August 14, 2006
travel snapshot from the English Lake District: the mouth of the
tiny rivers Rothay and Brathay at the head of lake Windermere.
do we find this type of scenery attractive? There are broadly two
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.
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 be 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:
first scene is only halfway to the full-blown Romantic wilderness of
Caspar David Friedrich, here
In a sense, we obviously like it better. It's more liveable.
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,
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.