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Can Science Solve–Really Solve–the Problem of Beauty?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Last summer, I wrote about my run-in with a rabid skunk, which reinforced my disbelief in a benign, all-powerful God. If such a God exists, why does He allow some people to suffer so much, through no fault of their own? Like people killed by rabies or leukemia, a tsunami or an earthquake? This is the old problem of evil. My inability to answer this riddle keeps me from adhering to Catholicism—the faith in which I was raised—or any other religion.

But I am not an atheist, either, and here’s why: The flip side of the problem of evil is the problem of beauty. If there really is no God, if the world was not in some sense designed for us, why is it so heartbreakingly lovely?

The British biologist and arch-atheist Richard Dawkins flicked at this issue in Climbing Mount Improbable (W.W. Norton, 1997). Dawkins recalled driving through the countryside with his six-year-old daughter when she enthused over some “pretty” wildflowers. When Dawkins asked what she thought wildflowers are for, the innocent child replied, “To make the world pretty, and to help the bees make honey for us.” Dawkins—bless his hyper-rational heart!—mused: “I was touched by this, and sorry I had to tell her it wasn’t so.” (I actually laughed out loud the first time I read this passage. Imagine what Dawkins would say if his daughter asked about Santa Claus!)

Dawkins pointed out that his daughter’s logic resembles that of Christian fundamentalists who claim that God created the AIDS virus to punish sinners. True enough. But Dawkins never adequately explained why nature evokes such a profound aesthetic response in us. His fellow biologist Edward O. Wilson gave it a shot. Wilson suggested that natural selection might have instilled in us a “biophilia,” or reverence for nature, that benefits both us and those creatures with which we enjoy mutually beneficial relationships. But why do we respond to so many things—butterflies, starfish, rainbows, sunsets—from which we extract no tangible, utilitarian benefit?

Another famous atheist, the physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg, eloquently explained his lack of belief in Dreams of a Final Theory (Vintage, 1994). Weinberg had no complaints about his own life. He had been “remarkably happy, perhaps in the upper 99.99 percentile.” But he had seen “a mother die painfully of cancer, a father’s personality destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease, and scores of second and third cousins murdered in the Holocaust.”

Weinberg rejected the proposition that evil is the price we pay for our God-given free will. “It seems a bit unfair for my relatives to be murdered in order to provide an opportunity for free will for the Germans,” he noted, “but even putting that aside, how does free will account for cancer? Is it an opportunity of free will for tumors?” Good questions. But then Weinberg added this line, which, like Dawkins’s recollection of how he disillusioned his daughter, made me smile: “I have to admit that sometimes nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.” Talk about an understatement!

My friend David Rothenberg, a philosopher at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, is, I think it’s fair to say, obsessed with the problem of beauty. He has been poking, prodding and pondering the problem for many years. He has trekked around the world to interview scientists who, in one way or another, study beauty (even if they shun that term) and attempt to explain it, if not explain it away. His research has led to a trilogy of marvelous books: Why Birds Sing: A Journey into the Mystery of Bird Song (Basic Books, 2006); Thousand Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound (Basic Books, 2008); and, released just last month, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution (Bloomsbury).

His new book considers not just music—in which Rothenberg, as a musician, has a special interest—but beauty in all its manifestations, and especially visual art, whether Paleolithic cave paintings or the ethereal, sculptures of bowerbirds. Rothenberg does all the things that conventional science writers do. He interviews experts in their labs and in the field, weighs the evidence for their theories, offer his assessments and so on. But he also engages with his material in utterly original ways. In an attempt to understand the music of other species, he has played his clarinet with a lyrebird in Australia and with a humpback whale in Hawaii.

Rothenberg, whom I interviewed on Saturday for, argues passionately that we are not the only species with an eye and ear for beauty and a compulsion to create. He is dissatisfied with theories that attempt to explain beauty in strictly functional, evolutionary terms, as a mere side effect of mating or communication. These theories, he asserts, do not do justice to the richness and complexity of art, whether human or inhuman. He proposes that a laughing thrush lets fly a new aria and a satin bowerbird adorns his sculpture with blue flowers not just to attract mates but for the sake of beauty itself, for the sheer joy of creation, just as human artists do.

In his new book, Rothenberg proposes that many species might be shaped by a principle that he calls “aesthetic selection.” But he doesn’t pretend that this idea solves the problem of beauty any more than sexual selection or other more mainstream hypotheses do. He’s less interested in solving the problem—in reducing it to some underlying, mechanical process—than in celebrating it. He dances around it, writes a poem about it, paints a picture of it, plays a duet with it, and he thereby illuminates the problem of beauty more than any mere theory can.

Image courtesy Bloomsbury Press.

