Food, Sex, and Art: An Essentialist View

Paul Bloom argues that what humans find pleasurable can be linked to evolutionary adaptations such as the desire for sex, fat, salt, warmth, social bonds and stimulation and also to beliefs about the essential nature of things. The essentialist states that things are treated the way they are for deep, underlying reasons. These essential views are sometimes irrational. Like our unspoken belief in magic.

Food and PleasureBloom sees both evolutionary forces, such as the drive to consume protein and calories, as well as cultural factors in our choice of foods. Aversions to food tend to be formed around the former illness or are especially linked to food that derives from animals–either meat or foods such as cheese. This hints at a biological, evolutionary adaptation to avoid poison or being sickened by eating rotten flesh.

Cultural preferences often reflect deeper choices than might at first be evident. For instance, the desire for purity runs underneath the American propensity to buy bottled water, even when that water cannot be distinguished by taste tests or even by tests of actual impurities. It is the essential concept of purity that makes the bottled water valuable. Similarly, pate cannot be distinguished in taste tests from ground dog food, but the idea of dog food is disgusting to most. As Bloom writes, “sensation is always colored by our beliefs, including our beliefs about essences.”

Sex and Pleasure

In a sixteen page article DeLameter and Hyde attempt to distinguish the essentialist from the social constructionist view of sexuality. Social constructionism implies that sexuality (and hence the pleasure we get from sexuality) is “created by culture.” Whereas the essentialist view looks at sexual response as deriving not just from evolutionary adaptations but also from essential views about what is and is not sexually pleasurable.

The idea of sex with a sibling is universally viewed as inherently disgusting, while men everywhere find virgins sexually alluring. Bloom notes the evolutionary value of men having sex with virgins in order to ensure they are raising genetic offspring. Similarly, genetics warns us away from those closely related to us to avoid inheritable diseases. These concepts are deeply embedded in the psyche, essentially so.

Belief in Magic and in Specialness

Rational twenty-first century humans may say they do not believe in magic, but our actions belie our words. People act as if a magic essence imbues objects. Clothing that has been touched by celebrities is worth more unlaundered, for example. Humans also seem to believe in negative essences, or curses. Homes owned by murderers are shunned. The history of an object adds (or subtracts) from it’s essential value.

Other things are deemed worth more because of their specialness. Objects such as security blankets are treated like individuals by children. Like an individual, they are seen as irreplaceable. A replacement pair of shoes is acceptable to most children, but a replacement security blanket, or mother, is not.

Music, Stories and Art: Evolutionary Adaptation and Essence

Music has been explained as an adaptation that allowed humans to form social groups more easily and to coordinate group efforts, such as hunts. As a social bond, music is the glue that binds each individual generation together. Similarly, listening to stories is adaptive. Stories instruct, entertain, and allow us to empathize with others, all valuable for forging social bonds. We enjoy stories in part due to “alief” according to Bloom. Alief refers to the fact that our primitive brains are not good at distinguishing fantasy from reality. Although we have the belief that the hero will survive unscathed, our alief makes us wince when the pendulum swings too close to his chest. Alief is what makes thrillers thrilling.

The value of art does not lie in merely pleasing the eye, but on the essence the piece is believed to possess. That is why forgeries are far less valuable. When the magic history is stripped from the piece of art, often it is rendered all but worthless. If art were truly about beauty alone, a good forgery should be worth as much as the original. But logic and essence are again at odds.

Essentialism and Mental Heuristics

Another odd finding about art is that we tend to like pieces we have seen reproduced in magazines or textbooks. Familiar pieces are more popular. This fits in with a notion called the “familiarity heuristic,” the finding that in general, humans find familiar things more pleasing. Surprisingly, Bloom does not use the term “heuristics” in his book. However, research on mental constructs, or mental heuristics, fits the essentialist view of pleasure quite well.

A mental short cut ,or heuristic, is a neurological explanation of the very philosophical construct that Bloom discusses. Heuristics have been found to help humans make quick decisions. These mental short-cuts underlie the way we categorize people. We use a “caricature heuristic” to pigeonhole people quickly. In the example of sexual attraction above, a virgin gets a wink and a nod, while a sibling a disgusted rejection.

Similarly, Bloom’s description of the pleasure we have in special objects fits in well with the notion of a “scarcity heuristic.” Humans value things for no other reason, it appears, than that they are rare, despite their practical value. After all, Elvis’s sweater would keep you no less warm than one from a catalog, but one is far more valuable.

Humans value things because, Bloom purports, things have an essence, an essential psychological and philosophical spirit. Those things we enjoy most possess a special essence, made more valuable by its association with something positive, or by its unique history. Food, sex, security blankets and art are not immune to these irrational, but deeply seated beliefs. Is it all “essential nonsense”? Or is it part of what makes us uniquely human?