Survival of the Usefully Beautiful

By April 6, 2012 3 Comments

David Rothenberg is a friend and fellow appreciator of the evolved beauty of nature, and in February he hosted an amazing event called the Survival of the Beautiful Wonder Cabinet at NYU, featuring Jaron Lanier, Philip Ball, and an excellent line-up of speakers (plus one rapper), all interested in the aesthetic beauty found in the natural world. You can watch some of the talks here.

Useful or Just Pretty?

David recently published an article in the New Statesman, and sent me a link to it, and I found much to disagree with, so I wrote him a response. Here’s the original article, entitled, “Survival of the Prettiest” and here’s my response:


The way you describe sexual selection in this article is either confused or designed to confuse, and is blatantly unfair to the scientists who work in the field. The main problem is your juxtaposition of the old dogmatic Dawkins-and-his-cronies view of evolution vs the new, open-minded, aesthetically sensitive view of evolution, but the difference between these two groups is either illusory or else it’s the difference between good science and wishful thinking.

Supposedly the former group “unquestioningly” sees evolution as promoting only that which is “merely useful” and “practical” and “good for spreading genes” while the latter group sees evolution as creating beautiful and complex structures “simply because it can.” This borders dangerously on intelligent design. Your slight of hand is in the juxtaposition between “useful” vs “beautiful”, which in the neo-Darwinian view isn’t a conflict at all. Beautiful is useful. Sexually selected traits are useful and practical for the purpose of attracting mates and spreading genes, while naturally selected traits are useful and practical for getting food, avoiding predators, resisting parasites, and not dying, also for the purpose of being ready and able to attract mates and spread genes. All good scientists, including Dawkins, acknowledge and celebrate this well-established fact, and none of them, as far as I know, see this simple explanatory framework as incompatible with an appreciation of the majesty and beauty of the natural world.

But you seem to disagree. You incorrectly criticize textbooks for suggesting “sexually selected beauty is ultimately practical, in that it is all for the good of propagating the species.” No textbook has used that awkward “for the good of propagating the species” phrase for decades as far as I know. It’s for propagating the genes of the individual in competition with other differently-endowed individuals that such traits evolve. You criticize the handicap principle and costly signalling theory as something that “supposedly” explains complex ornaments, such that the bower is “supposed to be a kind of ‘honest signal’, an artistic sign demonstrating that its maker has the best genes in the entire population.” If you don’t think that’s what the bower is for, then what else? The fact that the exact details of the end result are “not inevitable” doesn’t invalidate the explanation. It just makes certain aspects of the design by-products or “spandrels” of the adaptive process, like the pattern of creases in your navel, which you may or may not find beautiful.

This seems to be the crux of your criticism: “Any unified theory of evolution has to be able to appreciate beauty, without explaining it in such a way that its allure is lost.” My impression, however, is that you are unsatisfied with genetic and adaptive explanations of beauty in principle, regardless of their scientific validity. If that is true, then the only way to maintain the allure would be to not explain it, and that’s where I think you are in danger of being not just unscientific but anti-scientific. If “fundamentalist Darwinians” miss the “unalloyed beauty” that you supposedly savour, merely because they are interested in explaining the origins of that beauty, then there is an easy way to avoid alloying your sense of beauty: ignore the explanation. I don’t see you presenting an alternative explanation, I only see you rejecting a straw-man version of the standard explanation, and the result will inevitably confuse people about how natural selection (with sexual selection as a special sub-category) operates, that is, strictly as changes in gene-frequency within breeding populations.

I also find it annoying the way so many writers lay out their articles like this: 1) say that Dawkins is narrow-minded 2) mis-represent his views 3) describe the writer’s own open-minded views, which in fact are either correct and Dawkins would agree with them, or are incorrect 4) wish scientists would be more open-minded like self and less like mean ol’ Dawkins. Now, I will be the first to admit that I don’t agree with Dawkins on everything. For instance, I think he’s probably wrong to reject multi-level selection theory (the new version of group selection), but in his treatment of sexual selection I can’t fault him.

The essential question to ask each time you are formulating a criticism of Dawkins is this: Is he wrong, or just mean? The two are not the same, and disagreeing with someone’s rhetorical choices is not the same as disagreeing with the substance of their argument. It’s the substance of orthodox Darwinian sexual selection theory that you need to challenge if you don’t think it’s correct, and successfully doing so would probably net you a Nobel prize in science. The more well-established a theory, the more impressed everyone is when someone overturns it. I wish you every success, but in the meantime, I’m sticking with the scientists.

Yours in seeking truth, aesthetically and otherwise,


Baba Brinkman

Author Baba Brinkman

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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Brandon EVans says:

    I was particular put off by his “rewinding time” idea. Even if you could rewind time, things only really turn out differently if you actually CHANGE something, and the argument that things would be different if things had been different seems like a pretty meaningless one.

  • MattK says:

    Babba you are responding to that article with far more equanimity than I would. I found it literally (well, almost literally) jaw-droppingly stupid. It’s usegroup crackpot level argumentation presented in a competent writing style. That slate article is a perfect example of why scientists think philosophers are useless addle-headed blustering cranks. This is too bad become some philosophers have some important things to say about the practice of science.

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