Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Passing Aesthetic Judgment on a Species

Environmental Philosophy has a call for papers for an upcoming issue which includes environmental aesthetics. I'm thinking about sending them something about passing aesthetic judgments on species. I'm not really sure what I want to say on the subject, other than that people do it, and that it is kind of a weird thing to do.

In some ways the aesthetic evaluation of species is like dog-show aesthetics. You are after all, judging the beauty of an animal. But in a dog show, you judge an individual animal for how well it realizes the type. But when you judge whole species, you don't look at how they realize the higher taxon they belong to. Carlson says you judge whale you have to know it is a mammal, but you don't judge it for how well it realizes mammalness.

On a related note, this is the best video for TMBG's Mammal I have bumped into so far. A lot of people seem to try them, because the song lends itself to stock images so easily. I still haven't found one I'm perfectly in love with yet.


Julian Elson said...

The weird thing about species aesthetics, in my opinion, is that humans seem to be aesthetically unappealing by the standards that we humans typically use to judge other species. This is rather counterintuitive -- you'd think that we humans would regard ourselves as something of an ideal, being, well, ourselves and all that, but...

-We tend to think that a good coating of furs, feathers, and such are necessary for birds and mammals. (we don't think the bald heads of vultures are very attractive, and we tend to think that relatively low-fur mammals like pigs, naked mole rats, etc, are less good-looking than furrier mammals like wolves, deer, bears, rabbits, etc.)

-I don't think that a human-like nose -- jutting out independently from the mouth, without a snout or anything -- would be considered attractive on any animal other than a human.

-In general, we tend to prefer animals that have tails to those that don't.

-We tend to like pointy, mobile ears, like cats' ears, etc. We don't have those, either. In fact, barring animals without external ears at all, I find it hard to think of a species with ears which are less like the most popular ideal for other species than ours.

I'm not really sure what to make of this. Do we humans consider ourselves to be an ugly species? How have we managed to keep going so long? Where do these aesthetics, so obviously unsuited for our own species, come from?

Rob Helpy-Chalk said...

Those are some very good observations, and I not at all sure what they imply, save perhaps for a partial explanation of the existence of furries.

At least some of the gap between aesthetics of humans and aesthetics of animals can be explained by the fact that we emphatically don't view ourselves as animals. The idea that there is a categorical difference between us and them is very deep, so it may be easy for us to unconsciously establish different aesthetic standards for us and them.

OTOH, not all cultures are as big on the distinction between humans and animals as the industrialized, western monotheist world. It would be interesting to see if there are different aesthetic reactions to species in those cultures, too.

Also interesting: our aesthetic reaction to the kinds of animals you refer to matches our aesthetic reaction to our own children: we scream "CUTE!!" There seems to be a category here of nonsexual aesthetic responses to living beings.

Pippy said...

Oooh! I love that video!
That one of my favorite songs in the whole world. Since Marcel was a puppy I used to sing it to him (he perked up when he heard it! I swear!) and when my boy and I are in bed with 3 cats and Marcel I sing it.
And the echidna. Oh. So cute!!!
I'm afraid I can't say anything smart about aesthetic judgments. I went to art school.

Breena Ronan said...

I wish I was ready to say something, I would love to submit some of my dissertation ideas. I have all these thoughts swimming around, but I should be writing my thesis, which isn't related to these subjects at all.