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Some Musings on Beauty and Evolution 

“For decades, natural selection — the fact that creatures with the most advantageous traits have the best chance of surviving and multiplying — has been considered the unequivocal centerpiece of evolutionary theory.” Now it seems as if there are a few scientists toying with an old idea that Darwin had, an idea about beauty.

There is the saying, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and that’s true to an extent.

I rather think that it is the extent of beauty that is in the eye of the beholder. One person might think a particular landscape is the most incredible thing they have ever seen but it is more than likely that the majority will also think that landscape is beautiful, just not to that degree. Beauty is beauty (within limits). The linked article posits the notion, “The extravagant splendor of the animal kingdom can’t be explained by natural selection alone — so how did it come to be?”

I’m okay with the questioning and I can see some flaws in the theory of evolution. I personally think that a different system is responsible. I’ve mentioned it before. I call it the LEGO system of evolution for lack of a better term. Everything is in place for whatever is needed and it just gets triggered and built by the DNA and other biological functions of the creature. The article, while approaching something worth talking about fails (I think) to really hit the nail on the head.

It reads, “This extravagance [speaking of a mating ritual and colors] is also an affront to the rules of natural selection. Adaptations are meant to be useful — that’s the whole point — and the most successful creatures should be the ones best adapted to their particular environments. So what is the evolutionary justification for the bowerbird’s ostentatious display? Not only do the bowerbird’s colorful feathers and elaborate constructions lack obvious value outside courtship, but they also hinder his survival and general well-being, draining precious calories and making him much more noticeable to predators.”

But, I think this is flawed thinking because (at least we’ve been told) propagation of the species is one of the primary biological urges.

So it stands to reason that the expenditure of energy would make it worth while. If a creature can reproduce more than it gets eaten then it succeeds and the expenditure of energy is worth it in the long wrong. It’s similar to the principles of business where you can either sell a few things for a lot of money or sell a lot of things for a little money. In this case they spend a lot of “money” it seems, but what they get for it is well worth it.

The article addresses this, “To reconcile such splendor with a utilitarian view of evolution, biologists have favored the idea that beauty in the animal kingdom is not mere decoration — it’s a code. According to this theory, ornaments evolved as indicators of a potential mate’s advantageous qualities: its overall health, intelligence and survival skills, plus the fact that it will pass down the genes underlying these traits to its children.”

That does make sense. Especially when put in the framework of a code. Beauty, that argument makes it, is a language. It’s how animals communicate with each other about mating.

But not everyone agrees with that. Darwin thought that beauty, the idea of it, what was desired, was actually what drove it.

“Although [Darwin] co-discovered natural selection and devoted much of his life to demonstrating its importance, he never claimed that it could explain everything. Ornaments, Darwin proposed, evolved through a separate process he called sexual selection: Females choose the most appealing males “according to their standard of beauty” and, as a result, males evolve toward that standard, despite the costs.”

This, according to the article, would mean that what females liked in terms of beauty actually drove the evolution of the species. Rather than making it survival based this makes evolution based on desire. At least part of evolution. Things like things that are pretty.

Birds are interesting in that the male is ornamented and the female is generally quite plain. One of my favorite birds is actually the great tailed grackle. It’s a common bird in many areas but where I live we don’t get the great flocks that others do. Where they congregate I know that people tend to find them a nuisance. Anyway, that’s an aside. The males are black with largish tails of black feathers. The females are just brown. Lovely to my eye but according to this theory the male doesn’t care all that much. She picks him, not the other way around. She’s picky, he’s not. According to this theory he developed his feathers and colors because the females like them.

All this puts natural selection aside from sexual selection. But I wonder if calling it “sexual” is exactly the right term or if “beauty selection” is a better term.

“Unlike natural selection, which preserved traits that were useful “in the struggle for life,” Darwin saw sexual selection as exclusively concerned with reproductive success, often resulting in features that jeopardized an animal’s well-being. The peacock’s many-eyed aureole, mesmerizing yet cumbersome, was a prime example and remains the mascot of sexual selection today. “A great number of male animals,” Darwin wrote, “as all our most gorgeous birds, some fishes, reptiles and mammals, and a host of magnificently colored butterflies have been rendered beautiful for beauty’s sake.””

Beautiful for Beauty’s Sake

That’s an interesting idea for me to ponder.

The idea of growing horns to fight, made sense to Darwin’s peers but, the article reads, they didn’t buy the idea of beauty driving evolution.

“In the early 1980s, while researching the history of sexual selection, Prum read a seminal 1915 paper and a 1930 book on the subject by the English biologist and statistician Ronald Fisher, who buttressed Darwin’s original idea with a more sophisticated understanding of heredity. At first, Fisher argued, females might evolve preferences for certain valueless traits, like bright plumage, that just happened to correspond with health and vigor. Their children would tend to inherit the genes underlying both their mother’s preference and their father’s trait. Over time, this genetic correlation would reach a tipping point, creating a runaway cycle that would greatly exaggerate both preference and trait, glorifying beauty at the expense of the male’s survival. ”

The question that it brings up that is interesting to me is the idea of where the concept of beauty arose from. If beauty drives evolution then where did beauty come from to begin with? At some point, if beauty is a factor in evolution, beauty had to become a factor. It’s that classic chicken/egg scenario. Which came first, beauty or the desire for beauty. It’s a circular conundrum. I think it’s safe to say that amoeba didn’t think about beauty.  That single-celled organisms didn’t think at all, let alone about such a complex concept such as beauty. But today we accept that beauty drives so many aspects of human behavior. We think it drives animal behavior as well. But why? That’s a huge question in terms of evolution. It is one that Darwin thought about and that seemed to pass under the eye of mainstream biologists. Maybe the problem was too difficult or inconvenient.

Beauty might be in the eye of the beholder, but what is beauty? That you and I think a mountain is beautiful doesn’t mean we evolved to think that. Is there an evolutionary advantage to that? Are we drawn to mountains because they are environments we can survive in? We are attracted to the beauty of lava as well and sights deep beneath the ocean waves. We can’t live there. Some might say that there is a genetic memory at play from a time when organisms lived in the sea. Perhaps we like the sea because of its benefits or because we came from it millions of years ago.

Or perhaps we just like the sea because its beautiful.

That’s a possibility too. That beauty didn’t arise out of evolution nor does it drive it. It exists outside of that sphere. We don’t understand what human consciousness is. Why we are attracted to beauty is just as much a mystery.


The extravagant splendor of the animal kingdom can’t be explained by natural selection alone — so how did it come to be?

Source: How Beauty Is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution

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