What Mechanical Watches Have In Common With Cheesecake, Pornography, And Stone Age Hand Axes
What do mechanical watches, the arts, Stone Age axes, pornography, and cheesecake all have in common? Harvard professor Steven Pinker has an interesting idea.
As you are visiting Watchonista it’s a safe bet that you like mechanical watches. Do you also like cheesecake? You should. Because mechanical watches and cheesecake have a lot in common, as do watches with pornography and Stone Age hand axes. I do have an explanation for these seemingly bizarre statements.
In his book How The Mind Works, experimental psychologist, and Harvard professor Steven Pinker proposes, what has become known as the Cheesecake Hypothesis.
Pleasure Circuits and the Cheesecake Hypothesis
Pinker maintains that evolution blessed the human mind with many different features, including what he calls pleasure circuits.
One way to stimulate the pleasure circuits says Pinker is “via the senses.” He theorizes that: “A fitness promoting environment,” by which he means anything that charges those pleasure circuits, “Gives off patterns of sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and feels that the senses are designed to register.”
Then he segues into lyrical prose about the pleasure producing qualities of strawberry cheesecake.
“We enjoy strawberry cheesecake but not because we evolved a taste for it. We evolved circuits that give us trickles of enjoyment from the sweet taste of ripe fruit, the creamy mouthfeel of fats and oils from nuts and meat, and the coolness of fresh water. Cheesecake packs a sensual wallop unlike anything in the natural world because it is a brew of megadoses of agreeable stimuli which we concocted for the express purpose of pressing our pleasure buttons.”
I have to admit, I never thought of cheesecake as walloping anything, but what Pinker is getting at is obvious from his next sentence:
“Pornography is another pleasure technology…I will suggest that the arts are a third.”
That’s reassuring! A Harvard professor, and bestselling author, says that the arts, like pornography, are a pleasure technology. All that time you spend on Pornhub is really a warmup session for your next trip to a museum! Okay, he doesn’t actually say that, but he does describe music as “auditory cheesecake.”
By now it should be clear where I’m going with this. The mechanical watch, like art, cheesecake, and pornography, juices the pleasure circuits.
We experience and appreciate mechanical watches with our senses as we do great paintings and sculptures. When interacting with a watch, we delight our sense of sight with a glimpse at the dial. A pleasure that increases as our eyes follow the sweep of a seconds hand. Or stare at a date window until midnight when the numerals snap into tomorrow. Or are lucky enough to catch the beguiling return to zero of a retrograde hand.
If your watch has a display caseback, or you observe a movement through the opened back of a pocket watch, your pleasure circuits surge as you detect the manifestations of the watch’s energy: the rocking of the pallet fork repeatedly arresting then releasing the escape wheel, the exhilarating swings of the balance wheel, and the lung-like expansion and contraction of the balance spring.
And while the rhythmic tic of pallet fork jewels striking the escape wheel metal rates as only the simplest of music, for many a watch lover that sound is calorie-laden auditory cheesecake.
Smell and Taste
What about our senses of smell and taste?
What about them? You can’t smell the Sistine Chapel ceiling or taste the Mona Lisa, but both hit the pleasure circuits with the force of an eighteen-wheeler careening downhill after complete brake failure.
The sense of touch is, perhaps, most involved with our pleasure circuits and watches. Before you strap on a watch maybe you feel your way around the outer edge of the case rubbing the crystal with your thumb while your fingers caress the sides and the back. You’re not touching you’re fondling – something that’s impossible to do with the Sistine Chapel ceiling and the Mona Lisa.
Once the watch is on your wrist, it feels comfortable and reassuring. Your fingers might stroke the watch’s strap or bracelet just to experience a tiny spark of recognition.
I am not saying that watches are art or pornography. That’s an argument for another day. I am saying that watches, like art and pornography, reach the same parts of our being. Thank you, Professor Pinker.
Moving on to Stone Age axes.
Stone Age Axes
Ask just about anyone what the oldest works of art in the world are, and the answer is the cave paintings of Lascaux and Chauvet. They are about 32,000 years old. Another academic, the late Denis Dutton, disagreed.
Dutton was a professor of philosophy at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand. For the title of Oldest-Works-Of-Art-In-The-World, Dutton championed Acheulian hand axes.
For those of us who do not have PhDs in archeology or anthropology, most Acheulian axes are thin stone blades fashioned into leaf or teardrop forms. Although named for an archaeological site near the French village of Saint Acheul, these stone axes have been found throughout Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. More importantly, Acheulian hand axes are estimated to be 1.4 million years old. Considering their age, Dutton and others believe that human ancestral groups such as Homo ergaster and Homo erectus shaped many of the axes.
In a 2009 New York Times article Dutton argues, “The sheer numbers of hand axes indicate a rate of manufacture beyond needs for butchering animals. Even more curious, unlike other prehistoric stone tools, hand axes often exhibit no evidence of wear on their delicate blade edges, and some are in any case too big for practical use. They are occasionally hewn from colorful stone materials (even with decoratively embedded fossils). Their symmetry, materials and above all meticulous workmanship makes them quite simply beautiful to our eyes. What are these ancient yet somehow familiar artifacts for?”
As Dutton’s op-ed explains, “The best available explanation is that they are literally the earliest known works of art – practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects, contemplated both for their elegant shape and virtuoso craftsmanship.”
Again, I am not saying that watches are works of art, but I will fiercely insist that “their symmetry, materials, and…meticulous workmanship makes them…beautiful to our eyes.”
Just as fiercely, I will insist that watches are “practical tools transformed into captivating aesthetic objects, contemplated both for their elegant shape and virtuoso craftsmanship.”
To extrapolate from Dutton’s ideas, we are hardwired by evolution to appreciate good craftsmanship. Mechanical watches are examples of aesthetic objects created by craft and still available to all of us.
Will we ever witness the demise of mechanical timepieces? No, not until humans stop enjoying cheesecake and pornography. And who would want to live in that kind of world anyway?