Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution

Darwin fails to explain fully why some evolved traits are so exquisitely alluring, finds Jon Turney

March 29, 2012




On my wall sits a framed image of a far galaxy, a simple swirl of colour and light against a starfield. There are many reasons to like it. It is a photograph taken at the Australian Astronomical Observatory by David Malin, and represents an important stage - quite recent but already superseded - in the crafting of coloured images of very distant objects. I admired it in a recent exhibition of his work, and now own it as a gift. Oh, and it is extraordinarily beautiful.

Why is this cosmic smudge so appealing? The shapes of galaxies seem the most popular of the deep space images that have saturated the media since the advent of the Hubble Space Telescope. Along with a sense of the sublime, they evoke a host of more familiar things - geometric shapes, fluid dynamics and organic forms all seem to be in there somewhere.

David Rothenberg's gaze does not rove over astronomical images, but his latest consideration of natural aesthetics ranges over pretty much every other intersection between art and science. As in his previous volumes about birdsong and whale song, he begins with productions of other species that seem to resemble human art, then assembles a wide-ranging meditation on what they might mean for us.

The first exhibits this time are bowerbirds, and the constructions that males of the species are driven to assemble for display to potential mates. These are not, in fact, beautiful to us. But Rothenberg insists that in their elaboration they show more than can be accounted for by the evolutionary algebra in play. Charles Darwin first supplemented natural selection with the idea of sexual selection - in which a trait or a behaviour in one sex is retained and enhanced down the generations because it comes to be favoured by the other. It is now the conventional biological approach to apparently "unfit" traits. It is probably true, Rothenberg agrees, as far as it goes. But it cannot explain why some evolved traits seem excessively beautiful.

He is drawn to the heterodox approach of biologist Richard Prum, who argues that the bowerbird's structures, and other things such as a peacock's tail or butterfly's wings, are partly arbitrary, partly the result of random variation under physico-chemical constraints. This notion is not incompatible with sexual selection, although Rothenberg sometimes seems to imply that it is, but opens the way for him to argue that some creatures have evolved to create what is beautiful - to them and, sometimes, to us - for its own sake.

The ensuing discussion ranges over art, abstraction, aesthetics, the differences between artistic and scientific aims, and the links between them all. There is some repetition, and a tendency to blur differences that can leave the reader wanting to make some clearer distinctions. I, for one, want to distinguish between natural beauty in clouds or a landscape and the evolved beauty that some (perhaps all) creatures exhibit. Then there is the evolution of our ability to perceive beauty, rooted in biology but shaped by culture.

That culture now includes new ways of seeing promoted by art as well as science, many of which Rothenberg samples - from Ernst Haeckel and D'Arcy Thompson to Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee and Jackson Pollock. These help to support his claims that "art is a form of knowledge and science is a thing of beauty", and that nature now looks like art, instead of the other way round. Both feed into the book's other main message, that art and science, together, matter because they allow us to see the world in new ways.

The reader is, by turns, stimulated, provoked and - perhaps - puzzled. It would be an unusual reader who agreed with everything Rothenberg suggests here, or even found all of it interesting. But there is much to ponder and a fair amount to marvel at. For all that he is a philosopher by training, Rothenberg is less interested in academic rigour than in shared delight. In that, he succeeds.

Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution

By David Rothenberg

Bloomsbury, 320pp, £14.99

ISBN 9781408828823

Published 2 February 2012

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