorenz’ ethology, Dawkins’ concept of “selfish gene”, and Wilson’s sociobiology are still in the air. Differences within evolutionary theory itself are also many and intense, but they all have kept the discussion of humanities’ issues at ground, empirical level and evidence is piling up to prove its basic tenets. Aesthetics are not exempt from these debates, and their implications are astounding3.

The concept of aesthesis

  • 4  Dobzhansky 1973.

3Focusing aesthetics from an evolutionary perspective means focusing it from its basic condition of possibility, namely the body as a biological phenomenon and consequently as Dobzhansky affirms, «nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution»4. This seemingly obvious fact is not fully assumed by evolutionary approaches to aesthetics which attempt to solve its puzzles with two major obstacles in tow: on the one hand, mechanically projecting concepts from biology upon the field of culture without any mediation, and on the other hand, carrying the traditional sense of the term as equivalent to art and beauty that curses this discipline from its origins. As a result evolutionary aesthetics, under such traditional conception, risks losing the most interesting aspects that the biological turn can offer among which shaking off anthropocentric aesthetics and its reduction to an apologetic and cataloguing of art are most salient.

  • 5  Richerson and Boyd 2005: ch. 5.

4Every organism is an integrated network of phenotype adaptations to survive and reproduce. The body of a creature can thus be deciphered as a map of the environmental pressures it had to confront throughout its evolution. Therefore, each adaptation is a physiological and cumulative memory of the past forces and choices that shaped it, not only morphologically but sensorial and emotionally. Some adaptations are adaptive (which help to integrate the organism to the environment) and others maladaptive when they harm it, as pointed out by Boyd and Richerson5.

  • 6  Mandoki 2007: 31-35.

5Aesthetics as the study of sensibility or aesthesis in Baumgarten’s definition as scientia cognitionis sensitivae, must be focused in terms of a natural result of bodily configuration and consequently of its evolution. No sensibility is possible without taking into account its corporeality as its necessary and sufficient condition. Aesthesis denotes the faculty to perceive, experience, interpret, and value the quality of the world. This demarcation renders the notion of «aesthetic experience» redundant because sensibility already implies experiencing by the subject regardless of its object. As I have extensively argued elsewhere all experience is aesthesis and all aesthesis experiencial evaluating objects of perception by the very act of perceiving these and not other aspects of the environment6. Strictly speaking, under this definition of aesthesis as equivalent to sensibility, the notion of “aesthetic object” is an oxymoron if taken literally because no objects are capable of sensibility and only become objects by the perceptual activity of the subject apprehending them.

6In Art as experience, Dewey insisted that art is not a collection of objects in museums but a form of experience. He distinguished ordinary experience as the vitality and acute perception in animals from «an experience» related to artworks and which can be better translated as «arts’ experience». Since aesthetics involves the whole spectrum of aesthesis and not only the artistic, we must also consider experiencing landscapes, a sundown or waterfall, a desert or the sea, parachute or bungee jumping, tasting wine, sexual intercourse, playing chess or poker, and roulette, as well as experiences related to politics, religion, and sports. We must include as well situations that involve social violence and oppression which can intensely affect an individual’s sensibility. In all these opportunities of aesthesis, whether pleasurable or painful, in doing and undergoing, our experience is structured, framed and signified according to biological conditions, social contexts and individual peculiarities.

Aesthetic compass

7Approaching aesthetics from an evolutionary framework requires more than a Darwinian rendering of traditional aesthetic topics but instead an entire shift of focus upon aesthesis and its evolution as implied by Lynn Margulis’ epigraph heading this paper. Not only Beethoven and Rembrandt were capable of sensibility; dragonflies, octopi and bacteria also are at the quality, scale and degree that their corporeal morphology enables them. We thus begin this exploration with our compass aligned at aisthenastai as receptivity, openness to the environment, the sentient and sensorial in any scale and any species. It is consequently urgent to remove the presuppositions which have ossified aesthetic discourse into an ideology and apology of the arts that persists by inertia in this field:


1. Culture is opposed to nature

2. Beauty is opposed to utility

3. The aesthetic is purely cultural

4. The contemplation of beauty is disinterested

5. Aesthetic experience depends upon aspects of objects (proportion, order, rhythm, symmetry)

6. The enigma of beauty can be understood only through philosophical reasoning

7. Aesthetic judgments are impartial and objective

8. Beauty is an exclusively spiritual value

9. Aesthetic appreciation is distanced

10. Any discussion of aesthetics must be conducted in relation to art


  • 7  James 1884.

