As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts (1,3) in this series, there is good neurological evidence for a link between cognitive and affective brain activities. In other words when we think, we also feel. It seems to follow from this that there would be a biological basis to aesthetics, to the pleasure we derive from many aspects of life. And since we are organisms for which the visual is so important, it makes sense that what we see would attract us, in others words, be considered beautiful. There are a number of different arguments for why an aesthetic sense would be wired into our genes. Some are based on genetic unity, that we share genes with animals that are attracted to colors, scents, and sounds, so why wouldn’t we also have such capabilities (Skutch, 1992)? If bees are drawn to flower forms and colors, why not us? Coming from the other side; some argue that what makes us different from other species is an aesthetic sense. They link it to a drive to make art, as an adaptation that builds community with others and thus makes those with similar genes more likely to survive and pass them on (Dissanayake, 1992). Still another view is that there is an advantage to being attracted to habitats that might provide shelter or food, explaining why the savanna seems particularly alluring to humans, who evolved in such habitats in Africa (Ulrich, 1993). Our sense of curiosity and love of novelty might also be innate because they allow us to investigate the world and learn from it. I have given a very simplistic view of these approaches, because I am less interested in whether or not our attraction to beautiful plants is genetic and more in what that means for our experience of the green world.
It seems that people want to be near plants. This is why so many have house plants, or garden, or hike, or even work in herbaria. Of course, this is not just about plants. Edward O. Wilson (1984) uses the term biophilia for an innate desire to be near living things. Steven Kellert (1997, 2012) has written on the many kinds of evidence to support this idea, from patients recovering faster in hospital rooms with windows opening onto natural settings to improved mood after a walk in a park. But there can be a more intimate relationship, getting to know the plant a little better when you have to consider whether you are watering it enough, or if it’s getting too much sunlight.
And then there is simply looking closely at a flower, examining its forms and colors—and doing this over and over again in a garden or on a field trip, or if neither are possible, then in the pages of books. Humans don’t just want to experience beauty, but to preserve it in order to prolong or remember that experience. Today, the most obvious way is with photography, in the past it was through drawing. The advantage of the latter, even today, is that it deepens the visual experience and includes a tactile one as well. We are back to issues of craft, as I discussed in an earlier post, and calling on different areas of the brain in still another type of cognitive and affective experience. This is true even if the result is hardly a masterpiece; it’s still the record of a meaningful involvement with a plant. And there is the comfort of knowing that endless examples of botanical art exist, created by those with greater skill at capturing the essence and detail of plants [see above]. If you need a fix, take a look at the Historical SciArt blog.
There is another possible level of interaction, and I’ll use as an example tree bark, which happens to be my obsession. Yes, I was thrilled yesterday when I saw the season’s first cherry blossom and examined it closely, but I spent much more time with a piece of pine bark. The texture appeals to me perhaps because it engages my fingers as well as my eyes. Maybe it’s texture that also attracts me to herbarium specimens. It’s certainly not a wide range of color. But the textures and forms in a collection are endless. The lack of color is a problem for some people. Richard Fortey (2008) sees specimens as plant “mummies” and Edgar Anderson (1952) likens pressing specimens, to laying out corpses; neither are pleasant metaphors. For me, the dull colors allow for more focus on form and surface features.
The deadness is also a reminder that this particular plant has a history, perhaps a long history. In other words, there is a story attached to it, which might or might be told by the notations on the sheet. As I discussed in an earlier post on collections and material culture, such stories are layered onto the taxonomic significance of the specimen. Here again, the cognitive comes into play, but also the affective. Everyone loves stories, and there is growing evidence that humans organize knowledge in stories, just another example of the intellect and the emotions interrelating. Once again, biological aesthetic comes into play; it is at the foundation of our experience of the natural world, and the beauty of herbaria in all their facets is just one set of such manifestations.
Anderson, E. (1952). Plants, Man and Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Dissanayake, E. (1992). Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. New York: Free Press.
Fortey, R. (2008). Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum. New York, NY: Knopf.
Kellert, S. (1997). Kinship to Mastery: Biophilia in Human Evolution and Development. Washington, DC: Island Press.
Kellert, S. R. (2012). Birthright: People and Nature in the Modern World. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Skutch, A. (1992). The Origins of Nature’s Beauty. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
Ulrich, R. (1993). Biophilia, biophobia, and natural landscapes. In S. Kellert & E. O. Wilson (Eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis (pp. 73–137). Washington, DC: Island Press.
Wilson, E. O. (1984). Biophilia. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.