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Art, Science, and Evolution

by David Rothenberg

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 2011
ISBN: 978-1-60819-216-8
Publisher: Bloomsbury

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.