8Conventional topics such as beauty, the sublime, art, judgment of taste and categories like the graceful, the comic and the tragic, the effects of ornamentation, the appreciation of elegance and style are in fact derivative from this basic sense of aesthesis as equivalent to sensibility. We must then start from those «little items» that William James pointed at when he writes: «Our whole cubic capacity is sensibly alive; and each morsel of it contributes its pulsations of feeling, dim or sharp, pleasant, painful, or dubious, to that sense of personality that every one of us unfailingly carries with him. It is surprisingly what little items give accent to these complexes of sensibility»7.


9It is reasonable to believe that aesthesis could begin at the cellular level, but to assume that it might already arise from the molecular level seems too risky as it implies some kind of responsiveness at such a rudimentary level. Yet, according to Robert Pollack, what allows transcribing DNA into protein construction from the amino acids in the cytoplasm is contact of RNA with the figures at the edges of molecules that does not appear to be purely mechanical by some primary form of detection.

  • 8  Pollack 1994: 73.

Proteins and their domains work by recognizing the three-dimensional shapes of other molecules. The proteins called enzymes change the molecules that fit into them. The outer surface of an enzyme is indented with pockets of various sizes to fit with remarkable exactitude around another molecule. What happens after the instant of recognition by touch depends on the rest of the enzyme’s structure8.

  • 9  Pollack 1994: 73- 97.

10If I am not exaggerating or misinterpreting Pollacks’ description, he is referring to some sort of aesthesis at a molecular level, what we may perhaps name as elementary chemo-aesthesis at the edges and grooves of DNA leading to its transcription. This information in DNA sequences is constructed by furrows and channels like beads on a rosary with a definite direction. The two DNA strands run in opposite directions, as the image of the king of hearts in the deck, in a dyadic symmetry that retains its shape after half rotation. This DNA structure is aligned by molecules during the replication process by transcribing sequences in base pairs. DNA functions as a molecular text processor consisting of 5 letters CATGU and 6 functions: search, cut, paste, undo, print and copy DNA. Since these statements are discrete, variable, and context-dependent, they do not seem to operate in a purely mechanical process. As a score, DNA is composed of actions and silences: «Symphony or embryo, the principle is the same: the more complex the pattern, the more important the silences». He argues that cell language is grammatical with a simple syntactic structure reduced to «do this» «to that» or «now, here, translation begins: do this to that»9.

11«Whenever the RNA polymerase detects a G in the DNA strand, it grabs a C from the soup of molecules swimming in the vicinity and pairs it to the G» and thus weaves this transcription of molecules until it reaches the «high» according to code instructions. We are talking about actions such as to detect, seize, bind, change of activity and stop, all of which involve the presence and activity of some kind of agent. The incipient detection that will evolve into species specific preferences up to artistic appreciation begin here.


  • 10  Bruni 2008.
  • 11  Sebeok 1978.

12For Bruni intercellular communication and signal transduction have caused a paradigm shift in biology turning it into a «science of sensoriality» because feeling or sensing are the primary and necessary properties of life10. This shift in focus consequently involves an aesthesio-biological approach, which significantly extends the scope of both biology and aesthetics. The origin of sensitive cells capable of reacting to stimuli and transmitting them to other receptive cells seems to go back to the spirochetes, which led the development of nerve cells in the earliest animal species11. If, as proposed by Bruni, metabolic codes and modular properties depend on multimodal signs, cyto-aesthesis and its complement cyto-semiosis keep the clues to the origin and functioning of life. There are «categorical sensations», «redundancy» and «cross-talk» at different hierarchical levels of the cell that can be decrypted by cyto-semiotics.

