Prospect and refuge

Ev.psych and Romantic explanstions of landscape beauty in the English Lake District.

A travel snapshot from the English Lake District: the mouth of the tiny rivers Rothay and Brathay at the head of lake Windermere.


Why do we find this type of scenery attractive? There are broadly two explanations.

One is that during the eighteenth century there occurred a historic shift in taste. Around 1700 the ideal of landscape beauty was cultivated, ordered, tamed; wilderness was feared. But as it became scarcer, it became more prized. By the time of Wordsworth, Northern Europeans had come to admire jagged mountains, waterfalls, and dark ancient forests. The gardens of the rich changed from the parade-order of Le Nôtre to the Arcadian parkland of Humphrey Repton and Capability Brown.

But this story doesn’t fit our picture well. Like almost all the landscape of Europe, that in the photo is artificial. Open parkland has to maintained carefully over a long span of time, the grassland by regular mowing or grazing by livestock, the open stands of trees by fencing out deer and selective felling. Left to nature, the climax vegetation of the area would be dense deciduous forest like this, a few hundred yards upstream:


The first scene is only halfway to the full-blown Romantic wilderness of Caspar David Friedrich, here and here. In a sense, we obviously like it better. It’s more liveable.

This is where the alternative explanation of evolutionary psychology comes in: we are hardwired to like landscapes of the savanna type, because this is the habitat where we evolved. Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works, chapter 6:

[In contrast to deserts and rainforests,] the savanna – grasslands dotted with clumps of trees – is rich in biomass, much of it in the form of large animals, because grass replenishes itself quickly when grazed. And most of the biomass is conveniently placed a meter or two from the ground. Savannas also offer expansive views, so predators, water, and paths can be spotted from afar. Its trees provide shade and escape from carnivores…. American children are shown slides of landscapes and asked how much they would like to visit or live in them. The children prefer savannas, even though they have never been to one… Of course, people do not have a mystical longing for ancient homelands. They are merely pleased by the landscape features that savannas tend to have … semi-open space, .. even ground cover, views to the horizon, large trees, water, changes in elevation, and multiple paths leading out … prospect and refuge, or seeing without being seen.

The leap to the theory that these ancestral practical advantages determine our sense of landscape beauty was made by George Orians and Judith Heerwagen, in a chapter in the key ev.psych. book The Adapted Mind by Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby of 1992. I couldn’t find a link to the text, but here’s a link to more recent online paper by Orians.

It’s an immensely appealing theory. I’ve seen a herd of giraffes grazing acacias in the early morning in a Kenyan reserve and thought of Eden. The first objection that comes to mind is: what about caves? These are part of the optimal habitat, but in fact we find them scary. I suppose the reply is that caves only became essential with the move north to colder Eurasian habitats; you don’t need them in tropical Africa and there aren’t many anyway outside the Rift valley walls. The hardwired preference hasn’t had time to change in a mere 100,000 years. (There were hominids much earlier in European and Chinese caves, but they weren’t our ancestors.) A more serious objection is that the data are a bit thin. A human universal should be established by thorough anthropological fieldwork, waving photos like mine before New Guinea tribesmen, Yanomani Indians, Inuits, Tibetans, New Yorkers and so on. Perhaps this has been done, but I couldn’t find it on Google; or for that matter any counter-evidence.

The liveable habitat is also a defensible one, with communications, water, and sightlines. Sure enough, the spot where I stood for my first photo is a hundred yards from the vestiges of a Roman fort.

On points Darwin wins against Wordsworth. The historical shift in taste did not really lead to an abandonment of the earlier ideal; the country houses kept parts of their ordered gardens. What happened was more a widening of taste to taken in wilderness as well. In fact the Romantics developed a different vocabulary to deal with it: hence those disquisitions on the Sublime and the Beautiful. The walled flower garden or paradise has never gone out of fashion since the Persians invented it 2,500 years ago. Here’s an example from Troutbeck, a few miles down the same lake.


The diligent garden slaves needed for this fantastically labour-intensive style are here volunteer ladies from the Lake District Garden Society. Holding my ebony cane in my gloved left hand, I tip my top hat to them with the right.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

19 thoughts on “Prospect and refuge”

  1. It's about time somebody noted that human standards of artistic beauty are connected with our biological/evolutionary background — something which modern artists and architects seem totally unaware of. It's only their ignorance of that fact that them to peddle such aesthetic nonsense as the "form should follow function" principle. In SOME cases, when form follows function, it produces forms which people consider beautiful, such as streamlining. But the function of a building is simply to be a box, and there is nothing intrinsically beautiful to humans about a box — because one doesn't encounter anything remotely like it in the kinds of natural environments, phenomena and living things that appeal to us.