John Horgan About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. Mathaniel 2:39 pm 11/13/2011

    Interesting subject. I would venture to say that Plato answered some of the question, symmetry answers a bit more, and the Twilight Zone answered most of the remaining issue. Why do we view our mothers as beautiful when we are children? Isn’t it because of their familarity? Isn’t it subjective in many regards, too? What else would cause such revulsion to spiders in some and such fascination in others. I agree it is not merely functional, and our desire to create beauty or to find beauty is left unexplained. Perhaps, he is right and it is best to simply celebrate it.

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  2. 2. billcole 2:49 pm 11/13/2011

    The “problem of beauty” is nonexistent for most atheisms because it is an artifact of the fundamentally religious idea that the human mind is distinct from the rest of nature. People are not outsiders who have happened upon a world full of things that coincidentally are beautiful to us, so that it seems unavoidable that it must be designed for us. The primitive ganglia of pollinating insects and our brains are expressions of similar genetics and related biochemistry, so it is no accident that a flower which has evolved to attract bees also attracts us. From quantum physics up, humans share the same principles of construction and behavior as everything else in the universe, and we are a fairly recent manifestation of those rules in a tiny region of the universe full of related outcroppings of those principles. There is no need for a designer fitting the world to our tastes, because we and our tastes are a product of the world for which they have affinities.

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  3. 3. WRinFH 3:57 pm 11/13/2011

    Mathaniel and billcode gave excellent, science-based answers. Now I’m no scientist, so I can only speak from my personal sense of logic and based on that, I would add that you seem to be contradicting yourself. On the one hand you say: “If such a God exists, why does He allow some people to suffer so much, through no fault of their own?” and you conclude that your inability to answer this ‘riddle’ keeps you from accepting religion. You then go on to ask: “If there really is no God, if the world was not in some sense designed for us, why is it so heartbreakingly lovely?” To that I’d say that just as the world appears to ‘punish’ us through no fault of our own, it can also appear to ‘reward’ us (be perceived as ‘beautiful’) through no fault of our own. Neither requires a god. It’s simply more evidence that the world is indifferent to us. It’s both beautiful and ugly, ‘cruel’ and ‘kind’. Neither requires a creator.

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  4. 4. Wilm Roget 6:12 pm 11/13/2011

    “how does free will account for cancer?”

    This argument, and its variations, reflect either simplistic understanding of the sciences, regardless of one’s degrees, or deliberate dishonesty.

    Cancers operate under exactly the same physical laws (chemistry, physics) as healthy tissue. There is not a special law of thermodynamics that covers the uptake of energy for cancer, no unique valence value for carbon atoms in proteins in cancer cells. The conditions that allow, predict, determine everything we like, appreciate, value, benefit from – also allow, predict, determine everything we do not like, including cancer, and war, etc.

    Trying to discredit the concept of free will with references to these things indicates that Weinberg is either essentially illiterate about science, or, posing a fraudulent premise in order to advance a fraudulent claim.

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  5. 5. S.E. Gould (labrat) 4:28 am 11/14/2011

    You think beauty is difficult, try love! There are obvious scientific and biochemical reasons why we should feel love but no true understanding of why it feels like *that*. Same with the feeling when seeing something beautiful, there are reasons why it should be but no reason why it should be so intense and all encompassing.

    I am an athiest for the record. But also a dualist which does help :p

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  6. 6. dudleybrooks 6:58 pm 11/14/2011

    For a discussion of the evolutionary history and value of the esthetic impulse, see Ellen Dissanayake, one of the earliest writers on that subject, at

    Full disclosure: Ellen is a personal friend — which is why I know that she is also an accomplished musician.

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  7. 7. barbhauser 7:21 pm 11/14/2011

    I am an atheist with a deep appreciation of beauty in all its forms, both in the natural world and in human creations. When I witness a glorious sunset, what I feel is not a reverence, joy, and gratitude directed toward God, but a reverence, joy, and gratitude for the sensory organs, neurons, and magnificent human brain that allows me to perceive and respond to the sunset. I think that when we perceive beauty, we are perceiving ourselves in the act of perceiving, of exercising our marvelous ability to see thousands of shades of orange, yellow, pink, and violet. This is breathtaking in and of itself; if fact, to attribute this heartbreaking loveliness to a mere creator would completely deflate the experience for me.

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  8. 8. Jerzy New 11:52 am 11/15/2011

    About beauty perception in non-humans. Indeed, birds display abilities consistent with apprecation of beauty or art, but fail any explanation of rationality. Birds not just sing to attract mate, but can be taught to recognize music of different composers. Bowerbirds not just collect bright objects, but sort them in heaps according to primary colors.

    And painting of elephants and apes is definitely appreciation of beauty. In this case we can communicate with some apes about what they feel.

