Aesthetics: What is beauty? (Earthlings 101, Episode 6)

Uploaded by ZoggFromBetelgeuse on 24.07.2012

Hello, Zogg here. Welcome to the sixth episode of Earthlings 101. Today we will talk about
Beauty is a typical earthling concept: A subjective quality of objects, creatures, or even geometrical
forms, or ideas.
When you ask earthlings what beauty is, they will babble about beauty being a light in
the heart, the splendor of truth, a manifestation of secret natural laws, the sensible image
of the Infinite, truth's smile, eternity gazing at itself in a mirror, or even a gift from
an imaginary bio administrator. In other words, they have no idea. Which is strange, as earthlings
are more attracted by beauty than Centauri lawyers are attracted by a mass divorce.
Earthlings are attracted to all kinds of things. Sometimes the reasons are obvious, because
the things are useful for feeding, reproducing and not dying. But sometimes, earthlings are
attracted to things that have apparently no immediate use, like flowers, music, trees
or gems. This seemingly useless appeal is called beauty.
An example for a beautiful object is this painting [the Mona Lisa]. For an alien, it's
just a picture of a female earthling in front of a landscape. For earthlings, it's one of
the most beautiful objects in the world. But what makes things like this painting so particular?
The most obvious point of beauty is that earthlings enjoy it - and if you have learned anything
during this course, it's probably that whenever earthlings enjoy something, you can be pretty
sure that the genetic imperative is behind it. Beauty is probably no exception.
So, instead of philosophizing about eternity and truth, let's look at some examples. Things
earthlings usually consider beautiful include flowers, fertile landscapes, attractive but
sexually unavailable females, bird songs, precious metals and gems, impressive buildings,
and even interesting shapes or ideas. Why are earthlings attracted to those things?
Let's pick an example: landscapes. Experiments have shown that earthlings consider a landscape
beautiful if it is fertile, has bodies of fresh hydric acid and some trees that can
be used as firewood. Interestingly, this is exactly the kind of landscape a bio-administrator
would chose for a settlement on an alien planet. Usually, a bio-administrator attracts specimen
to a region using a "positive psychical response field emitter", commonly known as "happybox".
Whoever approaches the emission range of the happybox becomes instantly happy. So, specimen
settle in these regions and start cultivating them happily, even if their efforts will only
bear fruits many seasons later. In other words, a happybox is a bait, a substitute pleasure,
a promise of future happiness.
My guess is that beauty is exactly the same as a happybox - only without the happybox.
Evolution favours earthlings who settle in landscapes where they can harvest food in
the summer and firewood in the winter. But earthlings usually seek immediate pleasure
rather than thinking months ahead. So, evolution found the trick of rewarding the discovery
of fertile landscapes immediately with a substitute pleasure, some kind of virtual happy field,
in order to motivate them to settle there. That's what earthlings call beauty.
Of course, beauty is not an actual happy field. It's a feeling generated by the Beast which
floods the ego with pleasure when seeing a fertile landscape, or when receiving indicator
signals for fertile landscapes such as flowers or bird songs.
Now, not all beautiful things are about fertile landscapes. For many earthlings, "beauty"
means above all "beautiful females". A female is considered beautiful if she is sexually
attractive but not immediately sexually available. As I explained in episode 3, female earthlings
are rather picky about their sexual partners due to their limited childbearing capacity,
so males have to make an effort to get chosen. Now, when the female is very attractive, this
courtship can last a while and involve many candidates. Unfortunately, earthlings prefer
immediate pleasure to uncertain future delight. So, evolution needed a trick to motivate them
not to give up too early. The trick was basically the same as for landscapes: Beauty, a virtual
happy field around attractive but unavailable females.
So, the thing that beautiful females and beautiful landscapes have in common is simply the fact
that they have both been tagged as "beautiful" by evolution, as an indicator of fertility
and a promise of future happiness. Males can also be beautiful, even more in
a society that has started questioning its own gender roles: When males can become wooed,
they need beauty to keep the wooers interested.
But what about precious metals, gems and huge buildings? Well, they are indications of another
thing that may lead to future happiness: Wealth. When an earthling, or an earthling community,
is wealthy, they tend to display their wealth with rare metals, precious stones, expensive
cloth and huge buildings. This is called, pomp. Now, living in a wealthy city or around
a wealthy person usually doesn't provide immediate pleasure, but it may pay on the long run.
This holds for traders, mercenaries, workers, servants, prostitutes, artisans, quacks, assassins,
tax investigators and many other kinds of people. So, human nature uses again the happy-field-trick
to attract people to wealth. This is why pomp is considered beautiful.
Earthlings often attach little trinkets made of precious metals and gems to their body
to increase their attractivity. This works because being wealthy is sexy, but also because
the pomp happyfield around these trinkets add to the beauty happyfield around the person.
Earthlings call these trinkets jewelry.
However, earthling beauty includes more than landscapes, females and pomp: Beauty can also
apply to shapes, patterns or even ideas. This abstract beauty is determined by criteria
like proportion, symmetry, smooth forms, simplicity, contrast and self-similarity. But why should
nature tag those things as beautiful? Some criteria like symmetry and smooth forms
may be inherited from sexual attractivity. Also, smooth rocks may indicate the presence
of hydric acid during rainy seasons. But I doubt that this is enough to explain the sense
of abstract beauty.
It may have to do with solving abstract problems. Even complicated problems have often surprisingly
simple and elegant solutions. Bio administrators often use this when they want to influence
the thought process of some native genius creature. They scan the brain of the genius,
observe the thought process, and then tag simple and elegant ideas with tiny happyfields,
because simple and elegant ideas may lead to a simple and elegant solution.