  2. Macaulay offers still a third explanation: mountains, forests, and moors were scary and therefore ugly as long as they were filled with bandits and wolves. Tamed, they became beautiful. On his account, the beauty of the Scots Highlands is attributable to the butchery of Culloden. A grim thought, but perhaps true nonetheless.

  3. "What about caves?"
    Er, we seem to like living inside boxes in northern areas, so perhaps the hardwire preference for open space *has* had time to change. We've made improvements, of course, to make our constructed caves less scary, specifically windows; but interestingly, we put great value on having spacious views from those windows. Perhaps we're trying to have it both ways. Or were caves with a view of the savannah more highly prized back when they were our dwellings?

  4. I admire a lot of what Pinker says; he really is very interesting regarding language. But this sort of stretching of evolutionary psychology is just stupid; it's trying to claim far too much based on far too little data.
    Let's actually get realistic. Have any of you actually seen the African savanna? Sure the animals look nice (from a safe distance or from a helicopter) but the countryside itself looks "stark and severe", ie nice to see in photos but you wouldn't want to live there. The tropics (especially the ultra-tamed tropics of Europe) are what look especially nice to live. And if the issue is only aesthetics, the fact is that pretty much every landscape on earth looks good under the right conditions. We see photos of deserts, of mountains, of polar wilderness, of coral reefs; all look lovely, all not places we want to live.
    There is probably something going on here in terms of evolutionary psychology; some balance of order vs disorder, something about areas of color that have a subtle texture, maybe even something to do with that ultra-hyped child of the 80s, fractals. But it has, IMHO, and I would say the evidence completely backs me up, very little to do with ways in which these scenes look like rift Africa.
    And as for Bruce Moomaw, damn it dude. The only thing more lame than a linguist claiming that evolutionary psychology supports his theory of art is someone who hates modern art claimning that evolutionary psychology supports his theory of art. OK, you don't like modern art; that's fine, spend lots of time at the Getty with other people who share your tastes; but don't make sly insinuations about the rest of us. There are real complaints to be made about modern architecture, ways in which it is non-functional, and the the stupidity of basing architecture on a theory, especially a poorly-thought out, never actually tested, theory. But you lose credibility when you come acrosss as some fogey complaining about how it all went wrong after 1900 (or maybe after 1550 with the counter-reformation; or maybe the real mistake was to go in for gothic cathedrals instead of creating more buildings on the tried-and-true Stonehenge design, which certainly isn't boxy).

  5. My complaint was — to repeat — about (where architecture is concerned) the "form follows function" philosophy that gave us one rectangular box after another on the grounds that Ornamentation Is Bad. Tom Wolfe was hardly the first to complain about this — Norman Mailer, for instance, referred back in 1966 to most modern architecture as "Kleenex boxes with collodion patches stuck all over them".
    And my other point is that I'm in the majority in agreeing that most modern architecture — and most modern art — is ugly as shit. C.S. Lewis wrote a poem back in the 1940s pointing out that during the Renaissance, you did not often hear the line "How modern and how ugly", because the new artistic ideas being introduced then were NOT ugly. The past century's new artistic ideas, on the other hand, have appeared ugly, and/or simple-minded, to most people. There are many possible reasons for this — it may be that human artists have simply run out of good ideas (a possibility that forced the teenage John Stuart Mill into a state of severe depression back in the early 19t century). But I can't help thinking that a failure to recognize that human standards of beauty are rooted in something in our psychology — and that this something must have strong evolutionary/biological connections — may be part of the problem.

