Extravagant Evolution

Natural selection is the process organisms adapt to their environment to give them a better chance at survival. Though he proposed and defended this theory, Charles Darwin did not believe it could explain everything. That’s why he also proposed sexual selection, by which he meant that females choose the most appealing males and males evolve toward that standard.

Darwin did not think it was necessary to link aesthetics and survival. Animals, he believed, could appreciate beauty for its own sake. Many of Darwin’s peers and successors ridiculed his proposal. 

Ferris Jabr, “How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution”

Even though this idea was dismissed, many scientists are now beginning to rethink this ‘forgotten’ Darwinian idea. Maybe beauty does not have to be indicative of health and fitness. Maybe it could merely be pleasurable.

Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference.

Ferris Jabr, “How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution”

In “How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution,” Ferris Jabr explores this renewed focus on beauty in the theory of evolution. It seems to be false that evolution only favors traits that directly lead to survival. There are other factors at work. Jabr mentions that it is time people realize that there are really two environments: the external world in which we live and the internal world that we construct. The link(s) between these two environments will help us solve the mystery of beauty (and its apparent uselessness).

Jabr cites evolutionary biologist, Richard Prum, as advocating for a theory of aesthetic evolution. Some fellows have derided Prum’s view; one even referred to it as ‘nihilism.’ Like Darwin before him, Prum continues to push for a notion of aesthetic evolution, despite many skeptical responses.

Even though Prum is concerned with the aesthetics preferences of various animals, he is not very concerned with the origins of aesthetic taste.

To read more about Prum’s idea, you can see the entire article by Ferris Jabr in the New York Times Magazine in the following link: How Beauty is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.


2 thoughts on “Extravagant Evolution

  1. I like Prum’s ideas. You suggest of beauty that “Maybe it could merely be pleasurable.” It seems worth adding that to the considerations. But I don’t think we need to necessarily stop at ideas that exhibit some sort of utility. ‘For the sake of pleasure’ I’m sure could be a factor, but what is pleasure for the sake of? And whatever that thing is, what is its utility? And so on and so forth…

    There is an obvious attraction to instrumental thinking, but are the grounds for an instrumental accounting simply noting a utility? Isn’t there a point at which, as Wittgenstein suggests, we simply do what we do? That is, I am asking whether we need to justify/explain beauty at all, much less with it being for the sake of the pleasure it causes.

    There may always be a desire to smuggle in some justifying reason, like ‘for the sake of pleasure’, but it is in no way clear that this is either necessary nor that it fully explains beauty’s presence. Some things act on us for no other sake but their own. We may be drawn to beauty in the complete absence of pleasure. Pleasure doesn’t *explain* beauty. It is neither sufficient for nor necessary to beauty.

    In the human world of art and aesthetics we too often forget the shortcomings of instrumentalism. Some things simply are what they are. Beauty might be something ‘brute’ for us. It neither needs to be justified nor explained. The human world and the animal world may have that in common: They are simply the worlds we live in. We SEE the world as beautiful. And rather than looking to explain the presence of beauty in the world we perhaps need to start from the fact that the human world is a world that has beauty in it. Its beauty makes sense of how we are able to navigate our surroundings and find our meanings there.

    One of my undergraduate philosophy instructors made the observation that in the ancient Greek world things were seen as alive and it was death that needed to be explained. In our modern scientific world everything seems made up of lifeless matter and it is life itself that needs to be explained. What we start out with sets up the grounds for what things are left unexplained. If we start with a beautiful world, if we take for granted that the world contains beauty, then the place of beauty itself is unproblematic. Beauty is only a mystery in a world that has no natural home for it.

    Can you imagine a world that humans lived in that had no beauty? Could we even call the creatures living in those conditions ‘human’? That is, could you have a *human* life in the complete absence of beauty? The point being that beauty isn’t so much an accident of our circumstances but a requirement of a human life. Beings who recognized no beauty would not be human in our eyes. We could not understand the world they lived in. It would be a form of life radically unlike our own. At the most fundamental, humans SEE the world as having beauty in it, and that is not an accident.

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  2. Thanks for your comment, Carter. I will clarify a few points.

    First, I am not suggesting anything. Other than a few things for which I say I am the author, I use this site as a way to highlight interesting work in aesthetics, which is not just about art.

    Second, it doesn’t seem like you read the article that I am summarizing here. The reason they are trying to ‘justify’ beauty is because it ‘seems’ to flout one of the strongest ideas in evolution, natural selection. It does not seem to always equip beings for better survival.

    Third, I think the implicit assumption of the article is that beauty is a kind of basic drive in different beings, of which humans are not an exception. No where did I claim that pleasure explains beauty. I claimed that beauty may have no other purpose beyond itself, that it causes pleasure. There’s a significant difference between an object being beautiful, therefore pleasurable, and an object declared beautiful because it is beautiful.

    Lastly, I think it would lead to some logical difficulties assuming that everything was instrumental without there being some intrinsically valuable things as a foundation.

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