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.

This book is full of many treasures. I’ll be drawing from it in future posts.

Below, a sampling of different bowerbird offerings:

36 Replies to “Useless Beauty”

  1. Can’t wait to read this book! right up my ally. Thanks for the tip. This does bring to mind a study that was done comparing the aesthetics of the bowers and relating it to reproductive success (I think this was featured on a science board around Valentine’s day) Conclusion: Nicely arranged flowers worked better than nicely arranged dung balls. Gentlemen of all species, take note.

  2. Too funny! I have informed my gentleman caller (the one who showed up 33 years ago and never left) of the female bowerbird’s good judgment which also suggest some serious cross species proclivities…

  3. Our feathered friends have a thing or two to show us. Fascinating.

  4. I love the phrase you note, Deborah. I suppose Rothenberg may be familiar with the Elvis Costello song, written for June Tabor:

    . . . . our leaders have feasts on the backsides of beasts
    They still think they’re the gods of antiquity
    If something you missed didn’t even exist
    It was just an ideal — is it such a surprise?
    What shall we do, what shall we do with all this useless beauty?
    All this useless beauty.

    1. Andrew, I would have to guess that jazz musician Rothenberg is familiar with that song. But it is new to me. I’m looking it up on Spotify now. Thanks for the heads up!

    1. What a great poem! Thanks for posting the link!

  5. […] entire post at: Slow Muse < Prev Next […]

  6. D – This entrancing post reminds me of Robinson Jeffers’ “Divinely Superfluous Beauty” –

    The storm-dances of gulls, the barking game of seals,
    Over and under the ocean …
    Divinely superfluous beauty
    Rules the games, presides over destinies, makes trees grow
    And hills tower, waves fall.
    The incredible beauty of joy
    Stars with fire the joining of lips, O let our loves too
    Be joined, there is not a maiden
    Burns and thirsts for love
    More than my blood for you, by the shore of seals while the wings
    Weave like a web in the air
    Divinely superfluous beauty.

    ~ Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)

    1. MLS, this is exquisite, and a perfect partnering with this post. Thank you for posting this here. (Jeffers has particular significance for me since I went to college near his home in Carmel. He is elemental to that part of California.)

      1. I’m such a fan of Jeffers’ work! Nice to see this excerpt here, and so appropriate!

  7. I love bowerbird constructions and your comparison to Goldsworthy–he really is a human bowerbird. Rothenberg’s book is yet another one I’ll have to earmark for reading; it sounds like a companion piece to Brian Boyd’s “On the Origin of Stories.”

    I also wonder about the difference between beautiful and useless and David Orr’s book on poetry as “beautiful and pointless.” Clearly there IS a point to the bowerbird’s display: “Would you like to go upstairs and look at my etchings, darling?” I’m not sure I agree to the pointlessness.

    I recall reading, somewhere (perhaps in the Science Times?) that the brain is the largest sex organ in the body…

    1. Ann, I have used that line so many times–the brain as the largest (gentlemen, take note!) sex organ of the body. Thank you for making that reference!

      Regarding your provocative question: Rothenberg quotes Iris Murdoch:

      “The pointlessness of art is not the pointlessness of a game; it is the pointlessness of human life itself, and form in art is properly the simulation of the self-contained aimlessness of the universe. The best art melds the minute and absolutely random details of the world together with a sense of unity and form.”

      Rothenberg then says that “unity and form appear after millions of years of the twin pulls of adaptive and aesthetic selection.”

      I don’t think we understand or know how all this plays out. As Rothenberg also states, “There are appearances that evolve, beauty created by an unstoppable process with no one in charge. That could be the most amazing thing about it.”

      I love that: Beauty created by an unstoppable process with no one in charge. Yes!

  8. I have been fascinated with this species for a long time. Thank you for sharing. Beautiful photos!

  9. Amazing post! Thanks for posting this!

  10. Is there are lots of egg shell fallen in front of the nest? Very nice pictures .

  11. Nice pictures – sounds like a good book, I’ll have to check it out.

  12. Andy Goldsworthy, eat your heart out 🙂

  13. This is absolutely fascinating…I must admit that I’ve never heard of a bowerbird, but now I’ve just spent some time researching them online. Amazing! I think there are a few great metaphors to apply to life here — I have a feeling I’ll end up referencing the bowerbird in a future blog post, thanks to you (and of course, linking back to you!).


  14. audreyhipbone says:

    I think that last Bower bird is looking for a Goth Bower hen!

  15. Those pictures are just so beautiful.. Nature is a magnificent beauty.. 😀

  16. A joy to see and read. Thank you, and congratulations on being FP.

  17. This post makes me think again of the architect Louis Kahn who said, “The creation of art is not the fulfillment of a need but the creation of need.” The world never needed Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, he said, until Beethoven wrote it. The bowerbird seems to understand there is no useless beauty.

  18. “Beauty as a Determiner”

    This was a great post to read as we are exploring different concepts of beauty at our group blog this month. Glad to read this post, and perhaps will read the book as well. Certainly I have never considered the idea of useless beauty in nature.

  19. Birds don’t seem to be the only ones who do this. In Pride and Prejudice Elizabeth only falls in love with Mr. Darcy after seeing his gorgeous estate! Wasn’t that just his ‘bower’ to attract a suitable mate?

  20. Im jealous. A bird’s got better aesthetics than I do. Lovely pictures.

  21. This is so interesting, and beautiful photos!

  22. Fascinating and beautiful…Useless???

  23. Wow! Love this. Never knew this. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

  24. Nature’s BEAUTY.

  25. I love the creativity of the birds. Each creation is so different. An artists inspiration.

  26. Wow, some beautiful pictures here. The birds are more creative then alot of humans lol.
    Good post

  27. dear artist and beautyfinder, what a great visit this is for me. I adore this bird, and you for acknowledging his offerings of art.
    Thank you for liking my Pesta-post. I see we have a common commentor: Miriam Louisa.

    1. I love that name–beautyfinder! Yes, I found you through ML and so glad I did. Your site is so full and so wise. Thank you for stopping by and let’s loop in and out again!

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: