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Mission Impossible: Darwinizing Beauty

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Oscar Hammerstein II probably was not intending his Prince in the musical Cinderella (1957) to be arguing philosophy with his love. Watch a sweet modern rendition here:

Yet Hammerstein’s lyrics do raise profound problems about the nature of beauty. The Prince sings:

Do I love you because you’re beautiful,
Or are you beautiful because I love you?
Am I making believe I see in you
A girl too lovely to be really true?

Do I want you because you’re wonderful,
Or are you wonderful because I want you?
Are you the sweet invention of a lover’s dream
Or are you really as beautiful as you seem?

Good questions! Design advocates would argue for the first clause of each question; evolutionists, the second.

Explaining Transcendental Values 

Writing earlier this month at Evolution News, Ann Gauger made a compelling case for ascribing the transcendental values of beauty, goodness, and truth to intelligent design. These immaterial entities, she argued, may be abstract, but they are not subjective; we all recognize their transformative power in our lives; “They are the foundations on which a life worth living is built.” Gauger also delved into some of the failed attempts by scientific materialists to explain transcendentals.

As Michael Behe noted yesterday, The New York Times Magazine recently presented a feature article highly relevant to the same subject. It must have raised eyebrows: “How Beauty Is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution.” Let’s have a further look. Adorned by exquisite photographs of bird feathers, beginning with the peacock’s elaborate train, the article asks:

The extravagant splendor of the animal kingdom can’t be explained by natural selection alone — so how did it come to be? [Emphasis added.]

Another good question — made to order for an evolutionary manifesto on transcendental values. Because most of the mainstream media holds to an unwritten rule that only Darwinian explanations are worthy of discussion, writer Ferris Jabr has his work cut out for him. Can he account for beauty within the bounds of materialism? He has already admitted that bird plumage can’t be explained by natural selection alone. 

What Else Is There?

“A male flame bowerbird is a creature of incandescent beauty,” he begins. He does not deny the objective existence of beauty. Nor did Darwin. Jabr describes how the father of evolutionary theory tried to explain the origin of beauty in terms of his own theory of sexual selection. Unfortunately for Darwin, others found his ideas nonsensical, preferring an explanation that keeps natural selection intact: i.e., that beauty is a signal of fitness.

Charles Darwin himself disagreed with this theory. Although he co-discovered natural selection and devoted much of his life to demonstrating its importance, he never claimed that it could explain everything. Ornaments, Darwin proposed, evolved through a separate process he called sexual selection: Females choose the most appealing males “according to their standard of beauty” and, as a result, males evolve toward that standard, despite the costs. Darwin did not think it was necessary to link aesthetics and survival. Animals, he believed, could appreciate beauty for its own sake. Many of Darwin’s peers and successors ridiculed his proposal. To them, the idea that animals had such cognitive sophistication — and that the preferences of “capricious” females could shape entire species — was nonsense. Although never completely forgotten, Darwin’s theory of beauty was largely abandoned.

The naysayers, though, face an internal contradiction: if a female bird lacks the cognitive sophistication for aesthetics, how could it have the cognitive sophistication to relate beauty to fitness?

Zombie Science

Dead theories never really die in Zombie Science, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Wells. Darwin’s theory has arisen to haunt the halls of academia again.

Now, nearly 150 years later, a new generation of biologists is reviving Darwin’s neglected brainchild. Beauty, they say, does not have to be a proxy for health or advantageous genes. Sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find certain features — a blush of red, a feathered flourish — to be appealing. And that innate sense of beauty itself can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes. In other cases, certain environmental or physiological constraints steer an animal toward an aesthetic preference that has nothing to do with survival whatsoever.

Note the anthropomorphic language. Evolutionists cannot live within the bounds of their own materialism. They invariably inject human thoughts and values into living things — in this case, birds — which they insist are merely complex collections of molecules. Why is “an innate sense of beauty” that “can become an engine of evolution” any more sensible than Darwin’s idea?

Already, Jabr has exposed serious controversy between materialists on this question. If natural selection or sexual selection, individually or together, could explain beauty, there would be no need for this article. Evolutionary theory wouldn’t require a rewrite.

These biologists are not only rewriting the standard explanation for how beauty evolves; they are also changing the way we think about evolution itself. For decades, natural selection — the fact that creatures with the most advantageous traits have the best chance of surviving and multiplying — has been considered the unequivocal centerpiece of evolutionary theory. But these biologists believe that there are other forces at work, modes of evolution that are much more mischievous and discursive than natural selection.

Mischief Without a Mind?

Now there’s a conundrum; can a force be mischievous without a mind? A force might be discursive in the sense of “digressive” or “rambling,” but not in the sense of  “proceeding by reasoning or argument rather than intuition.” Once again, Jabr is reaching outside his materialist resources, appealing to transcendental ideas. What else does he have in his explanatory toolkit to settle the debate? (Remember, no intelligence allowed.)

There are really two environments governing the evolution of sentient creatures: an external one, which they inhabit, and an internal one, which they construct. To solve the enigma of beauty, to fully understand evolution, we must uncover the hidden links between those two worlds.

It’s hopeless. Jabr, and other evolutionists, cannot extricate themselves from transcendental values. Here they are, employing truth, goodness, and beauty to explain why those things don’t really exist. They evolved. They are incidental artifacts of a mindless process. But the very acts of solving an enigma, of fully understanding something, and of finding hidden links — these all presuppose the real existence of Gauger’s transcendental values. To deny this makes their own ideas implode. If their science originated by natural selection, then they don’t really mean what they say. Their molecules are just interacting with the environment in peculiar ways that have nothing to do with beauty, truth, or goodness. For all we know, they are mischievous deceivers trying to signal fitness to attract mates. 

A Good Storyteller

Interested readers can wade through the rest of Jabr’s account of the back-and-forth battle of Darwin’s view (natural selection plus sexual selection) and modern views (natural selection only). Jabr is a good storyteller, describing influential characters like ornithologist Richard Prum, (who favors sexual selection), and Molly Cummings (who favors natural selection only), in picturesque life portraits. But despite his voluptuous prose, Jabr leaves the question hanging. Evolutionists cannot agree on the origin of beauty. Notice the hole Jabr digs for himself:

Of course, it is undeniable that we, like all animals, are products of evolution. Our brains and sensory organs are just as biased as any other creature’s. Our inherited anatomy, physiology and instincts have undoubtedly shaped our perception of beauty.

It’s over, if that is true. Understanding why this idea is self-refuting renders the rest of what he says unworthy of serious consideration. Something better than that, Douglas Axe says, is Undeniable: “How Biology Confirms Our Intuition That Life Is Designed.” 

Jabr appears unable to accept any of the possible evolutionary explanations. He ends, tragically, with his own transcendental values unexplained: 

If there is a universal truth about beauty — some concise and elegant concept that encompasses every variety of charm and grace in existence — we do not yet understand enough about nature to articulate it. What we call beauty is not simply one thing or another, neither wholly purposeful nor entirely random, neither merely a property nor a feeling. Beauty is a dialogue between perceiver and perceived. Beauty is the world’s answer to the audacity of a flower. It is the way a bee spills across the lip of a yawning buttercup; it is the care with which a satin bowerbird selects a hibiscus bloom; it is the impulse to recreate water lilies with oil and canvas; it is the need to place roses on a grave.

Enjoy the New York Times feature for its evocative writing, but time might be as well spent admiring the photographs of the birds’ colorful and elaborate feather dresses.