Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Aesthetic for Aesthetics' Sake: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Aesthetic for Aesthetics' Sake: Books

Article excerpt

Darwin fails to explain fully why some evolved traits are so exquisitely alluring, finds Jon Turney.

Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution

By David Rothenberg

Bloomsbury, 320pp, Pounds 14.99

ISBN 9781408828823

Published 2 February 2012

On my wall sits a framed image of a far galaxy, a simple swirl of colour and light against a starfield. There are many reasons to like it. It is a photograph taken at the Australian Astronomical Observatory by David Malin, and represents an important stage - quite recent but already superseded - in the crafting of coloured images of very distant objects. I admired it in a recent exhibition of his work, and now own it as a gift. Oh, and it is extraordinarily beautiful.

Why is this cosmic smudge so appealing? The shapes of galaxies seem the most popular of the deep space images that have saturated the media since the advent of the Hubble Space Telescope. Along with a sense of the sublime, they evoke a host of more familiar things - geometric shapes, fluid dynamics and organic forms all seem to be in there somewhere.

David Rothenberg's gaze does not rove over astronomical images, but his latest consideration of natural aesthetics ranges over pretty much every other intersection between art and science. As in his previous volumes about birdsong and whale song, he begins with productions of other species that seem to resemble human art, then assembles a wide-ranging meditation on what they might mean for us.

The first exhibits this time are bowerbirds, and the constructions that males of the species are driven to assemble for display to potential mates. These are not, in fact, beautiful to us. But Rothenberg insists that in their elaboration they show more than can be accounted for by the evolutionary algebra in play. Charles Darwin first supplemented natural selection with the idea of sexual selection - in which a trait or a behaviour in one sex is retained and enhanced down the generations because it comes to be favoured by the other. It is now the conventional biological approach to apparently "unfit" traits. It is probably true, Rothenberg agrees, as far as it goes. But it cannot explain why some evolved traits seem excessively beautiful. …

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