Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Power of Aesthetics

This week I was watching a BBC documentary series called The Incredible Human Journey, it details the advance of Homo Sapiens out of Africa and all about the world, tracking what routes were taken and the corresponding dates through archeological and biological evidence. It's quite fascinating.

One thing that I found quite compelling from a Role-Player and Game Design perspective was the competition for dominance between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthal Man in Europe. The first thing I noticed from the depictions of Neanderthals were how much they were like Ogres from fantasy literature. This is likely no accident as the first fantasy writers were quite learned and likely modeled Ogres off of Neanderthals.

We know that Neanderthal was bigger, stronger, and better adapted to the environment of Europe than Humans were, so in that sense they definitely have the advantage. So common wisdom lead to the belief that we had better tools and weapons that allowed us to overcome the larger size and strength... however the archeological evidence shows that when comparing Neanderthal tools with Human tools the Neanderthal ones were superior in nearly every measurable way.

Neanderthal Man had a larger head and created superior tools so therefore it should be reasonable to assume that by several criteria Neanderthal should have been on equal footing intellectually as Homo Sapiens, they were stronger, and tougher and DNA evidence leads us to believe that there was no racial mixing between the two species so it's not like they were simply assimilated into the dominant race either.

So why are there no more Neanderthals around anymore?

One of the noticeable differences the archeology uncovered was that Homo Sapiens had artifacts with artistic designs that remained consistent across various different archeological sites. Art even back in the stone ages was following trends and there was obvious communication of these trends unlike Neanderthal sites where little art was produced and none of these trends in artistic culture were seen at all.

So from this we can derive that shared art denotes a shared culture which denotes friendly communication over distance. Art was allowing people to find common ground with each other even though they shared no family or immediate ties. This seemingly insignificant fact allowed us to ultimately triumph over a greater competing race.

The thing I find most interesting about all this is that the evidence points to the conclusion that as a race, our appreciation of aesthetic contributed directly to our SURVIVAL. This isn't exactly common wisdom and art is something that in the great scheme of things is often taken for granted. What's more, it is a very human thing to appreciate art and though the appreciation of aesthetic is universal throughout our species, it isn't something many animals carry.

Our common appreciation of aesthetics allows us to relate to others even though we might have nothing immediately in-common. This cannot be overestimated, we are immediately more trusting of attractive people, but we also see god's hand in beauty. All sites of religious significance have artwork... why is this so?

In primitive societies as well as Role-Playing it is easy to get preoccupied in the more tangiable pursuits, war, survival, obtaining wealth... Yet we as a race still appreciate and desire to be surrounded by beauty, but this desire seems so trivial in comparison to the time we should be spending obtaining food, shelter and safety. I believe the solution to this in primitive society was to tie this desire to something that in an ethereal way does contribute to those things. God can provide food, shelter and safety if He (she, it...) so chooses, but we can't see God so it helps if there's something to focus on and that might as well be art.

Honestly this could be a Chicken/Egg argument, did God instill in us an appreciation of Art so that through it we could be closer to him, or did we correlate God to these depictions out of our desire to appreciate art? I've just pointed out that our appreciation of art played a factor in primitive man's survival, was that God's way of giving us the ability to overcome?

Aesthetics is a deciding factor in so much, yet we discount it's importance so often. Beauty is the cornerstone of our interactions and a major aspect of what drives us, yet typically in Role Playing games it is considered to have no mechanical significance. I think this is a mistake and perhaps game designers should look at the application of beauty and maybe it's significance in religion and spirituality.

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