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Review of Beauty: The Value of Values

Anna Dela Cruz's picture

    Fredrick Turner’s book Beauty: The Value of Values offers a part philosophical, part anthropological, and part scientific understanding of beauty. To him the way humans perceive beauty is natural because beauty to us has a biological basis via culture. With the expansion of our brain came an expanded understanding of the world around us. This expansion is also responsible for our current interpretations of beauty.

    An example of beauty’s biological basis can be seen especially in mating rituals. In many species of animals included peacocks and deer, it is the male who must perform and display his beauty in order to get the female’s attention. A successful peacock has big and bright plumage and the stag has powerful antlers. Failing to have such attributes means failing to mate with the female and failing to pass on a genetic heritage. In humans, it is the female who must perform. Physical attributes such as big breasts and big hips denote fertility. In many mating rituals, these attributes are necessary as they guarantee that progeny will be produced (p. 41). To our early ancestors, phenotypical characteristics also signaled the neurological complexities of the individual as well.  Men choose women with big breasts and wide hips not only because their bodies are optimal for childbearing but also because these traits somehow make females more nurturing and therefore best suited to childrearing (p 49). Women choose men who are muscular because this denotes a protective personality and therefore this type of ma would be able to protect her and her children (p. 49). Centuries of individual eugenics in mating preferences are still relevant in present-day humans because we still judge fertility and protectiveness based on these characteristics. These preferences are part of our human history and the culture of our ancestors have hard-wired these preferences in our biology. As Turner states: “We are the monument to our progenitors’ taste” (p 48).  

    His argument for human biases in mating is intriguing, however his analysis of brain expansion is problematic. He proposes that brain expansion was a result of population and cultural demands. The ability to communicate for the hunting parties of our ancestors made the development of language essential. The need to assemble weaponry made developing fine motor skills essential as well. And so the “great brain mushroomed out” (p.47). Turner suggests here that external demands such as hunting for survival somehow caused neural expansion. I disagree with this notion. In my research of brain evolution in humans during my freshman year, evidence of a mutation of the MYH16 gene could very likely have been the cause of brain expansion. The MYH16 gene is responsible for jaw muscle development. Originally, humans had huge jaw structures but thousand of years ago a mutation reduced the size of the jaw muscle. Since muscles shape the bone structures they are attached to, a small jaw muscle not only caused the jawbone to reduce in size but also caused the frontal bone of the skull to increase in size. This increase in skull size then caused brain expansion to occur and therefore complex cognitive ability was achieved. I believe that in brain expansion, our biology caused culture to happen, not the other way around.

    Aside from Turner’s proposal for brain expansion, his proposal of neurocharms for language, auditory, and visual development is intriguing. According to him, these nuerocharms are equivalent to the muses of the Ancient Greeks (p. 63). In the concept of nuerocharms, the brain is divided into two groups: left-brain and right-brain group. The left-brain group houses language development while the right-brain group is further subdivided into visual development and musical/auditory development (p. 64-65).

    His proposal that language is a left-brain group function suggests that language is analytic, objective and logical. In creating syntax as well as formulating stories, a strict and ordered process is necessary for effective language.  Though I see why the development of language needs to be strict for better communication, I feel that language contains nuances that intuition is better suited to understand. In making word choices, connotation must be taken into account for failing to do so might result in different even opposing meanings to two individuals. For example, I could describe food as cooking or cuisine. The word “cooking” has a connotation of food prepared in a common manner such as those found in diners. The word “cuisine” however has the connotation of fine dining and the food was prepared with some level of artistry such as those found in expensive restaurants.

    Turner’s proposal for the right-brain groups for visual and musical interpretations is consistent with my understanding of art and music. I believe that understanding the meaning of color relies heavily upon subjectivity and emotions. The color red for example has been in associated with pleasant notion of passion and love but it also associated with sinister notions of blood, war, and the Devil. Musical notes and melody can also have varying interpretations among people. The fast paced and loud music of heavy metal might be interpreted as spirited and energetic by on individual while another may interpret it as annoying. I believe that both visual art and music tap into the emotional centers of our brains.

    Though Turner’s proposal for brain expansion is somewhat flawed, his suggestions about the history mating preferences as well as language, visual, and auditory developments were interesting to ponder upon. However, in his analysis of the neurobiological explanations of interpretations of beauty offered little physiological mechanisms to support his ideas. I do believe though, that humans are hard-wired to understand beauty either through emotion and intuition or through strict and ordered analysis.

Turner, F. (1991). Beauty: The Value of Values. University Press of Virginia     Charlottesville and      London.     


Anonymous's picture

Aside from Turner’s proposal

I think it great ,I will test post it His argument for human biases in mating is intriguing, however his analysis of brain expansion is problematic. He proposes that brain expansion was a result of population and cultural demands.

Paul Grobstein's picture

beauty and the brain

“We are the monument to our progenitors’ taste”is an interesting starting point for thinking about beauty, but what about changes in perceptions of beauty within individual lifetimes?