The Descent of Man

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Author: Charles Darwin

Sense of Beauty.

This sense has been declared to be peculiar to man. I refer here only to the pleasure given by certain colours, forms, and sounds, and which may fairly be called a sense of the beautiful; with cultivated men such sensations are, however, intimately associated with complex ideas and trains of thought. When we behold a male bird elaborately displaying his graceful plumes or splendid colours before the female, whilst other birds, not thus decorated, make no such display, it is impossible to doubt that she admires the beauty of her male partner. As women everywhere deck themselves with these plumes, the beauty of such ornaments cannot be disputed. As we shall see later, the nests of humming-birds, and the playing passages of bower-birds are tastefully ornamented with gailycoloured objects; and this shews that they must receive some kind of pleasure from the sight of such things. With the great majority of animals, however, the taste for the beautiful is confined, as far as we can judge, to the attractions of the opposite sex. The sweet strains poured forth by many male birds during the season of love, are certainly admired by the females, of which fact evidence will hereafter be given. If female birds had been incapable of appreciating the beautiful colours, the ornaments, and voices of their male partners, all the labour and anxiety exhibited by the latter in displaying their charms before the females would have been thrown away; and this it is impossible to admit. Why certain bright colours should excite pleasure cannot, I presume, be explained, any more than why certain flavours and scents are agreeable; but habit has something to do with the result, for that which is at first unpleasant to our senses, ultimately becomes pleasant, and habits are inherited. With respect to sounds, Helmholtz has explained to a certain extent on physiological principles, why harmonies and certain cadences are agreeable. But besides this, sounds frequently recurring at irregular intervals are highly disagreeable, as every one will admit who has listened at night to the irregular flapping of a rope on board ship. The same principle seems to come into play with vision, as the eye prefers symmetry or figures with some regular recurrence. Patterns of this kind are employed by even the lowest savages as ornaments; and they have been developed through sexual selection for the adornment of some male animals. Whether we can or not give any reason for the pleasure thus derived from vision and hearing, yet man and many of the lower animals are alike pleased by the same colours, graceful shading and forms, and the same sounds.

The taste for the beautiful, at least as far as female beauty is concerned, is not of a special nature in the human mind; for it differs widely in the different races of man, and is not quite the same even in the different nations of the same race. Judging from the hideous ornaments, and the equally hideous music admired by most savages, it might be urged that their aesthetic faculty was not so highly developed as in certain animals, for instance, as in birds. Obviously no animal would be capable of admiring such scenes as the heavens at night, a beautiful landscape, or refined music; but such high tastes are acquired through culture, and depend on complex associations; they are not enjoyed by barbarians or by uneducated persons.

Many of the faculties, which have been of inestimable service to man for his progressive advancement, such as the powers of the imagination, wonder, curiosity, an undefined sense of beauty, a tendency to imitation, and the love of excitement or novelty, could hardly fail to lead to capricious changes of customs and fashions. I have alluded to this point, because a recent writer (73. ’The Spectator,’ Dec. 4th, 1869, p. 1430.) has oddly fixed on Caprice "as one of the most remarkable and typical differences between savages and brutes." But not only can we partially understand how it is that man is from various conflicting influences rendered capricious, but that the lower animals are, as we shall hereafter see, likewise capricious in their affections, aversions, and sense of beauty. There is also reason to suspect that they love novelty, for its own sake.

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Chicago: Charles Darwin, "Sense of Beauty.," The Descent of Man, ed. Bryant Conant, James and trans. Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866 in The Descent of Man Original Sources, accessed January 22, 2019, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PWTFP92IKL3YREF.

MLA: Darwin, Charles. "Sense of Beauty." The Descent of Man, edited by Bryant Conant, James, and translated by Babington, B. G. (Benjamin Guy), 1794-1866, in The Descent of Man, Original Sources. 22 Jan. 2019. www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PWTFP92IKL3YREF.

Harvard: Darwin, C, 'Sense of Beauty.' in The Descent of Man, ed. and trans. . cited in , The Descent of Man. Original Sources, retrieved 22 January 2019, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=PWTFP92IKL3YREF.