Wednesday, January 25, 2012

"Survival of the Beautiful": A Review

I miscalculated and checked out one too many books from the library this past month. As a result, "Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution" by David Rothenburg ended up being the bathroom book, which I only skimmed. I think to need to check this book out again at some future time for a more thorough read.

There is a scene in the movie "Apollo 13" where, because the astronauts needed to power down the command module (CM) to conserve battery power, Astronaut Ken Mattingly (played by Gary Sinise), and Controller (EECOM Arthur) John Aaron (played by Lorne Dean) must come up with a way to power up the CM. They have a limited amount of battery power. With Mattingly seated in the capsule simulator back on Earth, taking no breaks, and after several failed attempts at powering up, they finally come up with a procedure they can use to restart the CM.

I would submit to you, based upon the high selection pressures (life or death) involved, that the final powering up procedure was a beautiful thing - a work of art.  

On the other hand, country western music, hip hop, rap, or opera, with generally very low selection pressures involved, is not so beautiful, but still a work of art.

That's one of the things I take from this book. Not so much a question of whether of not something is Art (a stupid question BTW, like asking if something is Elephant), but whether it is high or low. Great or shitty. Especially now, in the 21st century, some one hundred years after Marcel du Champ let the genie out of the bottle and set it up so that anything, and I mean anything, could be Art.

Since I had only a chance to skim, here's a random quote from the book:
"The beautiful things we make aspire to be necessary as the rules of nature and forms of life that time has massaged into being through the evolution of beauty, which is such an important part of the complete development of life. We will never be sure of ourselves as the aesthetic of an single species is. Without thinking or wondering, the peacock knows he is nothing without his tail. Life is beautiful as it lives and endures, not needing to question whether it could have taken another path. Only humanity is plunged into such doubt, and only we have the choice to take the beautiful seriously, or not".
If Andy Warhol's Brillo Boxes are Art, then a bowerbird's bower is Art.  That is part of my take from this book. The rest? Well, some things I had already concluded before reading. Like, animals do appreciate beauty. Animals do experience joy and delight. I know this because I am an animal sharing this planet with other animals. Other animals that share the exact same internal brain structures as I do, with a connectome that more or less gets activated by the same stimuli.

Natural selection, it seems to me, favors animals that enjoy living, that avoid the painful and the terrible, as opposed to animals that merely experience and record living. And our forms have been selected on that basis.

Rothenburg explores the idea that forms found in Nature are inherently beautiful. That they are converge on the beautiful, based upon limiting aspects of the laws of physics, chemistry, and biology. That animals (including us apes) do indeed appreciate this beauty, take pleasure from it, delight in it, and therefore select for it. That beauty is chosen through the process of sexual selection, in the ongoing Darwinian arms race between male characteristics and female delight. As such, biologists, and more directly evolutionary psychologists, seem to explain why animals desire, but not what animals desire.

To some degree, this theme has been explored in the late Denis Dutton's book "The Art Instinct". However, Rothenberg partially rejects the evolutionary psychologists' approach of explaining away all forms in terms of fitness and function. I tend to agree with this, mainly because their Kipling-esque "just-so" theorizing rarely is based upon empirical observation.

Rothenberg repeats is the whole arbitrariness of form. Again, biologists would prefer that the form have some function, some reason to explain fitness, either as a feature, or a handicap. But there are many cases (think the Darwin's frustrations with the peacock's tail) in which the best explanation for the origin of a selected form is that it is, or was, utterly arbitrary - in keeping with the whole idea of random mutation, or random selection. Though not entirely. There is a ratchet of progress, a conservation of innovation, that occurs in the evolutionary record. And a convergence of functionality as well. When you consider that things like camera-style eye has independently developed six times throughout the history of life on Earth, you start to think about convergence - similar solutions to similar challenges.

How this relates to human art making, I never got to that point. But I just may have to re-read the book "Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind" by Gary Marcus.

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