  • 12  Pert 1999: 22-23.

13Passing signification relevant to and from the cell presupposes also cyto-aesthesis by sensory receptors that allow the cell to perceive its environment, signify stimuli and act. «[T]he receptors are molecules […] made up of proteins, tiny amino acids strung together in crumpled chains, looking for something like beaded necklaces that have folded in on themselves […] Basically, receptors function as sensing molecules-scanners. Just as our eyes, ears, nose, tongue, fingers and skin act as sense organs, so, too, do the receptors, only on a cellular level»12.

  • 13  Greenberg 2003.

14Bacteria are the oldest inhabitants of the planet. They have sensitivity to feed and adapt to the environment with amazing malleability (i.e. mutations related to antibiotics). They communicate with a molecular language that uses two codes: the exclusive local language and bacterial lingua franca13. The vibrio fischeri is a bacterium that lives in seawater and generates a collective effect of luminescence through what is known as «quorum sensing». These bacteria are capable of distinguishing states where they are relatively isolated from those of similar bacteria at relative proximity in a critical mass, secreting molecules that propel them to illuminate synchronously in collective chemical communication.

  • 14  Zeki 2006: 246.
  • 15  Ibidem: 246, 248-249.
  • 16Ibidem: 261.
  • 17  Logothetis 1998.

15Sight is a result of evolutionary configuration already at the level of cyto-aesthesis. Semir Zeki discovers that visual areas in the brain receive specific stimuli from the retina directly to the primary visual cortex14. He states that the perceptual and signal processing sites are the same, since cells already select stimuli by wavelength and project them to the area V4 in specialized subcompartments15. Particular areas receive and decode color or edges without having to consult a repertoire of colors or forms stored in memory or central brain. Only in cases when a node activity has a conscious correlate, Zeki defines it as «essential node»16. As noted by Logothetis, visual consciousness involves many micro-consciences distributed in space and time, dependent on fluctuations of forces between cells of different areas17.

  • 18  Pert 1999: 21.

16Paul Ehrlich points out that, in the early twentieth century, pharmacists believed that drugs act in the body because there had to be an element to which they adhered. The term «receptor» was then used to refer to this hypothetical component that enabled drug molecules to latch on to the body allowing the cascade of physiological changes. «Now we know that that component, the receptor, is a single molecule, perhaps the most elegant, rare and complicated kind of molecule there is» writes Pert18. In 1973 Pert pioneered investigations on opioid receptors and she describes the cellular processes of perception in these terms:

  • 19Ibidem: 22

They wiggle, shimmy, and even hum as they bend and change from one shape to another, often moving back and forth between two or three favored shapes or conformations. In the organism they are always found attached to a cell, floating on the cell surface’s oily outer boundary or membrane. Think of them as lily pads, floating on the surface of a pond and, like lilies, receptors have roots enmeshed in the fluid membrane snaking back and forth across it several times and reaching deep into the interior of the cell19.

  • 20Ibidem: 139.

17Cells have specialized receptors for light, sound or touch as adaptations that pick up signals on the tasks to be done for surviving and keeping their balance. In fact, Pert found that apparently «less than 2% of communication actually occurs at the synapse, so it follows that the brain is organized not as much by synaptic connections as by the specificity of the receptors by binding to one type of ligand.» She adds that «all receptors are proteins […] and are grouped in the cell membrane waiting the right chemical keys to swim towards them through the extra cellular fluid and mount to couple them in their locks, a process known as binding, latching»20. In general, when speaking of receptors in the organism, one thinks of parts in cell membrane which are coupled to a drug molecule or virus, but there are also baro-receptors sensitive to arterial pressure located at nerve endings in veins and arteries.

  • 21  In Mandoki 2007, ch. 8, I proposed the process of latching on before I knew about these primal cas (...)

