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Book review: Survival of the Beautiful

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


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Satin bowerbirds decorate their bowers with all things blue. Picture by thinboyfatter.

Sometimes all you have to do to make me buy your book, is think of a good title. Survival of the Beautiful by David Rothenberg definitely did the trick. “No one ever mentions the beautiful”, I thought when I took the book from its shelf in a London book store. Not when it comes to evolution at least, where the fittest are always said to come out on top.

I took the bait, bought the book and began reading that same afternoon. Then, a few pages in, I put the book aside, irritated. “There is only one animal who makes physical, constructed works of art .. whose complexity and elaboration seem to suggest art for art’s sake”. When I first read that paragraph, I thought Rothenberg was referring to humans. He wasn’t. Rothenberg had bowerbirds on his mind.

As you might know, Australian bowerbirds don’t court their females with plumage, dance or song, but with a decorative structure made from twigs and sticks, called the bower. Male bowerbirds labour on their bowers for months, putting twigs in place and hunting for decorations, sometimes even stealing them from other bowers. The list of materials bowerbirds collect and put up on display is long. Flowers, feathers, fruits, shells, beetle carapaces, butterfly wings and even waste items such as bottle caps, coins and pieces of glass may all end up as part of a bower.

The bowerbird’s courtship ritual is certainly impressive, unique and complex, you could even call it beautiful if you’re into sticks and blues, but is it art? I thought not. Art is created with intention and care, by an artist who can later reflect upon her work. Bowerbirds don’t have this capacity. If bowerbirds are creating art, then chimpanzees banging two rocks together are doing science.

In world war I and II, navy ships were painted in camouflage that was not meant to hide, but to dazzle. This is the USS Charles S. Sperry in 1944. Image public domain

I read on. Rothenberg left his artistic bowerbirds behind, and embarked on a wild exploration of science and beauty. He skirted past colour-shifting cuttlefish and cubist camouflage, and dipped his toes into the fractal nature of Pollock paintings and bubbles that emit light when they are bombarded by sound. All these examples serve to illustrate Rothenberg’s main point, that a deeper consideration of art can enhance and improve our understanding of science. But nowhere was that message more clear and more convincing than in chapter three.

In this chapter, It could be anything, Rothenberg interviews Richard Prum, a professor of ornithology at Yale University. You might know Prum from his work on the colouration of dinosaurs. His team was the first to ever reconstruct the colour patterns of a dinosaur, using pigment-carrying microstructures in its fossil feathers. Or perhaps you have heard of Prum’s infamous research on the sex life of ducks, starring ballistic penises and corkscrew vaginas (I strongly recommend you click that link, just remember to come back aftewards!).

Prum studied bird song, until he lost his hearing after a viral infection. Forced to switch tracks, Prum turned his investigations to the colour of birds the underlying genetics instead. But whether it is in song or colour, Prum finds beauty. And not just from our lofty human perspective: he argues female birds too experience are delighted by beauty. The female peacock appreciates the gaudy feathers of her mate for what they are: beautiful.

This might seem obvious or even trivial to you, but to many biologists, it’s not. Most of Prum’s colleagues see function where he sees beauty. They argue that the traits females of a certain species prefer are indicators of male quality. By flaunting his unwieldy tail, a peacock male really is showing the ladies what a tough and fit guy he is, their reasoning goes. And when the nightingale sings his nightly song, he really is praising the quality of his sperm. By losing most of their body hair, even our own ancestors have played the quality game, according to some. In an interview with Slate Richard Dawkins once said that ‘hairlessness advertises your health to potential mates. The less hair you have on your body, the less real estate you make available to lice and other ectoparasites.’

These biologists are blinded by Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Prum tells Rothenberg, and ignore Darwin’s second theory of evolution, of sexual selection. Soon after publishing On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote to his friend Asa Gray that “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” Darwin had realized that natural selection would never explain the evolution of such ludicrous and extravagant features as the peacock’s tail. For that, he needed another mechanism altogether.

