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.

2 roots or 2 lenses &

a heartwarming confluence of ideas

So keen readers of this blog will have realized that I think our humanity stems from 2 roots of our evolution, empathy developing deeply and robustly within our mammalian ancestry and symbolization developing more recently from somewhere within our ancestry, some current still mysterious despite the power of our science to understand such things. I think that is changing as I write. I read (think and write) with those two lenses to help me focus on empathy and symbolization in order to understand what I consider of paramount importance, our humanity, and I am glad I do, because the confluence of findings is, to say it simply, simply beautiful.

For the past 18 months or so I have been reading books about music and the brain (& periodically posting about it here—see posts on  6/17/14, 6/15/14, 11/12/14, 12/17/14, 5/19/15). Most recently I have started reading Origins of Music, a collection of articles presented as the initial text of evolutionary biomusicology. Wow, a third into the book and it is already worth every penny and second spent reading it.   Peter Marler, one of the preeminent early researchers into bird song if you did not know, writes that he believes the creativity evidenced in certain species’ songs may well represent an evolutionary stream contributing to the thoughtful varied expression of human music and language.   Thomas Geissmann, whom I do not know much about, writes that a primate relatively close to hominids, the gibbon, sings duets that may also represent an important contribution to our musical (and linguistic?) abilities.


Mozart the mockingbird, a great singer

Let us look at these through my two lenses, empathy and symbolization.  Marler provides a cogent analysis of the different bird songs such as the acoustic shape of the song, its context and presumed communicative function, e.g., territorial, mating, warning, spacing, etc. He finds that the birds with the most varied songs could perhaps be incipient to human music. The link is the creativity shown in vocal performance along with social communication. (One key difference is the regularity of the beat in human music). These birds, including the mocking bird and the brown thrasher, have, as it were, a creative sense of melody; does this reflect some significant difference in neural processing? Is this difference also manifest in relationships or is bird song, even at its most creative, so constrained by a brain quite limited to some immediate present, i.e., limited by the lack of power to displace information evident in mammalian evolution, heightened in primate and then, especially, hominid minds. These questions are based upon the idea that bird song became music, i.e., became a symbolic form as do all symbols, through the control of displacement from and abstraction of current information. To be plain about it, this is a primary root of symbolization.

Thomas Geissmann likewise provides a cogent analysis of gibbon song, and it turns out to be even more incredible than I previously suspected (see post 6/15/2014 on bird and gibbon songs. My next post will discuss some of these issues further). He focuses on the duets sung by male and female pairs. One most interesting finding is that the occurrence of duets correlates with the social interaction of bonding, e.g., grooming, sharing favored food source, behavioral synchronization, etc. Further, these gibbons are monogamous and they perform their duets, which are not that variable in form, with their partner. Geissmann reports that all primates that sing and not just call and hoot and such like have a monogamous social structure. Ah, song arising from intimacy. The male and female contributions are stereotyped in sequence and acoustical characteristics. Geissmann reports that a pair broken up and forced to bond with a new mate will each develop a new duet specific to that relationship. They do not, as my wife reacted when she heard this study, stop singing forever. I do not know the specifics of the experimental manipulation of forced bonding but I will say that my heart palpitates anxiously at what these scientific ethics entail.


A silver gibbon parent–they sing with their mates

So the main point here is that we have vocal communication serving the empathic relationship. Another feature of gibbon communication figures as an incipient homology to human music. When gibbons sing their duets and communicate vocally with the wider tribe, e.g., “Hey, look at the unfamiliar conspecific”, a stranger as it were, in our domain, they, or at least the females, always move not so much as for practical functions as for expressive engagement, termed more scientifically, a stereotypical locomotor display. Now compare this to what many who have studied the matter think, that music and dance evolved together. The gibbon songs are not so much creative statements of conceptual activity as social attunement. Ah, empathy.

So we have now looked through the dual lenses of empathy and symbolization at what these studies might mean. One of my contentions is that symbolization grew (grows) from the empathic awareness of another’s mind, their hidden subjective domain, in contrast with one’s own, and the subsequent call and challenge to communicate otherwise hidden contents. While birdsong creativity is important, generally only males sing. While primate song is generally stereotypical and not learned from parents, both sexes participate in vocal communication. An early confluence would seem to be between the creative novelty found in bird song and the empathic communication found in gibbons, but how could these different evolutionary streams merge? As I said at the beginning, our understanding of this question is changing as I write.


Shall we gather at the river, the beautiful, the beautiful river?

Much more can and will be said about this. For now, Happy New Year, and travel on.

Prehistoric village map?

Check out this report on PLOSONE about a rock dated from 13,800 years ago carved with a series of semi-circles arranged together:

Or shorter version here on the LAT:

Of course we don’t know what this really portrays but we do know that it is different from other carvings and paintings of that period, which are mostly lovely beasts and some humanoid figures. The paleoarcheologists who did the work to find the stone say their best hypothesis is that these marks represent huts, which we are pretty sure were common back in prehistoric days, gathered in a village about the size expected of a local population then. And maybe it is such a rendering of their social domain.