18That a cell can «sniff» the presence of a peptide by chemotaxis and follow it latching on to it with its receptor allows us to assume similarities at different scales from the molecular to cellular and multicellular. As an evolution of chemo-aesthetics, the restricted detection of each kind of cell receptor will lead in further species to perceptual biases and preferences21.


19For Aristotle, plants are characterized by the fact that they lack motion. A more careful observer even than Aristotle, and certainly more modest because he explores only nature without attempting to cover also ethics, politics, metaphysics, rhetoric, and poetics, Darwin yet dared to contradict his teacher when he claimed that plants do have movement. He remarks that:

  • 22  Darwin 1865: 118

[I]t has often been vaguely asserted that plants are distinguished from animals by not having the power of movement. It should rather be said that plants acquire and display this power only when it is of some advantage to them; but that this is of comparatively rare occurrence, as they are affixed to the ground, and food is brought to them by the wind and rain. We see how high in the scale of organization a plant may rise, when we look at one of the more perfect tendril-bearers22.

  • 23Ibidem: 115.

20After studying vegetation by geographical areas and processes of fertilization and hybridization, he published in 1865 that «the most interesting point in the natural history of climbing plants is their diverse powers of movement; and this led me on to their study. The most different organs – the stem, flower-peduncle, petiole, mid-ribs of the leaf or leaflets, and apparently aërial roots – all possess this power»23.

  • 24Ibidem: 49 n.
  • 25Ibidem: 8

21Darwin examined more than 100 plant species and what initially prompted his curiosity was, as he himself declares, an article by Asa Gray on the «extreme sensitiveness and rapidity of movements in the tendrils of certain Cucurbitaceous plants»24. The first thing he discovered is sensitivity in the petioles, and the manner in which the stems of various flowers, such as Maurandia are tender to touch. He notes that there are plants that have a hook at the end that allows them to find where to stop and avoid being detached by windstorms25.

22Darwin realized in the Clematis montana that:

  • 26Ibidem: 27.

[T]he long and thin petioles of the leaves, whilst young, are sensitive, and when lightly rubbed bend to the rubbed side, subsequently becoming straight. They are far more sensitive than the petioles of C. glandulosa; for a loop of thread weighing a quarter of a grain caused them to bend; a loop weighing only one-eighth of a grain sometimes acted and sometimes did not act. The sensitiveness extends to the angle between the stem and leaf-stalk26.

  • 27  Trivers 1985: 404 fig. 16-19.

23Plants such as yams or sweet potato Ipomoea batatas recognize self and others’ pollen and do not germinate with their own by self-incompatibility. The tricks of nature are such that plants as passiflora candollei produce yellow shapes mimicking eggs in their leaves to fool butterflies and prevent them from depositing their own eggs there which as caterpillars would devour them27.


24Contrary to Descartes belief that animals are like machines, Darwin insists that animals are creatures sensitive to a variety of environmental aspects and individual behaviors in their species as well as other species. In his book Expression of emotions in animals and man he distinguishes innate universal gestures from the conventional and artificial and shows that many species even among invertebrates display emotion and are capable of feeling misery and joy, pleasure and pain.

  • 28  Hamilton III, Busse, and Smith 1982.

25Animal sensibility is clearly expressed as regards to the suffering of other creatures’. Several species display admirable gestures of altruism, as the case of Tursiops dolphins that were observed in a desperate attempt to save a newborn by raising it over the water to make him breathe28. Many other species display altruistic gestures as the slime mold sending spores to areas where food may be more abundant, wolves or chacma papios’ adoption of orphans, the expression of affection between ants by touching antennas and crickets’ consolation song to solitary females.

  • 29  Darwin 1882: 306.

