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Survival of the Beautiful

Getting Over the Behaviorist Hangover


Courage, pugnacity, perseverance, strength and size of body, weapons of all kinds, musical organs, both vocal and instrumental, bright colors and ornamental appendages, have all been indirectly gained by the one sex or the other, through the exertion of choice, the influence of love and jealousy, and the appreciation of the beautiful …

– Charles Darwin, 1871, The Descent of Man

Plato considered beauty to be so important that he enshrined it as one of the three objective values, which transcended individual foibles. Plato’s triumvirate of beauty, truth, and goodness was influential for some time.

In the modern era, a more relativist view has become dominant. In this view, all values are ultimately subjective and there is nothing inherent in nature that reflects things such as beauty, truth, or goodness. Rather, these values emerge at the human level of complexity.

As with many intellectual trends, however, the modern era has gone a bit too far in its relativism. It is undeniable that values in general are relative and subjective. But to conclude, as is often argued today, that all such values are entirely emergent with human consciousness or culture – that is, not present at all at lower levels of complexity – is unwarranted.

With respect to beauty, there is a growing awareness that even though determinations of beauty in particular cases shall remain entirely subjective, there is indeed a movement toward beauty in all animals and perhaps in all things.

The somewhat misleading phrase that captures this truth in biology is “sexual selection.” Sexual attraction is indeed its primary mechanism, but we can infer, through the observed behaviors of animals, and even in plants at a far more rudimentary level, that there is an appreciation for beauty that goes beyond sex itself.

This is a controversial area, partly because of what I call “the behaviorist hangover.” Behaviorism held sway in much of the 20th Century and its proponents argued that we shouldn’t infer thoughts/feelings in animals or even other humans. Rather, we should stick entirely to observed behaviors and avoid explanations that rely on inferred mental states.

This view has rightly been refuted not only because it is de-humanizing but because anyone who has a pet or is around non-human animals for much time knows full well that other animals have rich inner lives, mood states, preferences, etc.

Even though behaviorism has been largely rejected there is still a tendency in many scientists and other intellectuals today to denigrate reasonable inferences about mental and emotional states.

Do animals truly appreciate beauty? This is a good debate. Darwin believed that other animals have a keen sense for beauty, as the opening quote shows. Many of today’s biologists would take a different view. David Rothenberg argues in his book Survival of the Beautiful that they do indeed, and that a movement toward beauty is important at many different levels in the animal kingdom. Rothenberg’s book was inspired by the finding that the complex nightingale’s song shows a very similar structure to the humpback whale’s song. Why would this be the case? Well, that’s one of the topics tackled in this immensely interesting book.

Rothenberg suggests that “beauty selection” would be a more accurate term than “sexual selection.” I like this suggestion very much and it makes me happy to think that the animal world, and possibly the universe more generally, is indeed a movement toward beauty. I’ve speculated a bit about the place of beauty in the universe universe (“A Science of Beauty,” Part I and Part II) and was happy to find that thinkers like Rothenberg are also helping to blaze this necessary trail.

I had the privilege of interviewing Rothenberg by email.

What do you mean by the phrase “survival of the beautiful”? What inspired you to write this book, the latest in a series of books on art in nature

We tend to think that evolution means survival of the fittest, but that’s only part of the story. Charles Darwin remarked that the peacock’s tail “made him sick,” because he couldn’t explain it by natural selection alone. He had to uncover the process of sexual selection where some traits survive just because one sex prefers it in the other, just because they like it. That’s how we get survival of the weird, the cool, the extreme, the strange and seemingly useless in nature. Sometimes the beautiful survives just because the females like it. (That’s the way it usually works in nature, but sometimes it goes the other way around … )

How did you come to study art in nature, sexual selection, and music (some of which is inspired by your study of bird and whale song)?

I wanted to combine my interest in the beautiful music that nature has evolved with a larger sense of the role of beauty in nature, so I decided to consider the visual as well, about which so much more has been written. Plus, I was intrigued by the fact that a sped-up humpback whale song sounds so much like a nightingale song, and these creatures are not at all related to one another. Might nature have some kind of absolute standard of beauty, rather than the arbitrariness that evolution likes to talk about? On this topic, there is much more written on the visual than the aural.

