- List All

  • Web   The Point


+ Theology/Religion + Culture + Marriage & Family + Politics + Academia + Human Rights
Christianity Blogs - BlogCatalog Blog Directory
Religion Blogs - Blog Top Sites
Link With Us - Web Directory

« Simply Beautiful! | Main | Daily roundup »

February 09, 2009

Useless beauty

Peacock3 I don't mean to horn in on Regis's territory, but my eye was caught by this article on "Darwin's Legacy" in the February issue of National Geographic magazine. I was especially intrigued by this passage on the fourth page:

If natural selection is survival of the fittest (a phrase coined by the philosopher Herbert Spencer, not by Darwin), then sexual selection is reproduction of the sexiest. It has the delightful effect of generating weapons, ornaments, songs, and colors, especially on male animals. Darwin believed that some such ornaments, such as stags' antlers, helped males fight each other for females; others, such as peacocks' tails, helped males "charm" (his word) females into mating. It was, in truth, an idea born of desperation, because useless beauty worried him as an apparent exception to the ruthlessly practical workings of natural selection. He wrote to the American botanist Asa Gray in April 1860 that "The sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!"

Of course, as it turned out, the "idea born of desperation" was correct. But I wonder, what does it say about a worldview when its founder finds the possibility of beauty with no clear function -- the possibility that something might simply be beautiful for no reason -- downright sickening?

AddThis Social Bookmark Button


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Useless beauty:



Yup, imagine the conversation between the Darwinian scientist and his wife: "Honey, now that we've had our children your beauty is of no more value."

There probably aren't enough roses and Valentine's Day cards in the whole world...


You say you don't want to horn in on Regis's territory, yet, in saying "of course, as it turned out, the "idea born in desperation" was correct" aren't you declaring Darwin and evolution correct? That seems like a pretty substantial "horning"!

There is a more interesting aspect to Darwins thoughts. If a male peacock's feathers attract a female mate, then the feathers are utilitarian - from a peacock perspective. But it is Darwin and you and I that call them beautiful. Since we aren't mating with peacocks, it seems that peacock feathers still possess the quality of "useless beauty".

Gina Dalfonzo

A good point, that last observation, David. I wonder what Darwin would have made of it.

As to your first point, I don't think any of us here ever said that Darwin was wrong about EVERYTHING. Certainly he got a few things right. But not all things.


Gina wrote: "I wonder what Darwin would have made of it."

One of the great existential crises of my life was when I realized that under Darwinism, all recognition of beauty was merely my brain working as it had evolved to do. And worse, this was true for everyone else as well.

I was about to take all my albums and cassette tapes (fossil that I am) to the dumpster, including my beloved Beethoven's 9th, when I suddenly decided to live inconsistently with my Darwinian faith. Music would salve the pain of my hypocrisy. ;-)

More sophisticated Darwinists than I was will use the reasoning that recognition of beauty may confer some survival value for humans - in which case beauty is not useless. Or, it may not - in which case it will gradually go away as the aesthetically-challenged overtake the rest of us. One could argue (as Roberto probably does whenever anyone plays country-western music) that the latter is clearly happening.

So per Darwinism we can't really say what is "useless" until after the species has failed to survive. For humans, the answer would be kinda academic. :-)


As an artist, I had to do drawings of both males &females from life---

Note womens' more graceful elbows--versus males more angularly balanced elbows?

This is a tiny example---of balance, proportion, line, etc. etc. (you can list all the Renaissance art principles here)

Of course, grace with bulk is illustrated regularly when I see the polar bear slide his stylish massive self into the pool at Brookfield Zoo.

I would be hard pressed to see anything in the natural world (animal, vegetable, mineral) that does NOT illustrate its own grace and proportion.

(Tho I might make some exception for some human made anti-art!)


We humans have (usually) a natural instinct to make our surroundings beautiful as well as functional.

Perhaps we indirectly reflect God, who seems to have put in a grace into all His creatures, however bulky, bizarre, strange...they seem to be like an artwork that works because "it follows its own rules". Thus, the hippopotamus, polar bear, and many insects I could name...all have their own kind of grace.

(Tho some grotesquely dirty dorm rooms of my male college classmates seemed more to illustrate the 2nd law of Thermodynamics---)

However, even my former super messy male classmates were likely shaped up later by a pretty wife who demanded they contribute to keeping up a minimally ordered immediate universe (i.e. their shared home)!!!

The comments to this entry are closed.