Abstract beauty works the same way. Consider a prehistoric earthling who is about to invent
the wheel. That's what he got so far: An irregular, pentagonal wheel which works, but makes five
"hops" at every turn. Logic may lead the earthling to think that by cutting off some corners,
he can reduce the number of hops per turn. But that's the wrong approach. Now, the sense
of beauty may lead him into the opposite direction, to a more elegant shape : A circle. And as
it turns out, that's actually a pretty good shape for a wheel. So, when dealing with problems,
beauty may be a hint to a solution. That's maybe why earthlings say that beauty is "the
splendor of truth."
Scientific advice: When you experiment on earthlings, you might want to examine the
way their brains process patterns. You will notice that some patterns are easier to process
than others. Now, there is a theory that the ease to process patterns is actually connected
to - beauty! Earthlings call this the "processing fluency theory of aesthetic pleasure".
Remember this painting? Now we understand why earthlings consider it so beautiful: It
shows a wealthy, attractive, but not salacious woman in front of a rather fertile landscape,
surrounded by mountains which provide fresh hydric acid. Besides, the paintings composition
follows simple geometric rules and is almost symmetric. And although the painter goes easy
on the pomp, the painting itself is worth roughly the equivalent of seven million Republic
Credits, which certainly adds to the appeal.
Of course, in this case, there is no real landscape, no real woman, it's all paint on
sheets of cellulose, an elaborate deception of the senses. That's what earthlings call
"art". We will come back to this phenomenon in a moment.
During the last episodes, we have seen that the Beast manipulates the Ego with different
kinds of pleasures, or, if you want, with different kinds of happy-fields: The fun-field
around games and stories, the sexy-field around attractive earthlings, the yummy-field around
food, the love-field around family, the cute-field around cubs, the funny-field which I will
explain in another episode, and the the beauty-field around things like flowers, jewels and hyperbolic
As beauty is kind of an all-purpose happyfield, nature uses it often to amplify sexy-fields,
cute-fields and love-fields. So, earthlings may find these things beautiful.
Now, earthlings have learned to imitate the stimuli that generate all these happyfields:
Some drugs imitate fun, porn imitates sexual stimuli, diet drinks imitate sweetness, stuffed
animals and dolls imitate loved beings, lolcats imitate small animals, jokes imitate funny
situations, and art imitates the stimuli of beauty.
The phenomenon of art is similar to what happens to some administrated planets when the bio-administrator
is gone. Sometimes, the natives find a remaining happybox, retro-engineer it and build their
own happyboxes. These boxes are then sold, put onto public places and into showrooms,
where they flood the environment with totally pointless happywaves. Rich natives wear tiny
happy-boxes around their neck to be more appealing, or exhibit the boxes in their house to show
their wealth. Individuals who conceive new happywave patterns become rich and famous,
companies use happy-boxes for advertizing, and the production of boxes and happywave
patterns becomes a whole new industry.
Exactly the same happens on earth - only without the happyboxes. Earthlings called artists
have learned to imitate the stimuli of beauty in paintings, sculptures, and so on. These
objects are called artworks. Art is related to natural beauty like diet drinks are related
to actual sugar, or porn to actual sex: They imitate the stimuli of pleasure, but out of
context and deprived of their utility.
Not surprisingly, earthling art often focuses on beautiful people, and on the abundance
of nature - landscapes, flowers, fruits, and all kinds of living creatures.
Except for the microbes.
Tips for tourists. If you are interested in art, visit an art museum. However, you should
avoid modern art, as it often challenges or distorts the concept of beauty. Better start
with classical art, it's much easier to understand.
Art is not limited to visual stimuli: One of the most important indicators of fertile
regions are bird songs, which are in consequence considered beautiful. Now, earthlings have
developed something that sounds like an attempt to imitate bird songs: Music. The most common
methods to make music are singing, blowing into metal tubes, and using vibrating strings
attached to hollow boxes. The development of music has probably also been influenced
by prehistoric rituals, sexual selection, and by imitation of bird songs for hunting.
Earthlings love beauty so much that they even conceive everyday objects to be all artsy
and beautiful, like clothing, chairs or buildings. Earthlings call this "design". Like art, design
follows trends - what is beautiful today may become ugly in some decades.
A particularly interesting case of design are individual vehicles called cars. Regardless
of trends, cars have always a stylized face on the front. Why is this so? I've no idea.
Maybe earthlings are afraid of fast moving faceless objects, like landslides, forest
fires, killer waves, or swarms of furious insects. So they put faces onto their cars
to make them less frightening.
Strategic advice. If you want to gain the earthlings' trust before taking over the planet,
it won't be easy if they think your ships are ugly. So you might want to abduct some
earthling designers and have them design a beautiful landing shuttle. Elegant forms,
white paint and a touch of blue or green are great for convincing earthlings that you "come
in peace". However, you should go easy on the pomp because A), earthlings associate
exaggerated pomp with tyrants and crime lords, and B), the natives may be tempted to steal
your spaceship.
Art may seem like an absurdity, a self-deception, a global joke. But you can also see it from
another angle: As an attempt of mankind to grow beyond the necessity of biology. Earthlings
live under the tyranny of the genetic imperative, much more than they generally realize - but
maybe art, and beauty in general, are a way of escaping from the grip of this tyrant,
of tricking their own nature into giving them happiness without biological necessity.
On the other hand, you could say the same about lolcats, diet drinks or porn. So...
Anyway, this was episode 6 of Earthlings 101. On a personal note, I will be on vacation
next month; I plan to visit the orbital castles of erioL. So, the next episode will probably
not come before the Galactic Nerdfighter Day, or, in earthling terms, beginning of September.
In the next episode, we will learn about the social mechanisms behind words like "hello",
"please", "thank you" and "sorry". We also learn why international karma trade is big
As always, thanks for watching. And don't forget to be alien!