“The peacock’s tail,” said Charles Darwin, “makes me sick.”
That’s because the theory of evolution as adaptation can’t explain why nature is so beautiful.
Really, does the peacock’s tail have to be that beautiful? Do butterfly wings need such brilliantly varied patterns? Do seashells need such exquisite architecture and patterning to house a small crawling creature? Does a spider really need to spend all night spinning such silken symmetry? And don’t get me started on flowers…
Nature’s nature is to be excessive when it comes to design, and there’s nothing random about it. The beauty of nature is not arbitrary, even if random mutation has played a role in evolution.
Divinely Superfluous Beauty
The storm-dances of gulls, the barking game
Over and under the ocean …
Divinely superfluous beauty
Rules the games, presides over destinies,
makes trees grow
And hills tower, waves fall.
The incredible beauty of joy
Stars with fire the joining of lips, O let our
Be joined, there is not a maiden
Burns and thirsts for love
More than my blood for you, by the shore of seals
while the wings
Weave like a web in the air
Divinely superfluous beauty.
– Robinson Jeffers
Robinson Jeffers’ luscious poem eased its way back into my memory this morning when I read Deborah Barlow‘s post Useless Beauty on her blog Slow Muse. I’m grateful for her permission to share it here – for the benefit of those of us who might be in need of an awe-and-wonderment recharge.
Who needs a peacock’s tail when you can build this for your lady love?
The bower created by a male bowerbird.
David Rothenberg is a jazz musician and a professor of philosophy. He has written a number of books, several of them focused on the interface between natural sounds (like the songs of birds and whales) with jazz and other musical forms.
In his most recent and thought provoking book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution Rothenberg moves into the visual realm, exploring how beauty fits into the current concept of Darwinian evolution. Is beauty part of natural selection? Can its abundance in nature truly be explained by sexual selection?
Rothenberg makes a strong case for aesthetic selection. Beauty as a determiner. This is a delicious thought.
One of Rothenberg’s prime examples is the bowerbird. Each species creates a very particular style of bower, an undertaking that is extremely arduous. Amazingly, these structural—and very sculptural—creations are not nests nor are they used for anything “practical.” They are extravagant expressions designed to please the eye of the female bowerbird.
In many ways they seem to defy evolution since their sole purpose is to look good. But Rothenberg suggests that birds have their own aesthetic, similar to human “schools” of art, like abstract expressionism or cubism. And looking at the photographs of bowers below, how can anyone not think of our own human bowerbird, Andy Goldsworthy?
From the book:
The female satin bowerbirds do choose their mate after what they see in the bower and what they take in from the song and dance. But are they really evaluating the quality of their mate? Modern sexual selection theory says what they are looking for is good genes, while Darwin’s original sexual selection theory focused only on what the females like. Look what he has created — an artwork with style and substance, something no animal besides humans is known to do. Are we to brush all this effort off as a sign or a code for something more mundane and hidden? What if bowerbirds attract, mate and procreate for the propagation of bowers, not offspring? Look at the process as an example of aesthetic selection…
[These are] not structures to live in, but for the females to admire. They are built to be one thing — beautiful.
Rothenberg goes to to say that he does not believe evolution as we know it can explain art, but “a deeper consideration of art can enhance our understanding of evolution.”
He also writes this memorable line:
I believe our understanding of nature increases if we spend more time wondering about all this useless beauty.
Below, a sampling of different bowerbird offerings:
Slow Muse – Useless Beauty