Friday, May 30, 2008

The Evolution of Beauty

I am never away from thinking about evolution. Being at Disney last week taking lots of pictures of flowers, got my thinking about evolution and beauty. Take this shot of a flower from Disney:


Actually this structure is called a spathe and it really a group of fused flowers wrapt around by a leaf. Think of Jack in the Pulpit and you have idea.

At first glance, not a traditionally beautiful picture and yet if you really look at it I suspect you will see a certain sensuousness to this image. I am reminded of Georgia O'Keeffe who allegedly said she painted flowers because she couldn't afford models. The traditional explanation for why flowers are beautiful is that that this is a by product of the coevolution between flowers and pollinators. But that really doesn't explain why they are beautiful for us. Part of the answer maybe that flowers also coevolved with us and breeders selected for beauty. But why beauty in the first place?

In terms of sexual beauty and attractiveness, it appears that humans and other animals have innate neurological biases that operate in conjunction with Darwinian sexual selection leading to elaboration of certain characteristics. But why these biases? Why not just respond to the narrow signs required for our reproduction and not feel rewarded emotionally by flowers and other things that we see as beautiful be it a flower, a poem or a butterfly?


Of course, I would want an evolutionary explanation because of my (innate perhaps?) desire for explanation. How do things come about? How do they work? But just because scientists are interested in these sorts of questions no way diminishes the emotional response and appreciation of beauty in all its forms.

Nor does beauty exist in a vacuum. Our innate neurological biases may be enhanced or over ridden by our experience or cultural preconceptions. For instance for me the beauty of the Rhododendron in the picture above is enhanced by the presence of these little bug (actually Katydid) nymphs:

Rhododendron and bug

There is a richness of connection that the nymphs add that for me is itself part of beauty and would be missing if I had taken a shot of the flower alone.
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