Why did it take so long for biology to come to terms with Darwin’s ideas on sexual selection? And why do most biologists still refuse to take Darwin seriously when he talks about birds and other animals having a sense for aesthetics?

That is a great question. One reason is that science is suspicious of qualities in nature that seem like they might not be useful, efficient, or practical. Most biologists today consider sexual selection, the evolution of beauty, to be a subset of natural selection, the evolution of practical traits. They want to say that the beautiful is practical, but Darwin didn’t believe that aesthetics should be so pigeonholed. I profile the work of Richard Prum, one of few biologists who think that beauty in evolution should be studied on its own terms.

It’s struck me as very odd, for a while now, that sexual selection is classified by modern biologists as a type of natural selection. Darwin proposed sexual selection, in his 1872 book, The Descent of Man, primarily to explain things that he felt natural selection couldn’t explain. So if sexual selection works at cross-purposes to natural selection in most cases, how is it logical to classify sexual selection as a type of natural selection?

It really doesn’t work at cross-purposes, but in addition to natural selection. It explains why some features evolve that seem extravagant, not efficient. It is important for us to realize that nature is not engineered for practicality, but has evolved upon a mix of practicality and caprice.

Darwin is famous for making the statement that the peacock’s tail made him sick because natural selection couldn’t explain it. Natural selection would, rather, suggest a far smaller and more maneuverable tail. But sexual selection has nevertheless favored larger and ungainly tails. So isn’t this a clear example (with thousands more readily available) of sexual selection working at cross-purposes to natural selection?

In that sense you are right, sexual selection does work against natural selection. But mainstream biology doesn’t admit that. The average textbook says that, even if a trait looks impractical, it really does indicate good genes and good health. Yet Richard Prum argues, and I take up his argument in Survival of the Beautiful, that there really is little evidence for that view, and the arbitrariness of sexually selected traits should be taken more seriously. He, and Darwin, tend to take the arbitrariness a bit too seriously; I’m also interested in the idea that there are certain natural tendencies in aesthetics, nothing too simple or easy, but certain vague rules at work beneath everything, as I mentioned to you earlier.

It also seems to me that the reticence to accept sexual selection in the terms that Darwin proposed it - based on a feeling for beauty among all creatures, to varying degrees - relates to the behaviorist movement in the first half of the 20th Century, which literally denied any type of mind or subjectivity to animals and, often, to humans too. Are we still in a behaviorist hangover?

Darwin certainly didn’t consider animals to be mindless nonsubjects … you may have a point, but I don’t think that most of us are in a behaviorist hangover, though certainly plenty of biologists are!

You mention many times in your book what I call “principles of beauty,” similar perhaps to the “laws of form” championed by Darcy Thompson and other biologists who have tried to describe the underlying structures that guide biological forms. The idea is that sexual selection may not be entirely arbitrary and, instead, be based ultimately on physical and chemical principles that guide biology - or perhaps there are even deeper principles of beauty that all organisms tap into. I’ve proposed some principles of beauty, and I’m curious what you think of the effort to develop principles of beauty in a scientific manner, through hypothesis and data, as I suggest in my essay?

You’re definitely on to something, but in my book I caution against putting too much weight on symmetry and elegance alone. Nature always has a certain amount of inexactness, and surprising messiness as well … check out all those references I talk about in Chapter Four; I don’t trust any such list that is too simple or claims to be comprehensive. The answer is in the details: in the mathematics of Wolfram and the chemistry and physics that Philip Ball talks about. Probably his trilogy on shape and pattern is the best book on the subject in my opinion.

I certainly agree that symmetry is just one of many principles of beauty, though it does seem to be an important one. Why is symmetry attractive to us and other animals, as well as, apparently, nature more generally?

I think symmetry is one of those features of nature determined by mathematics, chemistry, and physics, principles beneath sexual selection and the whims of evolution. I find Philip Ball’s writing in Shapes to be the most helpful in understanding this.

You have a very eclectic background, including in music. You’ve literally recorded music with whales and birds. Can you describe your process for engaging in this inter-species creative process?