26Cobras show affection for each other, and spiders have great affection for their eggs that they carry covered by a silk shawl. Some birds have been witnessed adopting orphans or abandoned chicks even of other species and caring for adults who have been blinded; they sometimes express deep antipathy against certain individuals without apparent cause. There is evidence that certain animals and birds can be sympathetic or not to certain individuals of the opposite sex. In humans, behavior is usually much less supportive than the male beetle Ateuchus who stridulates to encourage the female in her daily work29. Moreover, opioid receptors found in insects’ cells point to the possibility of their feeling pleasure.

27In regards to this fine sense of discrimination Darwin mentions the case of a female peacock that when kept away from the male of her choice, preferred to remain single throughout the whole breeding season rather than copulate with another male. The enigma of the peacock, a singularly aesthetic and absolutely excessive event in nature, was so enigmatic that literally made Darwin sick, as he confesses in a letter to his friend Asa Gray on April 3, 1860: «I remember well the time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I have got over this stage of the complaint, and now small trifling particulars of structure often make me very uncomfortable. The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!»

28No wonder. This magnificent peacock tail jeopardized the explanatory principle of evolutionary theory as random mutation and natural selection in The Origin of Species which predicted that peacocks with shorter tails would have been selected for being much more practical over those with longer ones. So hard to maintain, so conspicuous to predators, heavy when escaping from danger, in need of more nutrients and more vulnerable to parasites exhibiting its flaws to females, this huge tail did not seem to find a coherent explanation in Darwinian theory. Such extravagance of nature haunted Darwin’s paradigm threatening it to collapse.

29Darwin’s sickness turned into a real passion for explaining it. Despite the criticisms and objections even from those who could help him solve it, as his co-author Alfred R. Wallace, Darwin assumed this enormous challenge despite its great intellectual cost: writing yet another book The Descent of Man and selection in relation to sex, almost double in size to the Origin. It also entailed the punishment of having to remain in the darkness of academic publishing for a century. In this second text published in 1871, Darwin confesses that he collected notes on the origin of man with the intention of not publishing them, since merely the slight mention in the Origin of Species that «light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history» caused tremendous commotion.

30Under the new version, the process of evolution is due not only to the blind and fierce mechanism of natural selection of favorable traits in the struggle for survival, but something different and equally radical: the idea that the females of each species could be running the selection process. To top it off, this is done with aesthetic criteria: biology in the hands of the aesthetic whim of the females!

  • 30Ibidem: 564.
  • 31  Fisher 1999.

31This proves Darwin’s intellectual honesty considering his misogynist bias, who had the bad taste to write that «[t]he chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man’s attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than can woman – whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the senses and hands»30. During the twenties of the last century, Fisher proposed an answer to the peacock tail’s enigma with the «runaway process» hypothesis that assumes that preferences are inherited and thus traits that are preferred have an advantage in selection31. He explains the case of the peacock as a result of females’ preferences inherited to their daughters, who also inherited the preferred traits to their male offspring who will then be preferred for mating. Here emerges a complex theme: the idea of the inheritance of taste.

  • 32  Darwin 1882: 211.

Just as man can give beauty, according to his standard of taste, to his male poultry, or more strictly can modify the beauty originally acquired by the parent species, can give to the Sebright bantam a new and elegant plumage, an erect and peculiar carriage – so it appears that female birds in a state of nature, have by a long selection of the more attractive males, added to their beauty or other attractive qualities. No doubt this implies powers of discrimination and taste on the part of the female which will at first appear extremely improbable; but by the facts to be adduced hereafter, I hope to be able to shew that the females actually have these powers32.

  • 33  Darwin 1859: 89.
  • 34  Darwin 1882: 222.
  • 35  Trivers 1985: 333, 336.
  • 36  Ryan 1980.

32Females in many species are not forced to mate with the bravest male winning all contests at the birds’ public square or lek, but seduced by the most charming. «The rock-thrush of Guiana, birds of Paradise, and some others, congregate; and successive males display their gorgeous plumage and perform strange antics before the females, which standing by as spectators, at last choose the most attractive partner»33. He adds that «the exertion of some choice on the part of the female seems a law almost as general as the eagerness of the male34. Darwin was ridiculed for this idea of female selection and even by 1960, as Trivers notes, it seemed acceptable to contend that females should be courted not because they could choose a partner but because they were too lazy to mate naturally and were afraid of being touched since when a predator touches them, they die35. Such a theory is false as proven by the highly selective sense of females in various species such as frogs Physalaemus postulosus who in Michael Ryan’s experiment prove that they are able to accurately distinguish the size of the male by the simple croaking tone and therefore select the largest36.

