Biology, Brains and Beauty: How Do They (and We) Relate?
A "Scientifico-Philosophico-Humanistic" Inquiry

Paul Grobstein
Symposium on Beauty
Bryn Mawr College Center for Science in Society
30 March 2004

The Elephant Presumption: there is a there there

"Beauty" is that which causes these (and other) particular stories in particular people

Getting Some Observations/Data

Additional Threads (from this symposium)

Koggel -

"Beauty" has substantial political/social and personal significance ... and some relation to "power"

Lord -

The power, personal, and political/social significance of "beauty" is not invariant. It differs for different people, at different times in history, and at different times in individual lives.

Levine -

"Beauty" relates to the "unconscious" ... and to mystery/tension?

Albano -

One's sense of what is beautiful, and one's sense of its significance, can be affected by thinking and by experience/culture

Burgmayer -

Beauty relates to a creative force

Relevance of the brain?

If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one there to hear it it does NOT produce a "sound"

"Beauty" can be "localized" within the brain

Social/political and personal considerations ...

"Is the "real problem" that beauty is exclusive, that whoever "has" it (I'm thinking now of beautiful women) has the power? And/or that whoever gets to define it (I'm thinking now of the male gaze) exercises power?" ... Forum

From biology/neurobiology (leaving sex/gender aside for the moment)

The category of "beauty" is unlikely to be abolishable without either

1) universal very-difficult-perhaps-impossible brain surgery or
2) universal very-difficult-perhaps-impossible psychotherapy

Even if one could, one would probably not be wise to abolish the category since "beauty" as a discriminative category is a resultant of evolution and likely to have some value.

An interest in beauty is generative (Burgmayer)

"This doesn't mean I agree with my parents' having me grow up with calli. I still think they were wrong; they thought getting rid of beauty would help make a utopia, and I don't believe that at all. Beauty isn't the problem, it how some people are misusing it that's the problem ... I don't know, maybe this wasn't a problem back in my parents' day. But its something we have to deal with now." .... "Liking What You See: A Documentary" in Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

For the same reasons, efforts to try and get people to feel/believe that "everything is beautiful" are both undesirable and likely to fail.

An alternative approach (accepting that the "REAL problem" IS related to human sex/gender/power) ... with appreciation for feminism (and, nonethless, trepidation)

Starting position (from neurobiology): "I am, and I can think, therefore I can change who I am"

And from feminism: women in the past needed "men's gaze" to achieve influence, found it easiest to do so by being beautiful, were subject to exploitation/opression for that reason

Currently (this symposium, but with head protected): women are much more concerned about "beauty" than men, who consider beauty one of a significant number of different desirable attributes. This difference is certainly abetted by culture but may well be to some extent both desirable and ineradicable.

Suggestion (if I survive this far): women might be better off if they developed the ability to treat "beauty" more as (viva la difference) one desirable attribute among many equally significant ones, in themselves, in others, and in the things they/others create (thanks, Em).

Maybe if we can all learn to enjoy the richness of diversity, we can all keep and enjoy "beauty" too ... each in our own way