The evolutionary science behind attraction to beauty in nature.

Photo by Andrea Marie Tan
Photo by Andrea Marie Tan

From romantic dates to photographic opportunities, sunsets are a universal and daily phenomenon that bring joy to many people. While humans may deeply appreciate the beauty of a colourful sky, no other animals appear to admire the sunset in quite the same way. So are humans just an irrational mob of hopeless-romantic, beauty-seeking creatures? According to the science of evolution, not quite! Here are some of the hypotheses that suggest a possible reason for why we watch sunsets.

Perception

One of the key aspects of survival is perceiving the world around us. By appreciating scenes that are aesthetically pleasing, overall perception becomes improved and further developed. When we are young, humans learn to perceive by looking at things that bring joy and happiness (aka NOT Canvas or the finances section of the SSC). Continuing to advance perception by finding beauty in nature may be an innate mechanism used to increase fitness of humans.

Genetics

Good weather is evolutionarily rewarding because it coincides with an easier existence. Simply put, finding a date in -30 degree weather accompanied with 10 feet of snow is significantly harder than on a sunny, 30 degree day at the beach (there’s a reason Bachelor in Paradise is filmed in a tropical oasis and not Antarctica). When we look at the sunset and remember the classic saying, “red sky at night, sailors’ delight,” it is associated with high pressure systems that correlate with good weather. We may have a genetic weather-forecasting mechanism that causes us to feel a sense of calm during beautiful sunsets.

Senses

Back in the Pleistocene epoch, Homo erectus was first developing a sense of aesthetic appreciation. Since the Apple watch wasn’t invented at that time, sunsets were used as a way of marking when nightfall, the most dangerous time for our human ancestors, would occur. This aesthetic sense hypothesis predicts that humans may seek out sunsets due to leftover evolutionary tendencies. Although nighttime is relatively safe now, our residual draw to sunsets may cause us to notice these brilliant sky displays for a reason besides simple beauty.

Fire

Humans are the masters of fire control (except when it comes to summer wildfires in BC that unofficially rename the Okanagan to “Smoke-anagan”). When we first starting controlling fire (somewhere between 230,000 to 1.5 million years ago), the gentle glow of the fire likely made us feel safe and secure. This glow is replicated when our favourite fiery ball tucks behind the mountains and lets the sunset colours take over. It has been suggested that this visual show can mimic the feeling of being around the fire, and thus recreate pleasurable feelings.

Although the reason why humans are attracted to beauty in nature is unknown, these hypotheses help to understand the relation between evolution and sunsets. Think about that next time the sun sets!