Gratuitous Beauty image

Gratuitous Beauty

Why is there so much beauty in the world? I mean, it can almost seem gratuitous at times. Sure, there is a lot of ugliness too, generally caused by the careless or malicious actions of man; but there is so much that is so staggeringly beautiful. It can take your breath away.

The beauty of so many plants and animals is a problem for biological science. Creating all that beauty uses a huge amount of energy, and that energy is costly, so there needs to be some reason for the expenditure. Evolutionary biology generally answers this problem in terms of ‘fitness’. Living organisms are meant to be most concerned with doing what is most likely to result in the propagation of their genes – energy expenditure is meant to be directed towards the creation of offspring who will flourish in their ecological niche. So the peacock’s excessively gorgeous tail or the butterfly’s extravagant wings demonstrate to potential mates what a good catch their owner represents: they are fit to reproduce.

This is the dominant theory in evolutionary biology. But there is an alternative narrative, one which the rather wonderful Radio Lab recently explored in an episode titled ‘The Beauty Puzzle’.

When a female animal is checking out her prospects, natural selection would dictate that she pay attention to how healthy, or strong, or fit he is. But when it comes to finding a mate, some animals seem to be engaged in a very different game. What if a female were looking for something else - something that has nothing to do with fitness? Something…beautiful?

The argument goes that evolutionary development is not driven simply by who (normally male) is the fittest, but by the aesthetic preferences of females. As evidence for this Radio Lab considered the manakin bird. The males of this bird perform a courtship display that involves them vibrating their wings at incredibly high speeds – speeds so high that only wings with solid bones can handle it. This is bizarre, because birds have hollow bones in order to be able to fly.

Here is how the Radio Lab presenters dissect this problem:

Think about that. You’re in a crowded forest. Lots of competitors, lots of predators trying to eat you. And you have made yourself slower, more vulnerable. And it gets worse. Because the manakins have to start this process of building these hard bones really early, like when they’re very, very tiny in the embryo.

Before the embryo has become either male or female.

So you’ve got an embryo that can go either way, and they’re already making the big bones. And some of them are gonna be male, but some of them are gonna be female.

So by choosing males with weird wing bones because they make great songs, the female also has daughters with distorted and inferior wing bones that they will never use.

Both the females and the males get these thick bones. So she is choosing to hear that sound and has designed him to produce that sound. But in the bargain, he comes out with heavier bones and can fly less well, and weirdly enough she comes out with heavier bones and can fly less well. So both of them are hurting their chances to survive for the chance to hear the beautiful tone that she wants to hear that he wants to give her.

Wait, what?

Wait. So she has heavy bones too?



But she doesn’t use them?



This is a suggestion with massive repercussions for biological science but as I listened in on the discussion it not only got me thinking about evolutionary biology but how this different theory is so much closer to Christian theology. What if the world is driven less by who is reddest in tooth and claw and more by the pursuit of beauty? Might that not be a better explanation for why the world is so extravagantly gorgeous – for why we have cobalt blue and cadmium red and yellow ochre? And what if this is not because of genetic chance but because that is how a Creator intended it? A creator who is himself beautiful and made all things beautiful and put in the hearts of his creation a desire for beauty – even in the hearts of the birds and the bees, and certainly in the hearts of the man and woman?

Beauty: not a by-product – not even a puzzle – but the very essence of what creation is meant to be. Wow. That’s beautiful!

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