Hershberger+Michalec.Survival Through Beauty.B

This research topic submitted by Jenny Hershberger & Greg Michalec (michalgm@miamioh.edu) on 2/26/98.

The Biological Roots of Natural Aesthetics
Jenny Hershberger & Greg Michalec


Human beings, regardless of culture, era, or geography, have always found great beauty within nature. We all, in some ways, find certain elements of the natural world to be visually attractive. In his book, Kinship to Mastery, Stephen R. Kellert proposes the theory that "people's aesthetic preference for certain landscapes and species has also been related to the increased likelihood of encountering safety, sustenance, and security."(Kellert, 1997) If this aesthetic appeal to functional aspects of nature (safety, sustenance, and security) is universally found throughout human cultures, then are humans genetically "seeded" with specific preferences to natural landscapes? This study will examine what elements of nature had functional purposes in human evolution, and if those elements are found to be aesthetically pleasing.

Theoretical Context

Natural Beauty is Universal
Throughout history, among all cultures, there is a tendency for human beings to have strong preferences for the aesthetic values of landscapes. We universally have powerful attractions to the natural world. "Whether in Central Africa or Central Park, the fifth century or the modern age, in prison or on 5th Avenue, people react with combinations of wonder and admiration at the sight of a glorious sunset, a stretch of pristine beach, a colorful bird, or a wide variety of other creatures and landscapes." (Kellert, 1997) Although it may be argued that there are certain cultural influences regarding natural preferences and aesthetic values, most studies show "that all persons prefer the same sorts of landscapes, that there is a universally agreed upon scenic standard, and that there are inherited mechanisms which are responsible for these similarities. These mechanisms are posited as having adaptive, evolutionary significance." (Hull and Revell, 1989) Thus, this consistency "suggests a biologically based tendency." (Kellert, 1997)

Evolutionary perspectives
Since the aesthetic appeal to nature is universal, it can be assumed that it must also be genetically linked. "The speculation that positive responses to natural landscapes might have a partly genetic basis implies that such responses had adaptive significance during evolution. In other words, if biophilia is represented in the gene pool it is because a predisposition in early humans for biophilic responses to certain natural elements and settings contributed to fitness or chances for survival." (Urlich, 1993) Therefore, in order to determine which specific elements of natural landscapes humans find preferable for beauty, we must look back to our evolutionary roots, and to the elements of nature that our prehistoric ancestors found preferable for survival.
The ability to select a suitable habitat no doubt plays a major role in natural selection. Those humans who were able to locate habitats that had more safety and sustenance were more likely to survive and pass their genes on than those who did not. "The needs of our ancestors were the same as ours: to find adequate food and water and to protect themselves from the physical environment, predators, and hostile conspecifics." (Heerwagen & Orians, 1993) The landscapes that best provide these advantages should be the ones which we find aesthetically pleasing.

Preferred Elements in Nature
After studying the evolutionary functionality of natural elements, we have found several factors that would potentially aid human survival.
1. The presence of water, especially fresh, clean (not stagnant) water, would certainly be very beneficial to human life.
2. Lush, green leaves and bright foliage usually signify ample nourishment (as opposed to dry, brown flora.)
3. Large, open areas provide greater visibility of predators and prey, as well as increasing ease of mobility.
4. Scattered clumps of trees and bushes provide some shelter, as well as an escape from most predators. (Urlich, 1993; Heerwagen & Orians, 1993)
According to the hypotheses of Biophilia and Sociobiology, landscapes containing these elements should be the most aesthetically pleasing to humans.


After conducting research and developing the conclusions shown above, we will conduct a survey in order to determine if landscape containing the elements of nature mentioned above are found to be more aesthetically pleasing than those which do not. The survey will consist of a number of photographs of natural landscapes which test specifically for each element. In order to eliminate variables, and keep the scenes as consistent as possible, some of the photographs will be digitally manipulated. For instance, to test the aesthetic value of water, we will first display a landscape lacking water, and then show the same landscape with water added through computer manipulation, and we will alter the tint of vegetation to test the theory that lush, green vegetation should be preferred over dry, brown. In order to reach as many respondents, and to avoid homogenous cultural values, we will place the survey on the Internet, thereby opening it up to a broad spectrum of peoples.


Results cannot be determined until after the survey is complete.


We hope to conclude that the elements of nature that humans find aesthetically pleasing are the same elements that support human survival. Any problems and limitations that we come across in our field study will also be listed in this section.

1. Kellert, Stephen R., Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution & Development. (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1997)
2. Ulrich, Roger S., "Biophilia, Biophobia, and Natural Landscapes," in Kellert, Stephen R. & Wilson, E. O., eds., The Biophilia Hypothesis (Washington, DC.: Island Press, 1993)
3. Heerwagen, Judith H. & Orians, Gordon H., "Humans, Habitats, and Aesthetics," in Kellert, Stephen R. & Wilson, E. O., eds., The Biophilia Hypothesis (Washington, DC.: Island Press, 1993)

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