The University Record, November 2, 1992

Environment preferences might be product of natural selection

By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services

If our prehistoric ancestors were touring a museum with modern day visitors, their tastes in landscape paintings might be surprisingly similar.

“Human beings seem intuitively to prefer scenes that are coherent and accessible but slightly mysterious. They also are inclined toward landscapes that make them feel that, if the paintings were three-dimensional, wayfarers could find their way about in them and still get back to the starting point,” says Prof. Stephen Kaplan in a chapter of a new book, The Adapted Mind.

Why these consistent aesthetic biases? Such preferences may be the product of natural selection, Kaplan suggests.

“Like modern humans, our ancestors were knowledge-seeking, knowledge-using organisms. Their evolutionary success was linked to their inclination to explore, understand and accumulate information for future use. To be skillful hunters and gatherers, they had to know the

terrain—where to find food, water, shelter, safe hiding places, and places where they could see without being seen. So a preference for landscapes that encourages them to discover new territory and gather new information in relative safety would be adaptive,” Kaplan explains.

Kaplan’s theory is based on dozens of studies, including his own experiments, conducted with people from a range of cultures all over the world. Participants rated photographic slides of scenes that included deserts, savannahs, jungles, and mixed hardwood and pine forests, as well as urban landscapes.

The participants consistently preferred environments that had both trees and water. They gave highest ratings to scenes that offered some tree cover or forest scenes that included glades. “Participants were averse to settings in which one would be either completely exposed or one’s enemies could easily hide,” Kaplan says.

Participants also gave high ratings to views with a suggestion of mystery. “Perhaps a winding path that curved out of sight around a hill or a dense forest with a hint of a clearing hidden behind it,” he says.

Landscapes that were complex, with a variety of objects to explore, yet legible and coherent, also got high ratings. “Unconsciously, participants seemed to be drawn to interesting scenes that they could map out and understand in their heads,” Kaplan says.

One exception to the rule was a bias for wide, panoramic views from high hills and mountain peaks. “A high prospect was so engaging, apparently, that immediate considerations of getting around in the view didn’t matter,” he says.

Kaplan says participants made aesthetic decisions rapidly, easily and unconsciously. “As a rule, they could not explain why they liked what they liked, but they felt strongly about their choices, and seemed to enjoy the process.”

The fact that the process seems to be unconscious also may be adaptive, he says.

“The human mind can handle only three to seven ‘information’ chunks at a time,” he explains, “so it would have been maladaptive if prehistoric hunters were required to consciously process environmental information while trying to remain vigilant for predators or game.”

Making aesthetic choices, he adds, involves two mental domains—cognition and emotion. “From an evolutionary point of view, an emotional reaction to environment, whether it is pleasure, distaste or disinterest, is likely to be an adaptive trait, because it can guide the individual to appropriate action.”