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Survival of the Beautiful

Art, Science and Evolution

David Rothenberg

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Maybe evo has two strands - survival of the fittest, and survival of the most interesting. Better idea than trying to suggest that all beauty is a result of arbitraryt accidents.

Different bowers constructed by different species of bowerbirds. The satin bowerbird collects long twigs and arranges them in two rows, and then decorates both the walls and floor. Some use crushed berries and bark to paint the walls, and add blossoms or feathers, particularly blue items if possible. MacGregor's bowerbird starts with a small sapling which he strips of branches and leaves, then piles twigs up around it like a maypole, and then decorates. The golden bowerbird starts with two smallish trees, links them with a cross branch then decorates with twigs and flowers. A male bowerbird raised in isolation will not build a substantial bower - they need to see examples of ones built by successful males.

Many birds sing, and some sing long and incredibly complex melodies. Author argues that sexual selection is not enough to explain the intricacy of these songs - females clearly have a preference for the 'beauty' of the song, not just its length or volume.

Most biologists argue that the peacock's tail is a signal of how strong and healthy he is. Darwin and biologist like Richard Prum suggest that it is female preference that has produced it.

Art critic Arthur Danto says that anything can be considered art today, no matter how mundane or repellant. What is impt is that the work is put forward for our contemplation. By this standard, Duchamp's Fountain is a seminal work of art bc it paved the way for art to be seen as a way for setting up a conversation about meaning. (And he says that's why Art needs critics like him to explain why something matters.)

So now, he says, Art is what we like, what delights us.

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(London Times)

There are meant to be two drivers of evolution: natural selection and sexual selection. But sexual selection, as David Rothenberg puts it in his engaging and important new book, 'was a slap in the face of natural selection, a challenge, a contrasting force working its own wily ways against the doctrine of efficiency and adaptation'. Darwin elaborated his thinking about sexual selection in his second great book, The Descent of Man, to account for something that troubled him greatly and that he believed could not be explained by natural selection alone - why there is so much beauty in the world.

The male peacock's tail clearly doesn't make it fitter for its environment, but it may make him fitter in the eyes of a female peacock. In sexual selection it is the female, not the environment, that decides which genes will make it to the next generation. But Darwin's second dangerous idea has proved unpopular. Most biologists are convinced that natural selection is the one true mechanism and that sexual selection can be folded into it.

An adaptive explanation of the peacock's tail tells us that the female chooses the male with the most elaborately useless tail because such excess is a sign of power and health to spare. One biologist has suggested that extravagant displays of seashells and berries in a bowerbird's nest indicate bounty and health in the male architect, while another wonders if the complexly woven nests are a kind of anti-rape structure to put the female at ease. Such contorted adaptive storytelling has encouraged some biologists to raise their heads above the parapet and question if natural selection is enough to explain all the forms we see in nature.

Rothenberg accuses the adaptationists of looking only for species that confirm their model, and ignoring the rest. When it comes to songbirds, for example, there is only spotty evidence that females choose the longest or most complex songs. Some do, some don't. By insisting on natural selection as the sole driver of evolution, biologists are forced to ignore the most interesting aspect of what they are investigating, the artefacts themselves - the art.

It was Darwin's contention that when females are in control, beauty evolves. Could it be that what the female chooses is simply what most delights her mind? Accept this and something transformative takes place: the feathers and the songs are elevated out of the external world and into the mind of an appreciating individual female. Taking Darwin seriously on sexual selection turns the biology of communication into a branch of aesthetics.

Rothenberg wants scientists to take beauty seriously: 'Scientists don't enjoy their own sense of joy and beauty enough.' Much of Survival of the Beautiful is a series of digressions into topics as various as camouflage, cave paintings, paintings made by captive elephants, and the contemporary art scene, but out of this variousness Rothenberg comes to an inspired conclusion. Aesthetic selection introduces a new kind of randomness into nature that unites art and nature, man and beast:'Perhaps what people like depends, as does aesthetic evolution, on the whims of the possible that arbitrarily catch on.'

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