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  9. 9. Jerzy New 11:54 am 11/15/2011

    Indeed, science fails to explain beauty. Why natural selection didn’t long ago eliminate humans wasting time and energy on looking at practically useless stars and wildflowers?

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  10. 10. Ehkzu 4:15 pm 11/15/2011

    John Horgan’s byline first came to my attention years ago when he wrote a diatribe about capital punishment in Scientific American. It was about as scientific as one of the Koch Brothers’ innumerable ads on behalf of that oxymoron “clean coal.”

    Here he continues to display his sophomoric grasp of science with these musings.

    On the issue of evil, the Mormon church (which I don’t belong to) gives the answer that this life is a kind of walkabout for us, which wouldn’t work if an omnipresent God kept meddling with people and events. Free will means free will–not just for me but for thee and for every other living creature, with all the universe’s inaminate matter and energy remaining equally free of divine intervention, the purpose being to let us develop souls.

    That is, God isn’t a helicopter parent; He lets his kids actually grow up instead of enslaving them to a golden umbilicus.

    So the existence of evil is neither proof of nor disproof of a God.

    The only reason I’m not an atheist, BTW, is because the word “God” is empirically undefinable. All attempts at definition simply spawn tautologies. So I don’t deny the existence of God, as atheists say they do, because I can’t parse the sentence “Do you believe in God?” You might as well ask me “Do you believe in Blibble?” So I’m an empiricist, not an atheist, and as such I find discussions of the supernatural–from astrology to the Trinity–a complete waste of time, except as, perhaps, anthropology.

    Nor is the existence of beauty any more illuminating as regards divinity. Or, rather, of our perceiving some things/events as beautiful.

    Even plants exhibit tropisms towards conditions favorable to their growth. Photosynthesizing ones grow towards light. And we feel drawn to benign environments with lush growth and clean water. We also feel drawn to potential mates that show signs of fitness not just to breed but to provide–as humans need–a long-term pair bond.

    Likewise curiosity–finding complexity and subtle connections interesting–enhances our ability to adapt to new environmental challenges and opportunities.

    But evolution doesn’t create artificial boundaries. We’ll find the shape of a sports car exciting when it emulates the shapeliness, symmetry, smoothness and energy we’ve evolved to look for in mates. We don’t “need” to react to sports cars in this manner, but Nature isn’t utilitarian–it’s blind, totally blind.

    That’s how we get things like homosexuality, which would otherwise appear counterintuitive on the face of it. It’s an accidental byproduct of vertebrate gene pools’ “need” to fully occupy ecological niches without overbreeding (thus producing sickly specimens that can’t defend their turf).

    Likewise it’s why Asians such as Indonesians continue to have epicanthic folds even though they haven’t needed them for tens of thousands of years, since their remote ancestors dwelled on the steppes of central Asia.

    So it should be no surprise that we see beauty in things that partake aesthetically of the things that gave functional purpose for our aesthetics, even when they don’t directly share in that functionality.

    None of this is rocket science. It’s just plain everyday science, so I’m flummoxed as to why a Scientific American writer/blogger would be confused about it.

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  11. 11. JRWermuth 1:33 pm 11/16/2011

    Ah John, Lovely article but you never follow through on the logic of why beauty and god should be related. I believe that it is a bit presumptuous (no hostility intended as postings often bring out the worst in folks). Santayana did a fair job of dealing with beauty in “The Idea of Beauty” (do I have the correct title?? been a long time since college 101 courses).
    What I love is the metaphysics of beauty, counterpoise eloquent with beauty and you have some interesting ideas. A friend working directly under Stephen Hawking related that Hawking felt that metaphysics were the only way that theoretical physics could move further; all of the formulas had expended their usefulness.
    Anyway, thanks for kicking up some dust in this almost aged but very active mind. Good work.

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  12. 12. Hanrahan 12:31 am 11/22/2011

    Such a lot to think about thanks -people . Someone added “love” -great addition.
    I thought after all of our endeavours ,”truth” might also come forward as an even greater mystery than beauty. How do we see when the process, according to Ehkzu is blind; just predeterminded steps and drivers. You mean mere words and categories WE have invented must limit our adventure when we have been given eyes to see and ears to hear ?
    Self limiting logic abounds: I don’t need to live in such a small stadium thanks.
    Einstein, to my mind, would not let us rest easy with this mere mechanics and lumbering logomachy. Did he not set the scene by saying that the most out there idea is that anything should be even half reasonable to us in the first place. If not god by design, were gods by mere chance. The exploring has just begun.

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  13. 13. verdai 7:13 pm 01/3/2012

    whatever this is, it is Not a problem-

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  14. 14. asasdfg456 10:12 am 04/7/2012

    Style and fashion is the necessary part of our lives and it is really an personality booming aspect. modeling

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