Snakes, Sunrises, and Shakespeare: How Evolution Shapes our Loves and Fears, by Gordon H. Orians

Tiffany Taylor on the emotional and aesthetic responses we share with our hominid ancestors

July 31, 2014

Humans are very emotional creatures. We respond to the world around us with pleasure, anger, fear, pain, surprise and disgust. Some argue that these reactions are due to learned social perceptions, or based on previous positive or negative interactions. But George Orians argues that our emotional responses to aesthetics in nature are hardwired and an evolutionary legacy of our animal origins. Here, he explores the relationship between our “ghosts of environments past” and our view of the world.

A large part of this book is dedicated to the “savannah hypothesis” – an idea originally proposed by Orians in 1980. He argues that today’s parks and green spaces are designed to mimic savannahs, because an acacia-like tree with a good canopy resurrects feelings of a fertile habitat and a refuge from predators. I was left unconvinced; although Orians offers ideas for testable predictions he does not deliver the data or sufficient detail of supporting studies.

I found his opinions on the evolutionary origins of our enjoyment of music more compelling: “no human culture known today or at any time in recorded history lacked music”. The origins of basic music are likely to be similar to other animals that use vocal calls for imitation, communication and territorial alarm calls. But Orians believes that the elaboration of musical repertoire may be due to sexual selection. Across much of the animal kingdom, more elaborate songs equals a greater number of sexual partners, because it is a signal of health and vigour. Observations of human cultures seem to suggest a similar pattern, with accomplished musicians attracting more sexual partners. If this is true, they will leave more descendants and, therefore, musical ability could be more widely represented in future generations.

Snakes, Sunrises, and Shakespeare explores topics concerned with environment and emotions, and it encourages us to view the world from a primal perspective. But why should our emotional responses to our environment exhibit such a time lag? Why should we still react like our hominid ancestors? Because, Orians argues, it is biologically “expensive” to learn – it necessitates building and maintaining a system that can learn and store memories. There can also be a price associated with not learning life’s lessons. Thus, “pre-programmed” responses can offer an advantage and help to keep us safe.

Orians tells the story of a world viewed through the eyes of our hominid ancestors. We are programmed to react to natural stimuli in a way that promotes our survival in a world that the majority of us no longer inhabit. Perhaps it doesn’t matter why we find sunrises beautiful or snakes scary, but while most of our emotional reactions pose no problem to modern living, there are some that are maladaptive. Our emotional connection with food, for instance, is resulting in an obesity epidemic; and our fear responses to animals such as snakes and lions are disproportionate compared with our reactions to modern threats such as guns and speeding cars. We are, after all, animals, and it adds a new dimension of wonderment to imagine my hominid ancestor gazing on a sunrise with the same sense of beauty and awe.

Snakes, Sunrises, and Shakespeare: How Evolution Shapes our Loves and Fears

By Gordon H. Orians
University of Chicago Press, 224pp, £21.00
ISBN 9780226003238 and 3375 (e-book)
Published 23 April 2014

Times Higher Education free 30-day trial

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

Monster behind man at desk

Despite all that’s been done to improve doctoral study, horror stories keep coming. Here three students relate PhD nightmares while two academics advise on how to ensure a successful supervision

Sir Christopher Snowden, former Universities UK president, attacks ratings in wake of Southampton’s bronze award

opinion illustration

Eliminating cheating services, even if it were possible, would do nothing to address students’ and universities’ lack of interest in learning, says Stuart Macdonald

Female professor

New data show proportion of professors who are women has declined at some institutions

celebrate, cheer, tef results

Emilie Murphy calls on those who challenged the teaching excellence framework methodology in the past to stop sharing their university ratings with pride