  • 37  Shaw 1866, Borgia 1985.

33The bower bird is a paradigmatic case of what Darwin called “the sense of beauty” in the animal kingdom. As noted by Shaw as early as 1866 «The Australian satin bower-bird, is the most remarkable of that class which exhibit taste for beauty or for glittering objects out of themselves, that is, beauty not directly personal; collecting, in fact, little museums of shells, gaudy feathers, shining glass, or bits of coloured cloth or pottery». Since Shaw’s brief article published in 1866, and Darwin’s compilation of various observation, the decoration behavior of these birds has been abundantly documented, especially by Borgia37.

  • 38  Zahavi and Zahavi 1997: 173, Moreno et al. 1994.

34And indeed, gathering attractive and rare items as those displayed in bowerbirds’ love nests who seek shells from 5 or 6 species, berries of various colors and other decorations even to the extent of stealing them from a neighbor’s nest proves that there is a biological history in the need to collect the rare, and to appreciate, express and exhibit what is pleasant to the senses. This instinct for collecting and displaying particular objects is also present in the black wheatear bird (Oenanthe leucura) that collects a kilo and a half stones in the nest as a sign of fitness38. Bees manifest aesthetic bias to red, white or blue petals, as some birds prefer orange and yellow. Hummingbirds like red and purple flowers and butterflies love pink and violet colors.

  • 39  Darwin 1882: 210-211.

35Apart from these visual displays and preferences, Darwin was convinced that various animal species appreciate music since when females choose a mate by the grace or the complexity of their song. He emphasizes the «their courage and pugnacity – their various ornaments – their contrivances for producing vocal or instrumental music – and their glands for emitting odors, most of these latter structures serving only to allure or excite the female»39.

36Why do females require beauty to mate? Do peahens feel pleasure at the sight of a peacock’s tail? How important is a peacock’s beauty to a peahen given the fact that she turns away immediately after fertilization as they are polygamous? Is the female cricket moved when listening to the stridulating music of the male? Does she really interpret such sounds as something «beautiful» or as empathic feelings of consolation or love? Are colors and proportions what the peahen admires and enjoys or does she calculate resistance to parasites and genotype quality by phenotypical indices? Is this a false dilemma? As Nagel asked «how does it feel to be a bat?» I would really like to experience for a mating season how it feels to be a peahen and solve this mystery.


  • 40  Cited in ibidem: 574.

37If David Hume truly wanted to find out about the standard of taste, he should have embarked on a journey across five continents to inquire about it. Humboldt traveled to two, Europe and America, and drew interesting observations: «If painted nations» as Humboldt observes, «had been examined with the same attention as clothed nations, it would have been perceived that the most fertile imagination and the most mutable caprice have created the fashions of painting, as well as those of garments»40.

  • 41Ibidem: 584.

The senses of man and of the lower animals seem to be so constituted that brilliant colours and certain forms, as well as harmonious and rhythmical sounds, give pleasure and are called beautiful; but why this should be so, we know not. It is certainly not true that there is in the mind of man any universal standard of beauty with respect to the human body. It is, however, possible that certain tastes may in the course of time become inherited, though there is no evidence in favour of this belief; and if so, each race would possess its own innate ideal standard of beauty41.

  • 42Ibidem: 578.
  • 43Ibidem: 579.

