What is it about mountains?

One of the brief moments last week when it stopped raining long enough to take a photo.

On a recent road trip through the breathtakingly beautiful (and relentlessly cold, rainy and misty) Snowdonia national park, I was once again, like so many times before, struck by the awesome majesty of mountain ranges.
I’ve always been intrigued as to the origins of aesthetic beauty, whether manmade (music, dance, sculpture, fine art etc.) or the abundant natural beauty of this Universe we inhabit. Although any expanse of verdant countryside might be considered beautiful, why is it that when such land is extruded thousands of feet into the air to form mountains, we are filled with such powerful emotions of wonder and awe? After all, except for the fact that it’s inclined at 45 degrees or so, it’s really not so very different to the rest of the countryside.
There are different approaches to answering such questions depending on whether one is inclined to romantic, poetic, religious, or scientific explanations. Although quite partial to romantic poetry, it will come as no surprise to any who know me that it is the scientific explanations which fascinate me the most. In fact, when we adopt the scientific approach, the question changes subtly from “why is such a thing beautiful?” to “why do we humans find such things beautiful.” Posed this way, the question must surely invite an answer with evolutionary roots. That is to say there must have been a selective advantage to flooding our brains with dopamine and thus activating its reward centres, when presented with mountain scenery.
In CONNECTED, during a conversation between Peter and Isabelle about half way through the book, Peter suggests that areas of natural beauty such as mountains and lakes would have been generally better at sustaining human life than “some barren desert of a place”. The rationale is that early hominids who, by chance variations in the genes which built their brains, found themselves curiously drawn to such areas, would have survived longer and reproduced more prolifically than those who set up camp in the desert. These genes therefore became more prevalent, and our natural affinity to scenic beauty was born.
This is just my own personal hypothesis and although it seems reasonable to me, I’m not aware of any research to support it, so please don’t take it as given. Also, although the survival advantages of lakes and green grass seem evident, since this is where edible things, both animal and vegetable, tend to live, the advantage of mountains is less obvious. Perhaps it is their role in bringing rain, as warm moist air is diverted up their sides to cool and condense into clouds, or perhaps it is the fact that mountains provide a good vantage point from which to protect one’s offspring and spot edible wildlife as it makes its way across the plains below. I suppose it is just conceivable that our brains, having evolved to do other things which aided survival, just happen as a by-product to find beauty in the world around us, but personally I doubt this. Such non-adaptive by-products (exapted phenotypes) were first proposed by evolutionary biologist Stephen J Gould, who coined the term “spandrel”, but not without some criticism.
Whether better explanations will ever be found, I know that like the generations who trod this earth for hundreds of thousands of years before me, I will always be drawn to mountains, whether the cold and misty ones of Wales, the mighty snow capped peaks of the Alps, or the dramatic Tabletop Mountain rising from the tumultuous seas south of Cape Town.
What about you? Do you share this affinity or are you more of an open-plains or even a desert person? Of course, some deserts also possess a certain beauty which some might say throws a slight spanner into my explanation, but given the choice, I think most would chose an Alpine meadow – with or without the singing nuns.

2 Replies to “What is it about mountains?”

  1. I can see the evolutionary benefit of finding any landform which has an elevated vantage point beautiful as it broadens our field of vision enabling us to spot enemies and prey easier. I guess this also explains why we are always drawn to the highest point of a building on a search to find the most breathtaking view. However do you reckon we are the only species to find mountains and other landforms beautiful or in fact able to concieve the idea of beauty in the first place?

    1. Interesting question. No idea whether any other species are capable of experiencing beauty as such, but we know that similar reward centres exist in many other brains besides ours, and that this drives much of the behaviours we see throughout the animal kingdom. Ultimately the line between the apparently “automatic” behaviour of animals and the “chosen” behaviour of humans is far thinner than most of us like to admit.

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