Beautiful trees

Walking past Washington Square Park this morning, I was struck by the incredibly beauty of the trees this time of year, in their autumn colors of flaming red and golden yellow.

And it occurred to me, not for the first time, to wonder why seeing something like this provokes such a powerful aesthetic response. I understand why we perceive the face of a lover or of a baby as beautiful. If we didn’t see beauty in such things, the human race would probably have died out long ago.

But why do we see beauty when looking at trees — big plants made of cellulose? Is there some evolutionary advantage to finding beauty when we gaze upon foliage? One possibility is that this response prevented our early ancestors from cutting down the forests. But that general direction of thought doesn’t explain why we find sunsets beautiful, or starry skies, or clouds, or rainbows — all things over which our ancestors had no control.

I realize that some reading this might have a handy metaphysical answer — because God made us that way. But I’m curious whether anyone has a compelling non-metaphysical answer.

10 thoughts on “Beautiful trees”

  1. Is it really about the trees, or is it about color? The Fall colors in Palo Alto have been at their height in the last couple of weeks. There’s one particular little tree not far from my house that seems to glow even more vividly yellow and red than many of the others and I love to look at it. So, what is the survival value of being attracted to strong (esp. glowing) color? Perhaps the same phenomenon drives our attraction to sunsets and blue skies, and vivid green oceans, and fields of wildflowers.

  2. I think all of the things you described are more or less good for us. The trees bear fruits that we eat, the sunset is when the warm sun looks the most intense, clouds give us water, etc…
    Nature doesn’t have the time or desire to make us very discriminate about each particular thing, so the lines are a bit blurry, though.
    A more philosophical answer could be: If we didn’t walk around the earth in amazement of how beautiful it is, the human races would not have cared to stick around very long.

  3. The autumn leaves? To tell us to plan for winter. That as soon as they’re gone, it is going to be very very cold and we’d best squirrel our nuts away now.

  4. This morning, migrating birds were taking rest on the trees by the Charles river. From afar, they looked like new leaves to replace the fallen ones. I found it breathtaking.

  5. This still makes evolutionary sense.

    In the simplest and most general case, people who can derive more happiness from the natural surroundings tend to have better *fitness scores* (assuming other things being equal), e.g. stronger immune systems, more balanced hormones, etc. This is particularly true for prehistoric humans without much alternative sources of comfort or entertainment.

    So if Vulcans do exist, I bet they will like rocks more than trees. =D

  6. Hello Ken,

    Happy holiday season. In order to perceive of something as beautiful, one’s attention must first be attracted to that which we’ll find beautiful, and then one’s attention must be held by the object. These are two difference functions, operating based upon distinct cognitive/emotional considerations.

    Initial attention is a function based upon distinctiveness. One’s attention is held by those things affording a sense of desire. we can further consider the concept of beauty if we account for one’s tendency to approach the object. Note that there are those things one finds beautiful that do not tend to inspire one’s approach.


    Ken Stein

  7. my response wasn’t totally serious, ken, but since you asked….

    snow let’s us know spring is coming and with it, water.


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