It took more than a decade after publishing the Origin, before Darwin formalized his thoughts and introduced the concept of sexual selection in a new book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. In this book, Darwin argues that when females prefer certain traits in males, and if enough generations of males face this preference, they will evolve the colourful frills, feathers or dewlaps that females appreciate. For some traits not nature, but females select. Not the fittest, but the beautiful survive.

Prum thinks biologists should take Darwin’s ideas about sexual selection at face value, and not dress it up as yet another variation of natural selection. He stresses that the sexually selected trait is arbitrary. It can literally be anything. Maybe it’s a wild mane or a complex song, but as long as the laws of physics, chemistry and function allow it, beauty will evolve in unexpected ways and places.

Still Life with Shells, by Adriaen Coorte (1697)

It is in this arbitrariness that the art world of animals and humans converge. Human art ranges from the realistic paintings of Dutch masters to upturned urinals. What survives and what not, what is beautiful and what not, depends on the back story, on culture and on history. The appreciation of the art or trait is what matters, whether that appreciation has cultural or genetic roots. Sexual selection and aesthetic selection are two sides of the same coin.

This quote from Richard Prum really nailed it down for me:

“Evolutionary biology is not about form and function exclusively, but about historicity, development and structure. These are exactly the kinds of concerns that somebody who studies Dickens should have: what was Dickens like as a boy and how did that affect his work. [...] Not about, ‘Oh, Dickens wrote this book so he could have more money so he could attract hotter chicks and have more fitness.’ That is a nonexplanation of his output. It’s ridiculous for literature, and it’s as ridiculous for life itself!”

And so Rothenberg comes back to the bowerbird. His bower is a sculpture devoid of utility. Its architecture and decorations have but one purpose: to be seen. To be beautiful. To be judged by a critical, female audience. Their work is as much embedded in an evolutionary history of bower makers, and cannot be understood without that history. L’art pour l’art, the bowerbirds just got there first.

Now let’s suppose Rothenberg and Prum are right. Suppose the human and animal art worlds really do evolve along similar trajectories, towards arbitrary beauty, what would this view bring us? For one, it would expose adaptive just-so-stories for what they are: stories. Not function, but beauty should be the null hypothesis, the baseline assumption, for testing any hypothesis about the evolution of a sexually selected trait. Bowers are beautiful until proven functional.

Survival of the Beautiful contains many more tantalizing dialogues and crossovers between art and science, but I found the argument outlined above to be the most compelling and persuasive. It was also the easiest for me to follow, coming from a scientific background. The chapters about aesthetics, abstraction, rhythm and form bigger posed a bigger challenge, whereas I felt Rothenberg strays on the lighter side of science a little too often.

“I am a bad explainer, mediocre storyteller, but an enthusiastic reveler”, Rothenberg confesses in the final chapter of his book. But revel he did. While Survival of the Beautiful might not be the definitive book about art and science, it is certainly one of the most pleasant and inviting. And what I appreciate above all else: Survival of the Beautiful made me think.

Why is that birds seem so much more attuned to beauty than us mammals? What happens when beauty crosses the species barrier, and we suddenly find ourselves enjoying a whale song? I sense there’s science out there that needs doing. There must be more revelers with enquiring minds out there. Get to it!


Afterthoughts:
More than any other book I read in the past few months, Survival of the Beautiful seems like a book that would lean itself to digital distribution. Not just because of the numerous pieces of art that are discussed and now displayed in dreary grays, but also because all the major players in the book came together on a conference organized by Rothernberg. You can find the lectures held on this conference here.
For those of you who are interested by Richard Prum’s theory of aesthetic selection, I have embedded his lecture below:

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Lucas Brouwers About the Author: Lucas Brouwers is fascinated by evolution. He writes about science on his blog and for a Dutch daily newspaper. Follow on Twitter @lucasbrouwers.

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





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