Beauty, nature or nurture?

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United States Capitol (USA Today)

I often repeat the idea that our love for beauty – and for architecture whose ornament stimulates that love – arises from our prehistoric neurobiology. Primitive man on the savannah needed to be aware of details revealing dangers to be met or avoided. Today, we love buildings whose decoration triggers an atavistic desire for detail. Perhaps. But it may be, it surely is, more complicated than that.

The thought was brought to mind yesterday by a passage from Jack London’s 1916 novel The Assassination Bureau, Ltd., about an organization of assassins for hire who will only kill people who deserve killing. But they are constantly arguing about their principles. (Actually, they remind me of Rhode Island’s founder, Roger Williams!) Here is the passage:

“It is a curious problem,” Murgweather continued. “The sacred- ness of human life is a social concept. The primitive natural man never had any qualms about killing his fellow man. Theoretically, I should have none. Yet I do have. The question is: how do they arise? Has the long evolution to civilization impressed this concept into the cerebral cells of the race? Or is it due to my training in childhood and adolescence, before I became an emancipated thinker? It is very curious”

“I am sure it is,” Hall answered dryly. “But what are you going to do about the Chief?”

“Kill him.”

So what are we going to do about beauty? Love it, of course. Or kill it if you are a modernist trained to reject beauty. But maybe primitive man did have qualms about killing his fellow biped, qualms he may have experienced in the form of anxiety. Maybe life forced primitive man to stifle his live-and-let-live preferences and embrace a “live-and-let-die” credo only when rival tribes clashed over the carcass of a woolly mammoth – please excuse me if I have confused my prehistoric eras – and then relapsed into a more natural softheartedness after the battle.


Today is Independence Day, and so we worship freedom. Is our love for freedom innate or has it been pounded into us by propaganda? Love liberty – or else? Tribes among us have different levels of reverence for the idea of freedom, yes? Is this good or bad? Is there a valid parallel here to our love for beauty and our love for life? Discuss.

Hate to leave these questions hanging, dear reader, but the beach beckons.

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy,, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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