Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution

Overview

"The peacock's tail," said Charles Darwin, "makes me sick." That's because the theory of evolution as adaptation can't explain why nature is so beautiful. It took the concept of sexual selection for Darwin to explain that, a process that has more to do with aesthetics than with the practical. Survival of the Beautiful is a revolutionary new examination of the interplay of beauty, art, and culture in evolution. Taking inspiration from Darwin's observation that animals have a natural aesthetic sense, philosopher ...

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Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution

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Overview

"The peacock's tail," said Charles Darwin, "makes me sick." That's because the theory of evolution as adaptation can't explain why nature is so beautiful. It took the concept of sexual selection for Darwin to explain that, a process that has more to do with aesthetics than with the practical. Survival of the Beautiful is a revolutionary new examination of the interplay of beauty, art, and culture in evolution. Taking inspiration from Darwin's observation that animals have a natural aesthetic sense, philosopher and musician David Rothenberg probes why animals, humans included, have innate appreciation for beauty-and why nature is, indeed, beautiful.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for the Hardcover:

One of the "Best Science Books" for 2012 (Globe and Mail, Toronto)

"A searching, accessible, and often ecstatic book."Wall Street Journal

"Not many authors could find a way to interweave abstruse art theory with discussions of squid and their glorious "dynamic tattoos," elephants who paint, and Paleolithic cave art, but Rothenberg succeeds, with this entertaining wander through the world of art and the places where it intersects science."—Publishers Weekly

 

"[a] bravura investigation..with verve, multidiscipline fluency, and an encompassing vision, Rothenberg accomplishes his mission to change the way we perceive and understand the intertwining of natural evolution and human cultural evolution, beauty and life, art and science."—Booklist (starred)

 

"The colour blue rules for the male satin bowerbird of Australia. The interior decorators of the avian world, they gather plastic, shells and feathers of that hue to adorn their meticulously built stick structures, all to lure a potential mate. This is just one indication, argues philosopher and musician David Rothenberg, that beauty is not random but is intrinsic to life—and that evolution proceeds by sumptuousness, not by utility alone. Rothenberg covers topics such as camouflage, abstraction, the profound impact of art on science and much more to explore his theme."Nature

 

"A door-opener to new ideas and connective tissue in the skeleton of science, particularly biology and Darwin’s theory of evolution. Chances are good you’ll find Mr. Rothenberg’s ‘mad quest for some evidence of aesthetic ideas in the very way nature is put together’ to be persuasive."—New York Journal of Books

"Rothenberg is a learned and thoughtful guide across the realms of science and art."—Washington Independent Review of Books

"[Rothenberg] seems uniquely qualified to be herald and interlocutor for the present convergence of biology and art."Chronogram magazine

"I have been waiting for a long time for a book like Survival of the Beautiful that suffers not a jot of art’s inferiority complex in the age of science … It’s one terrific romp through the ineffable and embracing glory of the aesthetic experience."—Alison Hawthorne Deming, Orion

"This is the triumphant lesson of Survival of the Beautiful: nature is not entirely red in tooth and claw, it also allows the beautiful right of passage."—Peter Forbes, The Guardian (UK)

"Rothenberg’s passionate optimism – a belief in the beauty of nature, and vice versa—together with his elegant prose turns Survival of the Beautiful into an exhilarating and thought-provoking trip.—Philip Hoare, The Telegraph (UK)

"Survival of the Beautiful is a wild ride. At its heart is a wonderful wish: to make us see the stories and the beauty in everything from the warbles of flying cranes to the cries of crows, From the shape-shifting squid to the bower-building bird, to the elephant and to the cryptic moth, which hides beneath his drab wing-tops a flash of crimson red."—William Bryant Logan, Toronto Globe and Mail

"Rothenberg comes to an inspired conclusion: Aesthetic selection introduces a new kind of randomness into nature that unites art and nature, man and beast."—Christopher Potter, Sunday Times of London

Survival of the Beautiful is not just a book about beauty, but a beautiful book. And also an important one, which moves the debate about the biology of aesthetics beyond the cozy fables of evolutionary psychology to probe the deep nature of art and its origins. Both provocative and generous, Rothenberg’s work is pervaded with a sense of wonder at and appreciation of the world.”—Philip Ball, author of Critical Mass and The Music Instinct

 “David Rothenberg is a brilliantly fun guide on a journey that takes us from bower birds to the neuroesthetics of Semir Zeki. Survival of the Beautiful is just about the best travel literature of the mind out there. With wit by turns gentle and sharp, Rothenberg shows us how art is shaped by animals, and by us.”—Roald Hoffmann, chemist and writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry

 

“The nerdy mindset of modernity often suffers allergic outbreaks when confronted with the softer side of cognition. Esthetic pleasures are then cordoned off from the serious core work of science. But David Rothenberg makes a convincing case that beauty is an intrinsic aspect of reality. He argues, among other things, that without modern art, modern science would have been hobbled by inadequately challenged cognitive habits. Beauty evolved. Perhaps we should take it seriously.”—Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget

 

"What I love about David Rothenberg’s work is that he counteracts—with wit, poetry and philosophical subtlety—the prevailing tendency of most nature writers toward biological reductionism. While reporting on the latest scientific conjectures about beauty, human and inhuman, he shows that all our theories still fail to do justice to nature’s unutterable strangeness."—John Horgan, author of Rational Mysticism and The End of Science

 

“David Rothenberg is a rarity—an actual polymath—and his writing, like the music he plays, reveals an extraordinary mixture of curiosity, intelligence, and playfulness. Tracing complex ideas that link consciousness, human spirit, and creativity within the framework of Darwinian theory is the sort of book you would expect from a man who makes music with whales and cicadas. Where does the impetus for the making of art and music reside? How does that fit into an evolutionary scheme? Read this book, and enter into Rothenberg's world. You will be rewarded with a exploration of these questions that is both entertaining and revelatory.”—David A. Ross, Director Emeritus, Whitney Museum of American Art

 

"A fun, freewheeling discussion of the role of aesthetics in evolution and a celebration of the beauty to be found in the great diversity of life."—Kirkus

Publishers Weekly
While many people are happy to simply appreciate nature’s beauty, Rothenberg seeks to understand why beauty exists in the first place, and what that means to our existence. Evolution and mutation determine what features are passed on in each species, but nature also offers “case after case of wild, untrammeled craziness,” patterns, colors, and behavior that are clearly not needed for survival. Rothenberg notes with amusement how Darwin thought ornamentation—colorful feathers, brilliant songs, mating dances—existed to “delight the mind” of potential mates, throwing evolutionary control into female hands, an idea that didn’t sit well with Victorians. Rothenberg goes on to discuss how animal patterns (animal art) have influenced human creativity in cubist and abstract art as well as military camouflage. Not many authors could find a way to interweave abstruse art theory with discussions of squid and their glorious “dynamic tattoos,” elephants who paint, and Paleolithic cave art, but Rothenberg succeeds, with this entertaining wander through the world of art and the places where it intersects science. 16 pages of color illus.; b&w illus. (Nov.)
Library Journal
A trained musician, Rothenberg (philosophy & music, New Jersey Inst. of Technology; Thousand-Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound) became curious about the aesthetics of animals as he shared duets with aviary birds. As he considered extravagant beauty, like birdsong, Rothenberg came to question scientists' traditional insistence that evolution serves functionality. In contrast, Rothenberg proposes the idea of aesthetic selection, whereby all living beings favor natural beauty regardless of functionality. Working on this theme, Rothenberg leads readers through Darwinian theory, neuroscience, and modern and prehistoric art. His all-encompassing book recalls the work of writers from a variety of disciplines—David Quammen, for instance, who parses Darwinian theory in The Song of the Dodo, and Elaine Scarry, whose On Beauty and Being Just is a crisp treatise on beauty. Ultimately, Rothenberg demonstrates the merits of gathering these strands together through interdisciplinary collaboration. VERDICT Though readers may sometimes feel assaulted by questions as they read this book, they will almost certainly find something that challenges their perspective on the world. Recommended for those with eclectic interests and a penchant for philosophy.—Talea Anderson, Walla Walla, WA
Kirkus Reviews

A philosopher and musician proposes that art is important to nature and that a deeper consideration of art in nature can enhance not only our understanding of evolution but of art itself.

Rothenberg (Philosophy and Music/New Jersey Institute of Technology), who has explored the mystery of bird songs (Why Birds Sing, 2005) and the songs of whales (Thousand Mile Song, 2008), now takes up a broader question: How can the existence of art and beauty in nature be explained? He launches his investigation by introducing bowerbirds, whose artwork he feels makes art more necessary to evolution then if only humans produced it. "Each species," he writes, "has its own aesthetic, which defines what colors, sounds, and shapes its members desire." Rothenberg finds support for his views in the work of Yale's Richard Prum, curator of birds at the Peabody Museum, who argues that beauty has been overlooked in the study of evolution. The author quotes Prum extensively on the co-evolution of appearance/performance by males and appreciation/taste in females. Thus evolution produces results that are not only practical but also beautiful. Natural selection, writes Rothenberg, is simply not sufficient to explain what nature shows us. The author also examines how beauty comes out of form and is built up out of the basic laws of physics and chemistry. Understanding this sharpens our human eyes whether we are art creators or art viewers. A special appeal of this book is the illustrations—of the elaborate bowers created by bowerbirds, of striking variations in feather patterns and of amazing examples of animal camouflage. Rothenberg does not omit human art, either, examining prehistoric drawings discovered in the Cave of the Three Brothers in France, as well as cubist paintings, scientific drawings and contemporary sculpture.

A fun, freewheeling discussion of the role of aesthetics in evolution and a celebration of the beauty to be found in the great diversity of life.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781608193882
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA
  • Publication date: 4/9/2013
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 394,012
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

David Rothenberg is Professor of Philosophy and Music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of books including Thousand Mile Song and Why Birds Sing. His articles have appeared in Parabola, The Nation, Wired, Dwell, and Sierra.

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