38Hearne, who lived many years among American Indians declares that: «Ask a Northern Indian what is beauty, and he will answer, a broad flat face, small eyes, high cheek-bones, three or four broad black lines across each cheek, a low forehead, a large broad chin, a clumsy hook nose, a tawny hide, and breasts hanging down to the belt»42. Westerners were seen as bodies of men with beak noses. Among the inhabitants of Tahiti, to be called “long nose” was considered an insult and they compressed the noses and foreheads of their children to embellish them according to criteria among the Malays of Sumatra, the Hottentots and the natives of Brazil. He cites a group of blacks who admire very dark skin and their horror of whiteness is attributed to their belief that demons and spirits are white, and as an index of poor health43.

  • 44  Cited in Darwin 1871: V II, 339.

39Darwin mentions skull modifications from ancient to modern times in many cultures to exaggerate a natural and admired peculiarity. «In the Old and New World the shape of the skull was formerly modified during infancy in the most extraordinary manner, as is still the case in many places, and such deformities are considered ornamental. For instance, the savages of Colombia deem a much flattened head “an essential point of beauty”»44.

  • 45Ibidem: V. II 339.

In one part of Africa the eyelids are coloured black; in another the nails are coloured yellow or purple. In many places the hair is dyed of various tints. In different countries the teeth are stained black, red, blue, &c., and in the Malay Archipelago it is thought shameful to have white teeth like those of a dog45.

  • 46  Darwin 1882: 580.

40The relativity of taste is expressed in particular with regard to hair which in some cases is admired for its abundance while others is shaved down to the eyebrows, as among African groups and certain customs of Paraguay because they say they do not want to look like horses46. On the other hand, hairy ethnic groups pride themselves on their shaggy hair and beards and display them. Darwin mentions many different customs regarding the teeth:

  • 47  Darwin 1871: V II, 340.

The natives of the Upper Nile knock out the four front teeth, saying that they do not wish to resemble brutes. Further south, the Batokas knock out the two upper incisors, which, as Livingstone remarks, gives the face a hideous appearance, owing to the growth of the lower jaw; but these people think the presence of the incisors most unsightly, and on beholding some Europeans, cried out, “Look at the great teeth!”47.

  • 48  Etcoff 2000.

41In South America, as Humboldt remarks, a mother would be accused of culpable indifference towards her children, if she did not employ artificial means to shape the calf of the leg after the fashion of the country. The variety of these customs are described in the numerous cases reported in Darwin’s chapter «The influence of beauty in determining the marriages of mankind». Etcoff investigated the social benefits of those who have certain anatomical features and the innate preference in newborns to symmetrical faces. Piercing the nose, mouth, lips, ears and septum are common in varied communities48. Thus a diversification of ornament has not only signaling purposes for sexual selection, but for tribal distinction and rank.

42We are beginning to explore the challenging scope of anthropo-aesthetics, which only through an evolutionary paradigm will enable a scientific insight of preferences, perception biases and cultural as well as biological conditions of human aesthesis. From this perspective, the priority of understanding the arts becomes a derivative from investigating the roots that underlie predilections and repulsions.


43Based on the understanding of aesthetics as the study of all processes and activities related to aesthesis in is original etymological sense as «sensibility», I have argued that an evolutionary approach must follow the evolution of aesthesis from its inception. A degree of sensibility may perhaps be traced already at molecules sensing borders in DNA replication. Aesthesis clearly occurs at the cellular level by perceptual actions through receptors to different ligands as antigens, virus, chemical substances, neutrophils to bacteria and other significant elements in the intercellular fluid. Vibrio Fischeri bacteria exemplify sensitivity to the proximity and density of similar others in their surroundings by quorum sensing that propel them to synchronous lighting up. Plants’ sensitivity resides mainly in their tendrils and petioles, and is responsive to space, surface, nutrients, touch, water, temperature, seasonal cycles, gravity, and light.

