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Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution

David Rothenberg

(Bloomsbury; US: Oct 2011)

Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution by David Rothenberg is a book full of surprises and unexpected connections.


Rothenberg opens in engaging fashion: complaining about blue plastic spoons in the Australian rainforest. He quickly learns that these spoons are not trash left by a careless tourist,  but instead are part of the home of a Bowerbird. His guide tells him “This creation is called his bower. It’s not a nest, but an artwork he builds with the hopes he can attract a female to visit it, observe his performance in and around the bower, and if he’s lucky… mating just might occur!” Rothenberg further learns that the spoons have to be blue—pink or white will not do. The guide relates “It’s not enough for our boy to build a bower. He has to decorate it with something blue. Blue flowers, blue shells, the blue feathers of rollers and parakeets…Nowadays they raid picnic tables up to ten miles away if they see readymade blue decorations.”


Bowerbirds are not the only artistic animals Rothenberg highlights. He touches on the musical nature of birds and whales and includes not only discussions on but also actual pictures of artwork created by elephants. But, perhaps, this sounds rather cutesy. And that would be misleading.


This book is about much more than elephants drawing with their trunks (not that the discussion of Siri’s artwork isn’t enjoyable and the potential ethical questions of elephant art aren’t provocative). However, Rothenberg wants to change the way we look at the world. He wants us to question the traditional relationship between art and science, he wants us to rethink Darwin, he wants us to seek out the beautiful and find it in unexpected places.


To assist us on this journey, Rothenberg identifies major threads in the book early on. First: “one thread… will be the argument that science can make better sense of beauty if it takes sexual selection more seriously as the development of taste among animals, evolution producing real preference for aesthetic traits, not practical ones”. A second is the “quest for greater admiration of nature’s beauty, believing that a more open-ended understanding of art will enable us to find more beauty out in our surrounding world”. Rothenberg also admits his thoughts are not the norm and that the main tenets of this book are “in marked contrast to most recent books on art and nature, which expect science to explain too much”.


As the title suggests, much of the book relates to evolution, and Rothenberg notes “Evolution is the greatest idea we have to make sense of the moving march of life, but often it is misunderstood. We imagine that it explains more than it does.” Rothenberg further suggests that natural selection is often oversimplified and wonders if Darwin would have been wiser to call it aesthetic selection. Not surprisingly, then, Rothenberg has a chapter titled “Only the Most Fascinating Survive” and also suggests that art can deepen our understanding of evolution.


None of these are easy points to prove, however, particularly considering art’s place in the modern world. According to Rothenberg, “Human art has been called frivolous, essential, the best any culture can produce, and (less often) necessary” and makes it seem unfortunate that more scientists don’t see the connections between art and science. Rothenberg tries to illustrate the connections; he includes a “pastel drawing of the ribbon protein triosephosphate isomerase”, thoroughly discusses the relationships between nature, art and camouflage, and cites (rather extensively) Richard Prum, professor of ecology at Yale University and curator of birds at the Peabody Museum, who believes “that beauty has gotten short shrift in our study of evolution”. 

Still, when Rothenberg asked scientists “whether art had truly influenced science [they] said in general no…”.  Rothenberg did not seem dissuaded by this and asked (and answered) another question: “So what can art really offer science, which has different criteria for charting what matters? Perhaps an alternate way of knowing the world”. This, too, seems to be a main theme in the book.


Survival of the Beautiful is meant to be persuasive. Just in case the audience misses this, Rothenberg provides a gentle nudge—after revealing that Prum “is one of the few top-level scientists” who believes that beauty is important in the study of evolution – he states: “I hope that after you finish reading this book, there will be a few more”.

All points aside, and Rothenberg makes many (such as the Abbott Thayer paintings that help connect nature, art, and the military by exploring the ways in which each uses camouflage or the game FoldIt that allows users to “figure out how complex proteins might be folded and visualized”), Rothenberg’s prose can exhibit a wonderful charm and playfulness.  Consider his thought that “Life is far more interesting than it needs to be, because the forces that guide it are not merely practical” or that “Most poetry sucks, because poetry is hard” or even “With greater abstraction may come greater fun”.


At times, though, the book may not be as accessible as Rothenberg intended. Figure 55, for example, illustrates a human brain contemplating Mondrian. One section of the text discusses a mathematical equation used to quantify aesthetics: “aesthetic measure equals order divided by complexity”, and another section references a book called Cephalopod Behavior. To be fair, Rothenberg’s own title for that section (“Hiding Ingenuity, or Think Like a Squid”) is more engaging.


Most conversations about evolution seem to end up offending someone, and certainly much of what Rothenberg writes may be seen as controversial, but it just seems hard to argue with Rothenberg’s final thoughts. He ends Survival of the Beautiful with a call to action: “I urge you to go further and search for the beautiful in all its forms, in the most unexpected places, as the former chasms between science, nature, and art are now some kind of navigable cloudy bridges or paths. Enjoy all the possibilities. Dig deeper, and keep asking more and better questions in order to make better work that is ever harder to pigeonhole.”

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