Or maybe the marks map out local peaks where ancestors were interred. On our recent trip to Ireland we climbed Knocknarea and stood beside Queen Maeve’s tomb thought to date from around 4 or 5000 years ago.


Queen Maeve’s tomb atop Knocknarea in County Sligo

A large passage tomb, it is shaped like the marks on the stone as well, but more interestingly, from the top of that mountain we could look out over the surrounding coastal plain to a series of low mountains and peaks, and the information signs pointed out that cairns, smaller than the Queen’s of course, stood atop most of those peaks.


Each of the peaks surrounding Knocknarea has a cairn on top.

Maybe someone wanted to document where the bodies were buried, so to speak, as a mnemonic for reciting the old stories around the village fire. Or maybe the marks are poorly rendered stars of the Pleiades, the Seven Sisters, from where some say we all came, so they mark the way home.


We want to return to our home planet (or star cluster).

The scientists say that without more evidence and especially without better clues as to the artist’s intent, any hypothesis cannot be conclusive. Amen. It is a fine mystery.

In my readings over the past several months I have run by the word ‘intention’ several times. The concept is important, no doubt, but I fear that we are now using it to demarcate specifically human capacities, and that would be wrong. Birds sing, humans intentionally make music, as Peter Marler suggests in his essay, “Origins of Music and Speech: Insight from Animals” in The Origins of Music (a book I am excited to be reading). I know other animals also intend some actions. Maybe the mocking bird that claims our yard with his song does so intentionally especially when a rival dares to utter a peep. Maybe a politician claims the high ground of demagoguery intentionally, or maybe he is just an unconsciously self-righteous prig, er, well, let me not resort to name calling here, but I have my doubts about using some simple or undifferentiated concept of intentionality to characterize human-specific actions.

Let me regress again to my 10 year old self and wonder if I go to the bathroom intentionally, unlike infants who respond unconsciously (instinctively?) to pressure in their bladder and bowel. I watch the steers out my kitchen window grazing. They seem to empty one or both quite nonchalantly, even as they continue to graze, but I notice they never back up after doing so. A sign of intelligence, that, like a dog that refuses to soil its own space or a wolf pack on the hunt. Whatever the degree of their intention there, the operation of some value seems apparent.

Marler presents a clear, coherent and knowledgeable discussion of the possible relationships between human communication and that of other animals. He ends up focusing on the incredible creativity and the seeming pleasure of novelty as some bird species sing learned songs that are quite novel and individual and unconstrained by innate structure and function. Our mocking bird sings astoundingly some summer mornings when no other bird is to be heard.


We call him Mozart

I can certainly take it as a performance of pleasure, the same as when I used to dance about with no known pattern but the finding of new motion or as my wife paints to create a new space. So maybe that rock with the huts did initiate a new glyph learning curve that brought human structures into the imagination and memory of the people (or something else equally wonderful). Travel on.

Music Miscellany 2.0, 2.1, & 2.2

A follow up from the music study discussed 5/10/15. First, when I described this study to friends at the beach, the musician among us immediately focused on the catergory F-L+, unknown but liked music, knowing that was the gateway to familiarity and also that he goes there when composing. Another friend told how her mother would calm in the last days of Alzheimer’s when they sang some of the old tunes. Clearly music is powerful.

2.1 Then comes this article in the NYT reporting some research focused on bird songs and who listens, their conspecifics, other birds and some mammals. Sound is a special medium and we process it specifically for its special characteristics as we communicate with sound empathically, musically or linguistically. NYT Link here:

2.2 Finally a word on the neurofunctional findings of that excellent study. I have already mentioned that familiar music lights up limbic structures. Liking music seems to light up small regions in the cingulate cortex and frontal lobe, including motor areas including Broca’s (speech).


The cingulate cortex, area 24 wrapping atop the corpus callosum here, is also called the limbic cortex; it would seem to be involved in integrating between the limbic output, especially from the hippocampus, and frontal lobe structures involved in movement and feedback. That Broca’s area lights up listening and without singing or speaking suggests how important singing along is to liking music, sort of mirror function probably through the arcuate fasciculus.  There is more to digest here as liking seems to involve a curious interaction between right and left sides.  Oh boy.

arcuate fasciculus

Even further, music scholars such as Angelique Kidjo, Aniruddh D. Patel, and Daniel Levitin state that music at its roots is participatory. We listen to move (and sing). With language we also listen to speak and must learn how to listen without speaking. Watch a good preschool teacher at group time helping the kids, especially the boys, to hold their responses and listen to someone else or the entire story. It is an important skill, and of course some do and some do not learn well how to yield the floor and listen to the other. Now, a 1 and a 2 and a 3 . . .