  6. "
    pointing out that during the Renaissance, you did not often hear the line "How modern and how ugly", because the new artistic ideas being introduced then were NOT ugly.
    Uhh, the reason you did not hear this is that the average prole in the Renaissance had no control over the means of production of books, and was illiterate. The only people who had any voice then were the high and mighty, the same crowd that you probably despise today.
    More to the point consider say van Gogh or Manet. Are you willing to come out and say that these are ugly, and that most people with experience of them, ie most westerners find them ugly? Or is it, just maybe, that the new is always disturbing and takes some time to be assimiliated. Most non-western art, whether it's pre-columbian from the Americas, Chola bronzes from India, or power figures from Africa, was greeted by a certain class of people in the West as quite repulsive. Do you go along with such judgements?
    Meanwhile, of this modern architecture you hate. Does that include what? Geary? The Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur? Taipei 101? Oriental Pearl TV Tower in Shanghai? Library Tower in Los Angeles? The pyramid in San Francisco?
    There were clearly some ghastly mistakes made in the mid-century, especially when it came to high rise living quarters; but of course the most obvious problem with these was that form did NOT follow function in spite of what the architects said. The reason buildings like Cabrini-Green were hated was that they were a stupid solution for the problem they were targetting. And, of course, when high rises are designed appropriately for their tenants, no-one is especially against them. I don't think you'd find, to take one example, the people who live in Trump Tower in New York complaining about the look of their building.

  7. What is absurd about this piece and evolutionary bio behavior absolutists is that it is easy to find objects of tremendous subjective beauty to many people that have absolutely no value for the holders of this perception.
    Oh, by the way, esthetically I prefer the wild dangerous forest. Kinda blows your argument, huh?
    Face it, science guys, some things are just not explainable. But hey, don't get me wrong, I'm a staunch Darwinian and empiracist – I think science just won't explain everything in the universe, that's all.

  8. The Transamerica Pyramid is ugly as shit and considered ridiculous by virtually everyone who lives there. It is, after all, a pyramid with ears — or, as Anne Baxter (Frank Lloyd Wright's granddaughter) says, "a giant Ku Klux Klan hat." Then we have the Guggenheim Museum — a giant concrete Slinky — and an endless plethora of modernistic churches that look like aircraaft carriers. (And don't get me started on modern "sculpture". Nor do I see you defending any 2-D art post-Manet — and virtually everyone agrees that his and van Gogh's stuff is attractive.)
    As for "the high and mighty" who "had a voice" back then: they were, of course, mostly the rulers of those societies — who were not artists and had pretty much the same tastes as the average man.
    And as for folk art, I side with Tom Lehrer: the reason most folk art is so horrible is precisely tht it is created by the average man. This in no way contradicts my other statements; it merely follows from the obvious fact that good artists are such precisely because they come up with concepts which large numbers of other people could not come up with on their own, but can see new beauty in afterwards. And when this process is successful, it takes very little time for average people to see that new beauty — they don't have to spend generations being brainwashed into seeing it (or, more accurately, pretending that they see it).
    Really, though, the only parts of this whole argument that are relevant are:
    (1) My original point — the "form follows function" school of architectural aesthetics was always ridiculous, and now we have a clearer understanding of WHY it is ridiculous.
    (2) Any major public building put up should, whenever it is at all practical, have its design subject to approval by a majority vote of the people in the community who will have to look at the damn thing for decades. If this offends today's fake artists, too bad.

  9. While I'm generally sympathetic to evolutionary psychology, I find the hypothesis that humans have an esthetic preference for savanna landscapes hard-wired by evolutionary forces quite lame. Just because early human evolution may have occurred in such an environment doesn't mean that there would be a reproductive advantage in an esthetic preference for it. Also, the esthetic superiority of your first photograph has a lot more to do with photographic technique issues than with a general esthetic preference for "open space."

  10. Simon's law of scenery: All scenery looks beautiful from a sufficient distance.
    I first formulated this principle while on a hike through the southern Negev desert. In every direction, the scene on the horizon was breathtakingly beautiful. Meanwhile, everything within thirty feet or so looked roughly like a large construction site.
    The most widely admired settings, mountains and lakes, pretty much force the admirer to look at them (or their surroundings) from a distance. The most boring, flatlands and prairies, focus one's attention on the immediate surroundings, for lack of distant features to admire. Other settings, such as forests and hills, look attractive approximately to the degree that they allow views from a distance.
    I expect the reason has something to do with Swift's observations about the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians: The former, being tiny, appeared beautiful because their imperfections were unnoticeably small, whereas the latter's size exposed their every blemish and asymmetry. Likewise, distant scenery looks flawless, whereas the same scenery viewed up close just looks like a lot of gritty, chaotic nature.

  11. But there has to be a psychological — and thus biological — reason why "smooth-looking" terrian looks more beautiful to humans than rugged terrain, too. May it be because smooth-looking terrain looks like a body of water or a plain of grass?

