Biology & Beauty

How Evolution Gave Us an Eye for Design

Our world is flooded by visual content—ads, social media feeds and online videos dominate a large portion of what we view daily.

But, with all that we observe, we rarely stop to marvel at the mechanism through which we appreciate the world around us: our eyes. Why do we “see”? How did such a remarkable structure come to be? And, why are we so drawn to aesthetics?

Many have asked these questions, but few have provided answers more elegant, or persuasive, than Charles Darwin. From the evolutionary perspective, the human eye is no more than the latest interpretation of an advantageous biological blunder.

A Happy Accident

To better understand this idea, we must travel back to a time long before mammals ruled the world. Roughly 3.8 billion years ago, the most complex earthly beings were oceanic bacteria. Blind and unaware of the beauty around them, our earliest ancestors lived and died in darkness.

This was the case for millions of years. Until, while duplicating its DNA, one of these primordial bacteria made a mistake. Normally, such an error would result in a feeble or impaired copy—but not this time. Instead, the duplicate bacterium grew quite a remarkable blemish, within it a light-sensitive protein cell that—though modest—would prove itself revolutionary.

The upper hand dealt to our lucky bacteria made it more suited to its environment. This allowed it to flourish, slowly overthrowing its competition and sparking a biological arms race. The eyes you’re now using to read this post are a product of that ongoing struggle for superiority. Nature’s simplicity can often give rise to complexity, if provided enough time.

Why We See Beauty

We know evolution birthed the power of sight. But, what role did it play in shaping our love of beauty?

Think about the mix of emotions you feel while appreciating the visual world: awe, wonder, intrigue and inspiration. Well, we can also tie these sensations back to evolutionary threads.

Our response to aesthetics developed, through countless generations, to aid in our survival. In essence, the beauty we see in everything from colours to animals is a byproduct of our species’ cumulative life experience.

Take the colour green, for instance. For many, it represents majestic, life-giving nature—and rightfully so.

Thousands of years before the industrial age, our ancestors relied on and even worshiped the natural world. It’s no surprise then that seeing the colour green can stir these long rooted correlations.

Profitable Evolution

Both our skills at making symbolic connections, as well as our undeniable aptitude for pattern recognition are often leveraged in the world of design. An example of this application can be seen employed by the Royal Bank of Canada. Who, since 1962, have used the abstract representation of a lion as their logo. An animal revered by humans for millennia and regarded by many as the “king of its domain”.

From Mind to Eye

Yes, our brain, built and fostered by evolution, generates powerful emotional and mental responses to the aesthetic world. But, even with our advanced cognitive abilities, no visual connections could be drawn or taken advantage of without eyes through which to see them.

So, the next time you look at a particularly moving design, you’ll know who to thank: your long-lost bacterial cousin who made a small copying error more than three billion years ago.