Monday, May 13, 2019

Truth And Beauty

My wife, Jennifer, was lately marveling at how joyfully our dog, Stella, rolls in whatever grassy lawn she comes across. All of the dogs we have ever adopted have done this, and we've long speculated that it's because they have found something particularly "stinky" and want to take the perfume of it home in their fur, with of course "stinky" being translated into dog language as "heavenly."

The theory of natural selection would suggest that there is something useful, or adaptive, about dogs acquiring particular odors, perhaps indicating that they are strong hunters or that their rolling about joyfully is evidence of their superior health, both traits that perspective mates might seek to pass along to their offspring. But there is also the chance that natural selection has nothing to do with it. It could be that wearing particular stinks is purely an aesthetic choice, one that has no utilitarian purpose whatsoever. Indeed, even the great Charles Darwin himself proposed that ornamentation may have evolved separately, through a 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.

We don't have a lawn at our school, but when we take children to one of the nearby public lawns, they behave in many ways like Stella. They tend to fall into the grass, rolling in it, digging in it, grabbing at it by the handful, and, naturally, picking any little wildflowers they find, collecting them into bouquets they deem "beautiful." Now one could argue that since flowers are often harbingers of food in the form of fruit, that humans have evolved to be attracted to flowers for utilitarian purposes, and that collecting them to carry home might even be a way to communicating the location of said fruit to the rest of the tribe, but scientists are increasingly coming around to Darwin's long neglected notion that animals sometimes, if not frequently, develop traits, like magnificent plumage or resonate voices or the tendency to roll in stinky stuff, simply based upon the fact that they have, as a species, determined those things, like those wildflowers, to be beautiful.

According to the theory of sexual selection, the expression of one aesthetic over another is largely arbitrary. A female that favors a mate due to a certain look/scent/sound/dance over another might not do so for any discernible reason other than that she digs it, which tends to lead to offspring that feature, or favor, that particular trait, meaning it gets passed on even if it doesn't have anything to do with "survival." It is the creation of beauty, apparently for beauty's sake.

I used to jokingly divide the books in my home library into two general categories: truth (non-fiction) and beauty (fiction), and while I meant it whimsically, we do tend to behave as if there is some sort of natural tension between the two. Literacy and math, for instance, a pair of more utilitarian aspects of education have been elevated in our public school curricula while the arts have been dramatically reduced, or even in some cases cut entirely, being deemed unnecessary, even frivolous. But this is a false comparison: truth and beauty are in equal measure manifestations of life's purpose, which is to seek to understand itself.

Truth is how we try to understand the external world, while beauty is how we try understand our internal one. Expressions of beauty, be they the feathers of a peacock, the splay of a sunflower blossom, or the layers of an oil painting, are how living things express the part of reality, of ourselves, created from within. As soon as we are capable, we begin to create beauty. I'll always remember how our newborn daughter played with a kind of gurgling sound in the back of her throat for weeks, sounding something like, "Agggggguuu." She did it over and over in her contented moments, making that sound both because she could, but also, it seemed to me, because she liked it, creating beauty for its own sake.

Beauty is not frivolous, even if it is also arbitrary. Indeed, it appears to be one of forces that define living things: its pursuit a companion to our quest for truth. It is not mere ornamentation, but rather something fundamental to life itself and any education that places truth over beauty is one that neglects half of what makes us human. Be it gathering flowers into bouquets, expressing ourselves through dance, or passing it along in our genes, it's only by engaging beauty that we will ever understand the world within ourselves.

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