  12. 'Have any of you actually seen the African savanna? Sure the animals look nice (from a safe distance or from a helicopter) but the countryside itself looks "stark and severe", ie nice to see in photos but you wouldn't want to live there.'
    I live in California. It's the kind of landscape I grew up with. (On visiting the UK, I found the border country to be deceptively familiar: it looks like home to me.) There's a lot of stuff there, if you know how to see it, but if you come from someplace with high rainfall, you'd see a barren land where I see beauty.

  13. To the Sublime and the Beautiful, add another category they used back then: the Picturesque. And the very idea of landscape as something desirable (in art or the viewing of nature) may not have fully developed until travel was no longer such a slog. [Someone can probably contradict me and find Roman poets rhapsodizing over mountain peaks, but my knowledge of lit. doesn't go back that far.]
    I'm a "landscape junkie" — and a big Friedrich fan — with lots of books on landscape painting, and I prefer a certain amount of Sublimity to more manicured scenes. Does that come from a semi-coddled middle-class background? I don't really want to set off a raging *political* debate, since the anthro and aesthetics discussed above are plenty interesting, but the viewer's circumstances are bound to have a huge impact on perception.
    PS: I'm far from rich these days, but I have a great view of distant plains, more distant mountains, and Arizona's Rim from the window by this computer, so I consider myself lucky!

  14. I think that if you look hard through anthropological and archaeological references, you'll find very, very little evidence that any large group of humans ever habitually lived in caves. The term "cave man" is an almost complete misnomer.
    What of cave paintings? They appear to have been more like cathedrals people went to visit, i.e. not places they lived.
    Mostly, caves are very dangerous, not to mention uncomfortable. Far easier to build wooden houses.
    Houses are not much like caves. At least I don't know of many caves with multiple entrances and windows and such.
    It's not that humans never, ever lived in caves, but it was never common. Dank, breezy, full of dangerous predators or just annoying animals (like bats and their guano), and all sorts of places where your kids might wander off and disappear–forever.
    Nice to see someone noticing that what people think of as "nature" is, however, quite often very cultivated and pruned, that even stuff that looks "untouched" is usually quite a bit manipulated–and that what is truly "pristine" and "untouched by human hands" is often quite snarly, ugly, and dangerous.

  15. I think the book you should be looking here is not Steven Pinker's *How the Mind Works*, but E.O. Wilson's much earlier *Sociobiology* (1975).
    Wilson's little essay (it's at the end) about the sociobiological roots of our preferences for landscapes of low hills overlooking water is considerably more detailed than Pinker's. (I think Pinker's version is so brief because Wilson's has become common currency.)
    Wilson's essay also contains (as Pinker's does not) the proviso that we really don't know any of this. Indeed, he closes by suggesting that we should generally avoid attributing the complexities of culture to the simple imperatives of sociobiology.
    Of course, Wilson inevitably succumbed to the attractiveness of the idea (see his *On Human Nature*). But his warning remains useful.

  16. It's an interesting thought that the far distant ancestral landscape of the savannah is what has predisposed us to see some landscapes as beautiful nd desirable. I'm not sure that it's a large-scale factor, but there's certainly something tempting in the thought of having a mix of cover and killing ground.
    As for art, my own feeling is that its widespread appeal depends on how much out-of-channel knowledge is needed. Classic, essentially pictorial, art, has a lot of the information in the picture. You don't need to know the classical allusions or the symbols to get something out of it. You don't need to do a da Vinci Code on The Last Supper, although it helps to know the story.
    The more a piece of art needs to be explained, the less memorable it is. Piccasso's Guernica needs less explanation than his other paintings in that style. Mondrian produced something that feels more like design than like art.
    And now, with the camera and with cheap printing, anyone can have a picture of a place or person on the wall. Art has always chased after the people with money, and they want something that emphasises that they are different. I can't help thinking that there are swathes of modern art that are akin to a con game, but if people are getting what they want why shouldn't the providers get paid.
    And that sort of takes us back to the landscape. There's so much of even the "wild" landscape in the UK which is the product of man. Uplands grazed by sheep, heather moorland managed by rotational burning, almost none of the beauty is the product of uncontrolled nature. And the work was paid for by the profits of farming, and by such things as the desires of the rich to indulge in now-unfashionable country sports: fox-hunting, grouse-shooting, and the like.
    Cheap food and "animal rights", laudable though they often can be, puts a pressure on the countryside which conflicts with the desires for what the countryside should look like. And often the same vociferous campaigners want all the opposing objectives.
    At least the people buying dead sharks in formaldehyde are willing to pay for what they want.

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