How we might think about biology and beauty

I have been thinking about this article in the NYT for a few weeks now.  I feel I should write about it but what?  So here goes. This is another story about the orthodox notion that beauty is not actually a product of evolution, but wait a minute, maybe it is:  Ferris Jabr wrote this longish piece and it is worth reading.  He highlights a number of examples of beauty in the animal world and one scientist in particular who believes that some other animals besides humans have a sense of aesthetics.  Most other researchers scoff at this notion because beauty seems to play so little a role in evolution, believing, I guess, that what we perceive as beauty in nature is more a simple byproduct of other adaptations.  This falls, then, into one of my favorite categories these days, that of an evolutionary spandrel.

What is that, I hear some ask?  The concept of a spandrel is borrowed from architecture where it denotes the space between an arch, ceiling and any supporting pillars.  As such a spandrel does not contribute to the structure, though architects soon learned to fill the space with decorative art.  Here is a diagram:


So an evolutionary spandrel is an ontogenetic structure that does not contribute to the organism’s successful adaptation and continuance of the genetic stream.  A simple example I have read is the color of our blood.  The redness has no adaptive significance; it is a spandrel to the use of iron-based hemoglobin for oxygen transport.  If we were a lobster, that has a copper based blood, we would have green blood.

A prominent example under discussion here is the bowerbird.  The male builds an elaborate nest that is used only to attract a female’s attention and not for egg laying.  Once the female approaches the male’s nest, and they are elaborate with many bits of shell, pebbles, and whatever can be found to decorate the approach, the male must then dance successfully enough to entice the female to copulate.  Then another nest is built.  Does the male bowerbird’s nest building contribute to its reproductive fitness, albeit by increasing chances of mating, or is it a spandrel?  Nest building is metabolically expensive and this kind attracts predators as well as females.  Could it be an anachronism left from an earlier adaptation wherein the male actually built a functional nest, i.e., used for egg hatching and young rearing, which was replaced by a behavioral dance?  That is the tenor of this debate.

Orthodox theory has it that sexual ornamentation, which can be quite extreme, e.g., bird of paradise and peacock tail feathers, and sexual signaling, e.g., the grouse dance, indicates the robust health of the male, i.e., a better mate. This would mean these features contribute directly to evolutionary fitness and so would not be a spandrel. To say, as Richard Prum does, that these features are a contribution to the evolution of beauty elevates beautiful features to a non-spandrel level.  And surprisingly, I learned from Jabr’s article that Darwin himself did not think that evolutionary fitness was useful in explaining all adaptive features. He thought that besides natural selection, sexual selection played a significant role in shaping organisms; indeed, that males developed ornamentation and signaling behaviors to fit or match the females’ “standard of beauty”, as Darwin put it.  There you have it, from the godfather of evolutionary science himself, though most scientists beginning even back then through today scoff at the notion.

There are two issues for me here.  One is the nature of beauty, of how we perceive it and what makes something beautiful, and the other is the nature of art, which I take to be a symbolic form, i.e., it has a surface structure composed by us (could be other species’ partake of this effort as well like the whale songs from last post) and a deep structure of some vital import about our experience.  Now consider Jabr’s words:  “There are really two environments governing the evolution of sentient creatures: an external one, which they inhabit, and an internal one, which they construct. To solve the enigma of beauty, to fully understand evolution, we must uncover the hidden links between those two worlds.”  Oh boy, that is exactly the issue here, i.e., the hidden links between surface and deep structures.

Consider seeing something beautiful in nature, like a sunset or storm over the sea or a striking bird.  Here are some photos of mine to ponder:


Odysseus watched the sunset from Calypso’s isle yearning for home.


Odysseus struggled through storms to reach his home on Ithaca.

The surface structure is the image but what is the deep structure?  What is the basis for our aesthetic appreciation of such scenes?  Further, how does a poet, e.g., Homer, transmute this into a beautiful image composed of words?  Here is another of an indigo bunting that visits our farm in the spring-how is it we see its beauty and how do the female buntings view it?


A handsome and rare indigo bunting

To be clear, I do not know the answer here, but I have adopted two canalizations for my thinking about these sorts of issues.  The first is, of course, Susanne Langer’s notion of art as a vital form, symbolic certainly but what makes the form art is its conveyance of vitality, e.g., the experience and energy of a particular life.  The second I extrapolate from Jacques Monod’s understanding of life processes as furthering itself through fitting components together, i.e., a molecule fits with another and contributes to energy control.  Many molecular combinations fit with others to contribute to life’s complexity, and to further the stream of life, each fitting must fit with many others in a sort of closure achieved by completing an image, like the Necker cube, only this closure is the underlying form of a biological organism.  Showing even more complexity, following Susan Oyama, the organism’s form and place in the hereditary stream is a complex fitting of a developmental system comprising life and niche, the means by which ontogeny progresses along “life’s journey, its cascade of complexity downfield into the future” like a musical symphony advances some grand waves of temporal experience through auditory forms.

