Useless Beauty


Who needs a peacock’s tail when you can build this for your lady love? The bower created by a male bowerbird.

David Rothenberg is a jazz musician and a professor of philosophy. He has written a number of books, several of them focused on the interface between natural sounds (like the songs of birds and whales) with jazz and other musical forms. In his most recent and thought provoking book, Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution, Rothenberg moves into the visual realm, exploring how beauty fits into the current concept of Darwinian evolution. Is beauty part of natural selection? Can its abundance in nature truly be explained by sexual selection?

Rothenberg makes a strong case for aesthetic selection. Beauty as a determiner. This is a delicious thought.

One of Rothenberg’s prime examples is the bowerbird. Each species creates a very particular style of bower, an undertaking that is extremely arduous. Amazingly, these structural—and very sculptural—creations are not nests nor are they used for anything “practical.” They are extravagant expressions designed to please the eye of the female bowerbird.

In many ways they seem to defy evolution since their sole purpose is to look good. But Rothenberg suggests that birds have their own aesthetic, similar to human “schools” of art, like abstract expressionism or cubism. And looking at the photographs of bowers below, how can anyone not think of our own human bowerbird, Andy Goldsworthy?

From the book:

The female satin bowerbirds do choose their mate after what they see in the bower and what they take in from the song and dance. But are they really evaluating the quality of their mate? Modern sexual selection theory says what they are looking for is good genes, while Darwin’s original sexual selection theory focused only on what the females like. Look what he has created—an artwork with style and substance, something no animal besides humans is known to do. Are we to brush all this effort off as a sign or a code for something more mundane and hidden? What if bowerbirds attract, mate and procreate for the propagation of bowers, not offspring? Look at the process as an example of aesthetic selection…

[These are] not structures to live in, but for the females to admire. They are built to be one thing—beautiful.

Rothenberg goes to to say that he does not believe evolution as we know it can explain art, but “a deeper consideration of art can enhance our understanding of evolution.”

He also writes this memorable line:

I believe our understanding of nature increases if we spend more time wondering about all this useless beauty.

Below, a sampling of different bowerbird offerings:

Note: This post is from the Slow Muse archives, first published in August 2012.

6 Comment

  1. baricks says:

    Beautiful.

  2. James Sedwick says:

    Wonderful posting! Without the photograph captions, I’d think Andy Goldsworthy or a Goldsworthy follower of ability. Perhaps what we see in the bowers and our art objects, a useless beauty, is the sublimation of impulses otherwise inappropriate, a drive; I’d have to go back and read what Freud thought about art. I think we’re (at least artists) connected to bower birds by what we do (bower birds doing it better than some of us). An experiment: suppose we took away the materials and time and space for an artist to make something; would that be like sleep deprivation (it bothered me to imagine that)? What would happen to a bower bird that had no access to building materials? It strikes me that the drive is so powerful that it is difficult to rest, even to meditate, unless we’ve completed the object or can imagine the completion of the object.

    1. deborahbarlow says:

      James, thank you for your thoughtful comment. This force/drive/impulse is mysterious and huge, and it continues to compel me. Thanks again for your contribution to the discussion.

  3. Interesting questions from James. Humans manage to be inventive as to tools for art-making. We get to see the cave paintings centuries later–but the ephemeral art projects vanish. Except, perhaps, somewhere deep in our collective consciousness.

  4. deborahbarlow says:

    Thanks Ann. I like the idea of ephemeral art still living on in the collective consciousness. Which, as Rupert Sheldrake has suggested, is always available at some level…

  5. James Sedwick says:

    I’d quibble with calling art useless, given the economic, cultural, political, and therapeutic (among others) ways art work affects us. Alain de Botton and John Armstrong consider “art as a form of therapy” (they don’t mean art used for therapeutic purposes by professional caregivers), that viewing/having art helps us deal with the problems of life.

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