I’ve been asked this question many times in interviews all over the world, and it’s the one question my answer never seems to satisfy. I clam up and don’t know what to say, retreating into cautious defense. “Of course I don’t know what the whale is feeling, so how can I know what I feel … ” I’m immediately suspicious of people who claim a deep connection with whales the minute they look into the giant animal’s eye, or feel his deep chant reverberate through sound waves under the sea. “I knew,” they say, “the animal had something deeply important to say to me,” and they sigh with reverence.

When I’m playing with whales I’m never sure of anything, being so wrapped up in the music and trying to play in a unique way halfway between human and cetacean. First of all, it’s a strange technological process. I’m playing my clarinet onboard a boat into a microphone that’s plugged into an underwater speaker, so the notes I play are being broadcast out into the soundworld of the whales. Then I’m wearing headphones which are attached to an underwater microphone, called a hydrophone, which is listening live to the underwater sound environment, which includes the singing whale and my deep sea burbling clarinet, altogether. It’s kind of like a recording studio where each player is isolated in a separate booth, except one booth is the whole ocean with a 40-foot whale in it, singing the one song he needs to know.

Why even try such a stunt? To make music that can be made no other way. As a jazz musician, I know how exciting it is to jam with a musician who can’t speak my language, but can make sense of my music as I play along with theirs. It’s astonishing to realize this can also work with other species – from birds, to bugs, and even to humpback whales, the animal with the longest, most moving music in the natural world, a sound that can be heard underwater from ten miles away, a song with clear melodies, phrases, rhythms, and parts that takes the whale 20 minutes to sing before he starts the cycle over again, in performances that last up to 23 hours.

Playing along with a whale, wearing headphones and listening to the strange reverberations of underwater sound where you can’t tell where any sound is coming from because there is no sense of stereo space, is a kind of out-of-body experience, thrusting the human sound of a clarinet into a world where it doesn’t really belong, because there’s no way a clarinet could be blown underwater. What use is a whale song in our human world? It reminds us that we are not the only musicians on Earth, and that if we want to understand the natural world beyond our narrow human concerns, we have to listen to and appreciate the full range of animal musics that have been on this planet for millions of years before humans ever got here. It’s a very humbling feeling.

So I don’t jam along with whales to make me feel special, but to make music that is special. Half-human and half-whale? Perhaps no one’s gonna like it!

Maybe not at first. Most of the time the whales are not interested. But every once in a while, when the sea is calm and one great beast is right under the boat, so close that his moans can be felt right through the hull, then sometimes he changes his song when he hears what I play. At those moments I feel a true sense of awe, that music is something really big. Bigger than our whole species, something written right into the fabric of all life whose beauty is far beyond our ability to explain, or even feel, its purpose. Touching a piece of the melody of the universe, it’s no longer about me at all, but something I feel privileged to be a tiny part of.

You write that your book was inspired by the discovery that a slowed-down mockingbird song has pretty much the same structure as a whale song. This is remarkable, but what does it mean? Is it coincidence, or is there really a deep structure to art/creativity that can span the yawning gap between a whale and a mockingbird?

It means there are principles of order at work beneath the whims of sexual selection, and we don’t really know why.

In terms of sexual selection and the “survival of the beautiful,” what does the mockingbird song mean to the female mockingbird (only the male mockingbirds sing)? I know we can’t ever know with certainty, but what do you think it feels like to be a female mockingbird hearing the song?

We don’t really know … we believe the male sings to attract the attention of females, but there isn’t much evidence that the females are paying attention, or that anyone is paying attention, and no clear reason that birds like nightingales, mockingbirds, thrashers, butcherbirds, and shama thrushes need such exceedingly complicated songs.

The possibility for extremely complicated and beautiful sexually selected traits is out there, and sometimes it cuts through the constraints of sexual selection.

Last, what do you think of efforts to get animals to create art with human help, like the elephants who formerly worked in the timber industry in India who have been re-trained to paint self-portraits and other such efforts?

I have a chapter on this in Survival of the Beautiful.. I much prefer the more abstract efforts of the elephant Siri in the Syracuse Zoo (as depicted in the wonderful book To Whom It May Concern) than I do those elephants who can paint realistic pictures of elephants. There are some good abstract elephant painters in Thailand as well, but my bias is that art made by animals should look new and different, and teach us humans something unexpected, rather than showing us just what we want to see.

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