Home > About > Bill Peak's Library Column > The Nature of Beauty at the Talbot County Free Library
When I was a kid, there were two types of National Geographic articles I loved: those that told of distant tribes the magazine in those days unhesitatingly referred to as “untouched by civilization” (the Yanomami, Huli, and !Kung becoming a sort of litany for me of all that remained free and wild in the world), and those that described the hominid fossils then coming to light beneath Louis S. B. Leakey's trowel in Olduvai Gorge. The magazine's reports from Olduvai were always magnificently illustrated with artists' depictions of creatures that not only seemed, but as it happened were, half-human and half-ape. I would stare at the massive tuber-crushing jaws of Australopithecus, the sagittal crest that anchored them, and I would grind my own molars against a stick of Bazooka Joe and wonder at the long slow processes of time that separated us.
Reading National Geographic, the science of evolution became an endless source of fascination for me: every new discovery, every new link, knitting life together into a single cloth of many colors—man, ape, snake, shad, and shadbush ... we were all related! Of course even as a child playing with my dog or watching a squirrel contemplate a fresh assault on the family's bird feeder, I had sensed this, and now that I read and learned about it in the magazine with the famous canary yellow borders, it all made eminent sense to me.
Still, as I grew up and learned more about the way natural selection works, the hint of a worry began to gnaw at my faith in it. There was something about all that adaptation—every change reasonable, apparently inevitable, a response to local conditions and nothing more—that seemed to steal Creation's majesty, deny it dignity, agency: life did not create; life reacted. Every living organism, ourselves included, walked in lockstep with evolution's merciless, unthinking march toward improvement, toward perpetuation of the species ... or, more accurately, toward perpetuation of what evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins has called “the selfish gene.” To paraphrase Annie Dillard (yet another great writer on the lessons to be learned from biology), “Natural selection isn't interested in the way you live, it only cares about the way you die.”
But now, more than half a century after I first grew interested in evolution, I've found a book by a professor at Yale that pretty convincingly takes natural selection down a peg or two. In Richard Prum's The Evolution of Beauty, we learn that a single, simple feather from a peacock's tail could make the great Charles Darwin quail. It was one thing for natural selection to end up—after millions of years of trial and error—with the precise DNA scaffolding required to produce an eye capable of sight, but how could he ever explain the mindless, sightless beauty of all the eyes on just that one feather? Where was the utility in that?
Prum's answer, as his title suggests, is beauty, the beauty that evolves not as a result of adaptation but as a result of an organism's desire to attract; whether that organism is a flower trying to draw a bee to its blossom, a peacock trying to seduce a peahen, or Romeo attempting to woo Juliet. The beauty of an orchid, a peacock feather, and Romeo's balcony speech are all of a piece. It is Prum's argument that nature's need to mix genes trumps any single gene's selfishness with the need to appeal to an other. Seemingly senseless, wasteful beauty—the beauty we see around us every day—is the end result. We are adapted to survive, but if we are to pass on that ability to survive, if we are to produce hybrid vigor in our offspring, we must appeal to another, and we must sacrifice a portion of the space on our offspring's chromosomes to that other's genes. We must connect with another living being, and then we must share something of our selves with that being. Or, as St. Paul would have it, “And the greatest of these is love.“
On Monday night, July 23, at 6:30 p.m., in the Easton branch of the Talbot County Free Library, Dr. Wayne Bell of Washington College will discuss Richard Prum's paradigm-shattering work. I wouldn't miss his lecture for the world ... and I'm hoping this column will attract you to it as well.
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