Gratuitous beauty

Japanese manhole cover

Our friend John Burnett recently returned from a trip to Japan, one of a handful of places he’d never been in a long career as a reporter for NPR. As a specialist in the American Southwest and Latin America, he was surprised to find that both Japan and its people utterly enchanted him. When I asked him what had so appealed to him, he thought for a minute and said that “random acts of gratuitous beauty” won his heart, sending me a photo (above) of a gratuitously beautiful manhole cover to explain what he meant.

That phrase rang in my mind: gratuitous beauty. As I left Madroño Ranch the other day, I saw a pair of painted buntings chasing bugs right by a lesser goldfinch perched on a purple thistle as a redwing blackbird sang its cheerily cacophonous song from a nearby walnut tree. I had already spent part of the morning walking and had spotted birds ranging from the drabbest to the showiest: from Tennessee warblers to yellow warblers, from blue-gray gnatcatchers to indigo buntings, from shy green herons to lark sparrows to summer tanagers—and these were just the beginning of the list. It was just a little show-offy. Gratuitous.

I wondered about the extravagance of this display, especially of the males with their vivid breeding plumage. Surely they become more visible to predators as well as to potential mates as they brighten up. Apparently the trade-off is worth it, evolutionarily speaking. Being bearers of such beauty trumps the risk of being eaten.

Of course, wondering if beauty has evolutionary value isn’t very scientific. We take for granted that beauty lies in the subjective, not the objective, realm; beauty is culturally conditioned, notoriously hard to measure or pin down. We tend to think of it as a value-added category, not as a necessity for life, an evolutionary necessity every bit as muscular as the competition for survival of the fittest.

There seems, however, to be a growing body of evidence suggesting that evolutionary success depends on much more than tooth and claw; it also requires cooperation and nurture. Although this may sound like a squishy sentimental left-wing sort of idea that comes out of liberal academia, there’s even a conservative who thinks the idea has merit: this week in the New York Times, David Brooks reviewed a number of recently published books about the human imperative to collaborate. The most important thing about the research, he says, is this:

For decades, people tried to devise a rigorous “scientific” system to analyze behavior that would be divorced from morality. But if cooperation permeates our nature, then so does morality, and there is no escaping ethics, emotion and religion in our quest to understand who we are and how we got this way.

I would raise Brooks’s bet on morality as a critical evolutionary component by claiming that we, individually and as a species, also need beauty in our lives only just slightly less than we need to breathe, eat, sleep, and procreate.

One of the reasons I think this is my consistent experience of finding human-created beauty in the most poverty-stricken and dire of circumstances. In the 1970s, my family lived in El Salvador, and we had the good fortune to travel extensively through Guatemala as well. Even as a young teenager in the iron grip of self-involvement, I was struck by the beauty of the textiles and artwork we encountered in the most poverty-ridden parts of those countries. I still have huipiles I bought almost forty years ago and am still enchanted by their colors and intricate designs. If survival were a matter only of competition, what could be the point of this time-consuming and ancient art? What is the point of any art? Why do we go to all that trouble when we could expend our energy in more apparently efficient survival strategies like decimating our enemies?

I think that one of the reasons we value, and even seem to require, beauty in our lives is that we long ago learned that the natural world values beauty, and we all know that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. (I don’t really understand what that means, but it has the unmistakable ring of authority, doesn’t it?) I recently found an engrossing book issued by Trinity University Press: Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, edited by Kathleen Dean Moore and Michael P. Nelson. It’s a collection of essays asserting the moral imperative to protect the corpus of the earth at least as carefully as we would care for any of the technological or financial assets around which we organize our individual and corporate lives. The essays are by poets and scientists, presidents and farmers, professors and religious leaders.

The title of one essay in particular, by Stephen R. Kellert, a professor emeritus at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, caught my attention: “For the Love and Beauty of Nature.” He contends that modern humans have “lost their bearings as biological beings, as just another animal and species in the firmament of creation.” In fact, we often measure our “progress” almost directly by our alienation from our biological roots. This is true even of many of those scientists and activists whose work is environmentally directed, says Kellert; their focus on technological, policy, and econometric issues often further exacerbates this alienation, inadvertently accelerating our rush to destruction.

We preserve what we love. When an empty home burns down, people risk their lives to save old photographs. Of course, some people will try to save objects with monetary value, but in our private lives we often value what is useless in the eyes of the world. We save the things that have meaning for us, that we think are beautiful, the things to which we have intense emotional and spiritual connections. Even if environmentalists implement all of the policy currently deemed necessary to save the world, its preservation would not be assured. We have to love the world in order to preserve it. Without that entirely subjective component in the mix, lovers of technology and objective measurement can save nothing except technology.

Our cultural devaluation of the pivotal role of subjective experience in the flourishing of culture is highly visible right now. What do we chose to cut out of federal, state, and local educational budgets? The first things to go are those that value what we deem to be training in subjectivity, in the appreciation of beauty: the arts. In the move to become more efficient and streamlined, however, we teach our children (and ourselves) to undervalue the most powerful forces that will drive their movement through the economic, technological, public world: love. We will value and save what we love, and we love what we think is beautiful. Do any preservation societies rally when big-box Wal-Marts get pulled down?

Aldo Leopold, one of the twentieth century’s most fervent and judicious conservationists, developed what he called a “land ethic,” which he considered to be a moral imperative and not a luxury to be applied only in times of economic well-being.

An ethic to supplement and guide the economic relation to the land presupposes the existence of some mental image of the land as a biotic mechanism. [By this I think he means “a living reality.”] We can be ethical only in relation to something we can see, feel, understand, love, or otherwise have faith in…. A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity… and beauty of the biotic enterprise. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.

We have ceased to love the natural world because so many of us no longer know it subjectively, emotionally, viscerally. Too many of us don’t know its intricacy and beauty, its drama and miraculous precision, its redundant abundance and efficiency. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: when we know—really know—the beauty of nature, we know our own beauty and thus will be saved. Teaching our children and reminding ourselves to love what is beautiful in nature is a move toward long-term survival. We love what is beautiful and preserve and nurture what we love. Gratuitous beauty as evolutionary stratagem: that’s science I can finally understand.

What we’re reading
David Orr, Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry
Martin: Arthur Phillips, The Tragedy of Arthur (still)

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