Vital import and fitness certainly seem relevant here, but consider another concept, that of intentionality, because it plays an important role in the linkage between surface and deep structures.  Now I gather that ‘intentionality’ in philosophical parlance is a loaded term (first clue: Daniel Dennett wrote a book on it), but I want to use the term more as a contrast to ‘incidental’.  We act sometimes incidentally, e.g., our intent is to get a glass of water and we have to walk incidentally to the kitchen.  I distinguish between the two by asking with what intent is our volitional, i.e., for initiating behavior, energy mobilized.  We can formulate an intention and plan for its implementation but enactment starts when volitional energy is summoned.  From this perspective I guess you could call incidental actions behavioral spandrels but they would clearly be instrumental.  So indeed all spandrels are, just that, instrumental; it is just that by definition evolutionary spandrels do not contribute (directly) to adaptive fitness—they are, shall we say, instrumental gaps.  (Blood’s redness here is more an incidental reflection of the instrumental iron). But by Darwin’s reckoning some do serve to facilitate reproductive success, so something must be working here.

At any rate, art certainly requires intentionality in its production—intentionality is a necessary feature of our shaping the art form to express our intended import.  Again the surface form belies the complexity of our import.  But does the apprehension of beauty, by us or any other species, require intentionality?  Consider again the images above of a sunset, storm and bird.  I hope you agree that they are beautiful but beyond the glory of nature, what might be their import?  And does fitness of even some vague sort contribute to their loveliness?  While they are not produced intentionally, we may attribute some intentionality to these images in a mythic function, like we say they reflect the glory of nature or god or we see some notion of life’s temporality rendered thereby or interpret what we see as an immanent portent. In this regard I think the sunset or a peacock’s tail is beautiful but not art.

The question Jabr reports on is how other animals see natural phenomena like another’s plumage, song, or dance. He writes, “Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes.”  And further, “Unlike natural selection, which preserved traits that were useful ‘in the struggle for life,’ Darwin saw sexual selection as exclusively concerned with reproductive success, often resulting in features that jeopardized an animal’s well-being.”  Is this really a sense of beauty?  Again, I don’t know.  I have asked several birds around here but they have not answered; the clouds, though, they say ‘yes’.  That some perceptual features ‘fit’ another’s sense of  ‘appealing’ is fact.  But consider bird song where ornithologists studying male song measure its power by counting the number of copulatory postures elicited in the female.  The more postures seen the better the song is presumed to be.  A song, thus is boiled down to hormonal activity.  (Don’t want to go so long here but consider if dreaming is adaptive or spandrel, and remember that other animals do seem to dream:

I have long wondered when it is that a bird stops building its nest but have never seen any research on this.  If indeed they do have some sense of aesthetic, I would assume that the bird builds until it is satisfied with the construction.  If not, I would guess that the bird builds until the eggs are laid. Likewise consider the bowerbird. Does he work continually on his nest until he attracts and mates with a female, or does he come to a moment when he feels the nest is just right, sort of like us decorating the walls of our house, e.g., these pictures and tapestries do the job?

Finally I just read an article about a Duke researcher, Steve Nowicki, who tested the hypothesis that the more complex a bird song the better the bird brain has developed.  Knowledgeable females then would pick the male with a more complex song because of his greater intelligence.  So far, Nowicki’s research has not shown this to be the case.  Good songs from good brains do not win the day.  I remember from way back research showing that some birds raised in isolation sing the best songs, i.e., the females respond with more copulatory postures, but that other males then attack this prime singer, who can survive if he is the best fighter or if he modifies his performance and sings a lesser song.  There is a lesson for us all in this finding about the importance social niche plays in our development.

In the whole wide world many things fit together.  Some fit with the spark of life shining forth.  Each life shines with its own energy and some shine brightly beyond their own time and place.  Life, as we know, abides by the 2ndlaw of thermodynamics with its own particular slight of hand.  Life is an energetically exuberant process controlled as it advances ecologically in time. And, it seems to me that this exuberance manifests in many ways with each life form and generation rising.  Finding beauty in our surrounds shows our sensitivity to this and art is a supreme expression of that exuberance. That this metaphor seems a bit out of the loop empirically, I think, is only because so many fail to recognize some features of reality, e.g., finding beauty and artistic experience given and taken, as facts worthy of study, believing that the orthodox constraints to our science are more important than our imaginative seeking beyond what we know (always I come back here seeking a balance).  Read Jabr’s article about the beauty debate and see for yourself.  This is what I had to say about it.



Or could it be that even spandrels, those empty spaces in our structure, contribute to life’s vitality?  That elements that contribute empty spaces are important to life’s functioning?  What does the Tao Te Ching say about that again?  Say in chapter 11?


Thirty spokes

Meet in the hub.

Where the wheel isn’t

Is where it’s useful.


Hollowed out

Clay makes a pot.

Where the pot’s not

Is where it’s useful.


Cut doors and windows

Make a room.

Where the room isn’t

There’s room for you.


So the profit in what is

Is in the use of what isn’t.


(Many thanks to Ursula K. LeGuin for this version) With that it is surely time to travel on.

One thought on “How we might think about biology and beauty

  1. Ok! You are cool. Please take the time to read my blog. I am currently dealing with the same questions as you! What is beauty? How does it manifest itself now and how that has affected many different cultural elements. Can’t wait to read more of your stuff.

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