David Rothenberg, The Survival of the Beautiful

I have just returned from a trip to Germany. Although I recently read an alarming report on the rate of insect decline even in German nature reserves, I have come back with renewed hope that we may not be such a hopelessly self-destructive species as I had come to believe.

On the outskirts of Berlin I spent a morning wandering through a disused railway siding. It had been left untouched for decades and has become well-known as a prize example of re-wilding in action. It is now a nature reserve and home to many rare and endangered plants, birds and insects. This is regeneration without human input and its beauty is breathtaking.

It brought to mind David Rothenberg’s book The Survival of the Beautiful in which he examines the interplay of beauty, art and culture in evolution. It is an alternative interpretation of reality in which, Rothenberg suggests, ‘beauty selection’ would be a more accurate term than ‘sexual selection.’ There is, he argues, a predisposition toward beauty that is shared by the entire world. I am drawn to this notion as it offsets the human destructiveness so evident today. When I think of the breathtaking beauty of cathedrals, arias and poetry I now also think of the animal world, and possibly the universe more generally, as caught up in a movement toward beauty.“People tend to accept the ‘survival of the fittest’ simplification of evolution and leave it at that. It makes most of us both proud and uncomfortable at the same time. We are honored to be part of this great march of life, which creates us as much as it does the slime mold and the fruit fly. At the same time it humbles us, since we know humans have certainly never been perfect, but are instead some kind of improbably happy accident, one strange strategy for survival that has some very strange ideas about how to make the environment adapt to our needs.” (p. 4)“I believe the most beautiful art is that which makes the world appear richer, deeper, and more meaningful, making nature seem ever more intricate, interesting, and deserving of our attention and love. There is meaning in nature far beyond use; there is form and beauty far beyond function.” (p.34)“Evolution may be aimless, but it produces wonderfully coherent creatures with odd but essential behaviors. Unity and form appear after millions of years of the twin pulls of adaptation and aesthetic selection. Does the practical move in opposition to the beautiful? Do both processes need to always be present? Can we find aesthetic principles in nature that inform even the said-to-be-arbitrary aesthetics of different human cultures and styles? More important, I believe our understanding of nature increases if we spend more time wondering about all this useless beauty.” (p.26)“If birds have intention, then the natural world has meaning. If birds have culture, they create artifacts, and we have more levels of understanding to share with them. We may treat them with more respect; we might be much more likely to want to get to know them better” (p. 75)