44All animal species have evolved a more discriminating sensitivity to predators and mates, or else they would be extinct. Females are at the helm of the evolution of various species due to their very fine sensibility in male selection to particular features they choose to pass on to the next generation. In many cases, females not even wait to be seduced, but go straight to the male that is most attractive to them and copulate. The occurrence of such exotic luxuries of nature as satin bowerbirds, pheasants, birds of paradise, and peacocks illustrates the degree in which females appreciate colors, grace, songs or body configuration as well as dexterity in male dances, decoration, prancing and acrobatics that signal the male’s potential for protection and feeding of progeny. We owe to females the variety of colors, shapes and ornaments in their species by selecting and cultivating the finest for reproduction.

45In this process of branching out the possibilities of life, sensibility has evolved opening up all creatures to their environment. There is consequently no particular experience that we may call «aesthetic experience» since this whole spectrum of activities and effects of the sensorial are related to experiencing the world, namely, aesthesis. I have contended that aesthesis is itself experience which has evolved according to the corporeal configuration of perceiving subjects and the variety of significant stimuli from their environments. Experience can be joyful or painful, always linked to the possibilities or dangers involved in life. Artistic experience is only a very peculiar, and in no way central, type of experience, within the whole spectrum opening to life. Just being able to perceive the world is in itself spectacularly aesthetic.

  • 49  Varela 1996: 212; Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991: 151-157, 180-184.

46Francisco Varela proposed the concept of enaction denoting the subject that creates knowledge by autopoiesis in the process of coevolution49. Cognition, for Varela, is not a representation of the world or an implantation of information into the receiver (as computational models imply) but an act of illuminating the world. Along this line, aesthesis as cognitionis sensitivae is the lamp that illuminates the world of each organism, as we all live and perceive our surroundings according to our corporeal morphology shimmering intermittently by our neuronal rhythm. Through aesthesis each creature is illuminated at birth to the light of the world as the world is illuminated by the light of each creature.

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1  Margulis 1996: 139.

2  Smith 1990: 446.

3  Cf. Mandoki 2013, where I fully develop an approach to evolutionary aesthetics outlined in this paper.

4  Dobzhansky 1973.

5  Richerson and Boyd 2005: ch. 5.

6  Mandoki 2007: 31-35.

7  James 1884.

8  Pollack 1994: 73.

9  Pollack 1994: 73- 97.

10  Bruni 2008.

11  Sebeok 1978.

12  Pert 1999: 22-23.

13  Greenberg 2003.

14  Zeki 2006: 246.

15  Ibidem: 246, 248-249.

16Ibidem: 261.

17  Logothetis 1998.

18  Pert 1999: 21.

19Ibidem: 22

20Ibidem: 139.

21  In Mandoki 2007, ch. 8, I proposed the process of latching on before I knew about these primal cases.

22  Darwin 1865: 118

23Ibidem: 115.

24Ibidem: 49 n.

25Ibidem: 8

26Ibidem: 27.

27  Trivers 1985: 404 fig. 16-19.

28  Hamilton III, Busse, and Smith 1982.

29  Darwin 1882: 306.

30Ibidem: 564.

31  Fisher 1999.

32  Darwin 1882: 211.

33  Darwin 1859: 89.

34  Darwin 1882: 222.

35  Trivers 1985: 333, 336.

36  Ryan 1980.

37  Shaw 1866, Borgia 1985.

38  Zahavi and Zahavi 1997: 173, Moreno et al. 1994.

39  Darwin 1882: 210-211.

40  Cited in ibidem: 574.

41Ibidem: 584.

42Ibidem: 578.

43Ibidem: 579.

44  Cited in Darwin 1871: V II, 339.

45Ibidem: V. II 339.

46  Darwin 1882: 580.

47  Darwin 1871: V II, 340.

48  Etcoff 2000.

49  Varela 1996: 212; Varela, Thompson, and Rosch 1991: 151-157, 180-184.

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Per citare questo articolo

Notizia bibliografica

Katya Mandoki, «The Evolution of Aesthesis»Rivista di estetica, 54 | 2013, 117-133.

Notizia bibliografica digitale

Katya Mandoki, «The Evolution of Aesthesis»Rivista di estetica [Online], 54 | 2013, online dal 01 novembre 2013, consultato il 15 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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