The art of evolution

Survival of the Beautiful, by David Rothenberg, Bloomsbury, RRP£14.99, 312 pages

In 1990 I was struggling up a seemingly endless succession of steep ridges in New Guinea’s Arfak (it rhymes with “duck”) Mountains. With each slip my frustration increased, until I found myself repeating the name of the range at almost every step. Then something magical happened. In the middle of the wilderness I saw a hut. It was less than a metre high and had a mossy lawn in front, upon which exquisitely arranged bunches of fresh fruit, fungi and flowers had been laid. Inside, the structure contained just one object – a ballpoint pen, set at the perfect angle to the entrance, on an immaculate bed of fresh green vegetation.

The “hut” was in fact the bower of the Vogelkop bowerbird, one of 20 species of bowerbird found in Australia and New Guinea. Their artistic abilities are key evidence for philosopher and musician David Rothenberg that art is not uniquely human. Male bowerbirds build bowers to attract females, and their ability to do so is not innate. Instead they serve long apprenticeships with “masters”, from whom they learn how to do things like make paint and apply it with brushes of soft bark, arrange flowers and berries (or, indeed, pens), and dance.

Rothenberg’s latest book Survival of the Beautiful can best be summarised as a scientific investigation of art through the lens of evolution – but not of the survival of the fittest type. Instead, it’s the aesthetic sense of the female that selects, for she will only mate with the most accomplished male. Is this really so different, Rothenberg asks, from human poetry or art?

Rothenberg argues that biologists have misunderstood Darwin’s central message on sexual selection: that it’s male aesthetics, or beauty, that’s being selected for by females. The Victorians saw evolution as being driven by “red in tooth and claw” competition, and he posits that they were disturbed by the idea that selection by females drove the process. And so for a century the English-speaking world missed the point. But Darwin’s insight was not lost on the German novelist Wilhelm Bölsche. His 1902 book Love-Life in Nature sold several million copies, and in it he wrote:

If we are to speak of love, it must be in a different speech these days ... You came from a race of primordial beings much more incomplete even than this mute motionless thyme bathing in the burning sun ... What connects you with all these creatures that were you and yet not you ... is the mighty cosmic force of love ... of procreation.

Many biologists still try to explain away sexually selected traits. The peacock’s tail, for example, is thought by some to represent a handicap that informs the female that its bearer’s genes are so superior that he can thrive even while so handicapped – a view for which Rothenberg finds no supporting evidence.

The fact that we can appreciate the art of the bowerbird means that there must be a common aesthetic sense, which Rothenberg thinks is rooted in the laws of physics and chemistry as expressed through things like colour and symmetry. But there is more to it than that. Delight, surprise and seduction are all, he argues, part of the pleasure of art.

Is the art of the bowerbird and the artist pointless? Iris Murdoch believed that “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”; and that the best art melds “the minute and absolutely random detail of the world” with “a sense of unity and form”.

If we admit Rothenberg’s point that animals can create art, then it must be said that most if not all of their creations function to help them have sex. This is true of such diverse creatures as peacocks and giant cuttlefish, and arguably it’s true of humans too; but perhaps not always. In 1917 Marcel Duchamp tipped a urinal on its side, signed and dated it “R Mutt, 1917” and sent it to New York’s Armory Show, whose curator had promised to exhibit everything submitted. Did Duchamp act in the hope he might excite the admiration of women? If that was not his foremost motive, did his actions in fact attract women admirers? And was the urinal art? Such are the difficult questions faced by the philosopher as he tries to apply evolutionary theory to an understanding of art.

Rothenberg reminds us that elephants can draw, and even reproduces some graceful pieces that are reminiscent of Asian calligraphy. These abstract works were made by Siri, a matriarch who still lives at Rosamond Gifford Zoo. She was offered no inducements or guidance – simply the opportunity presented by a brush and sheet of paper. The elephant art you would tend to find on the internet is quite different, however. It’s most likely more realistic and made by Thai elephants, who’ve been trained to draw things like other elephants holding flowers. As Rothenberg notes:

A great artwork is not the triumph of a master but the master creating plus viewers taking it all in. So we, as consumers, must decide how we play into that creative process.

Do we want to select the uninfluenced product of an elephant mind, or an object that reflects a mahout’s training?

Modern art is of course astonishingly varied, from the ephemeral performances of Tino Sehgal to art created by software algorithms or the patterns explained by computer pioneer Alan Turing. Artist Anna Lindemann has even created a performance piece that simulates a lecture and includes DNA transcriptions, protein folding, and animations using yarn, beads and lace. While Rothenberg refuses to tell us what art is good and what bad, he does quote research indicating that different parts of the brain react when we see art that we consider good or bad. In concluding a wide-ranging book that at times struggles to cohere, Rothenberg says: “The beautiful is the root of science, and the goal of art.”

It’s a lovely, if not entirely persuasive, thought.

Tim Flannery is Panasonic professor of environmental sustainability at Macquarie University, Australia and author of ‘Here on Earth: A New Beginning’ (Allen Lane)

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