Being materialistic or not is a choice humans never had. The human obsession with all things beautiful and creative is an inevitable consequence of our evolution, our psychology, and our anthropology.
It is hard to walk on the street, enter a store, enter a restaurant or turn on your phone and not be bombarded with beauty in its many forms. People celebrating beauty, posing with it, displaying it, immersing themselves in it, applying it to their bodies, buying it, decorating their homes with it. The pursuit of beauty is so ingrained in our culture that we had to pause and think - why? Why do we as a society celebrate beauty? And as a corollary, why do we uphold the role of the creative classes that enables it? And why does being materialistic invoke negative connotations when in fact, it is a choice we may have never had?
Are we genetically hard-wired to appreciate beauty?
To understand our appreciation of beauty - let’s first take a detour through mathematics. Fractal geometry is the discipline of mathematics that studies structures that are self-similar. In other words, shapes that look like themselves infinitely no matter what the degree of magnification. In traditional Euclidean geometry - that’s what you would have studied in school - as you keep zooming into a shape you keep seeing a smaller and smaller portion of it. In fractal geometry as you zoom in you see an infinite replication of the same.
The term fractal dimension coined by the mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot in 1975, measures the complexity of a fractal shape and is a ratio of the change in detail to the change in scale. In other words, if a shape expresses greater detail with smaller changes in scale, it will have a higher fractal dimension.
If one were to approximate natural environments through fractal geometry, a desert or open ocean would approximate a fractal dimension of 1, while a dense forest would approximate a 2. Scientific research has established that humans appreciate natural environments that have a density or fractal dimension of 1.3 to 1.4. The landscape that best approximates this fractal density is that of the African savanna - the birthplace of the human race. Evolutionary theorists posit that this level of fractal complexity is tied to our biological needs of finding sustenance and being safe. In a desert, where there is no complexity, it is unlikely to find food and shelter. Likewise, in a dense forest the danger of something lurking behind the bushes is always prevalent and makes us uncomfortable. The savanna, with its abundance of food and open landscape that allows one to sight danger, is the perfect Goldilocks landscape. And perhaps, the millennia of our ancestors who stared at the African savanna at night, have left us with a genetic visual imprint that we all carry.
"Geometry cannot describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline, or a tree. Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line.” — Benoit Mandelbrot
Fractals however aren’t just a way to explain why we appreciate beauty in nature. There are a wealth of examples from abstract fractal art, to examples in consumer products and Islamic architecture that show that the infinitely recursive patterns of fractal geometry are loved by humans for whom they represent not just a more natural and organic imagery but a visual tied to the very elements of existence.
Is materialism embedded in our psychology?
While some patterns are attractive to humans because of their connections with human evolution, others are attractive because they can, quite literally, move us. More scientific research in the fields of neuroscience and psychology have shown that the brain has evolved to use “does it look good” as a proxy for “is it good for me”. Brain scans have shown that the sight of something beautiful - whether a piece of wholesome fruit or a piece of fashion - can quite literally trigger neurons in our brain that control muscle and hand movement.
These insights cause us to pause and think.
“Can we curb our materialistic instincts any more than we can stop ourselves from reaching out for an attractive fruit?”
The anthropological explanation for the appreciation of creativity
Understanding the biological and evolutionary response of humans towards beauty helps explain perhaps our societal veneration of the creative classes of society - the architects, the designers, the artists and the musicians. Celebrating the creative classes is a form of our societal narcissism. By saying “Look at this marvel of human creativity”, we are appropriating the work of an individual that we cannot aspire to, into the larger whole of humanity to which we can belong. But beyond narcissism, it is also a statement of the economic realities of society. Throughout the ages, human class structure has evolved to provide the most power to those within society who satisfied the material demands of the age. The hunter when we were nomads. The farmer when we were pastoralists. The politician or the general when we were (are?) warring nations. And for a long period of time, being a patron of the arts or someone who could afford to patronize the creation of beauty was limited to a precious few individuals. In a prosperous society where the basics of sustenance and security are all provided for - food, water, shelter, clothing, healthcare, education, social security, political representation - what else are humans left to pursue other than beauty? And in today’s age, who would then have most power but the creative classes?
“The celebration of the creative classes in our society today is an inevitable consequence of our levels of prosperity. Fashion, design, architecture are all a way of being a modern-day patron of the arts. But the artist is not Mozart or Picasso. The artist is Charles and Ray Eames, Steve Jobs or Phillipe Starck”
In this issue
Our exploration of the human obsession with beauty and creativity has taken us on a fascinating journey through the evolution of industrial design, the suspicion with which humans perceive artificial intelligence and the modern-day trend of glorifying the excesses of food via Instagram. We also sat down with several creative leaders in the world of design, photography, industrial design, food and fashion, that are bringing beauty into our daily lives including Anna-Alexia Basile, Andreas Bell, Nick Anderson, Laura Wright, Tamsin Rush, and Konstantine Malishevski. Read the entire issue and share your thoughts!