Survival of the Beautiful Art, Science, and Evolution

David Rothenberg

Bloomsbury Press




320 Pages



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"The peacock's tail," said Charles Darwin, "makes me sick." That's because the theory of evolution as adaptation can't explain why nature is so beautiful. It took the concept of sexual selection for Darwin to explain that, a process that has more to do with aesthetics than with the practical. Survival of the Beautiful is a revolutionary new examination of the interplay of beauty, art, and culture in evolution. Taking inspiration from Darwin's observation that animals have a natural aesthetic sense, philosopher and musician David Rothenberg probes why animals, humans included, have innate appreciation for beauty-and why nature is, indeed, beautiful.


Praise for Survival of the Beautiful

"A searching, accessible, and often ecstatic book."—The Wall Street Journal

"The colour blue rules for the male satin bowerbird of Australia. The interior decorators of the avian world, they gather plastic, shells and feathers of that hue to adorn their meticulously built stick structures, all to lure a potential mate. This is just one indication, argues philosopher and musician David Rothenberg, that beauty is not random but is intrinsic to life—and that evolution proceeds by sumptuousness, not by utility alone. Rothenberg covers topics such as camouflage, abstraction, the profound impact of art on science and much more to explore his theme."—Nature

"A door-opener to new ideas and connective tissue in the skeleton of science, particularly biology and Darwin's theory of evolution. Chances are good you'll find Mr. Rothenberg's ‘mad quest for some evidence of aesthetic ideas in the very way nature is put together' to be persuasive."—New York Journal of Books

"Rothenberg is a learned and thoughtful guide across the realms of science and art."—Washington Independent Review of Books

"[Rothenberg] seems uniquely qualified to be herald and interlocutor for the present convergence of biology and art."—Chronogram magazine

"I have been waiting for a long time for a book like Survival of the Beautiful that suffers not a jot of art's inferiority complex in the age of science . . . It's one terrific romp through the ineffable and embracing glory of the aesthetic experience."—Alison Hawthorne Deming, Orion

"This is the triumphant lesson of Survival of the Beautiful: nature is not entirely red in tooth and claw, it also allows the beautiful right of passage."—Peter Forbes, The Guardian (UK)

"Rothenberg's passionate optimism—a belief in the beauty of nature, and vice versa—together with his elegant prose turns Survival of the Beautiful into an exhilarating and thought-provoking trip."—Philip Hoare, The Telegraph (UK)

"Survival of the Beautiful is a wild ride. At its heart is a wonderful wish: to make us see the stories and the beauty in everything from the warbles of flying cranes to the cries of crows, From the shape-shifting squid to the bower-building bird, to the elephant and to the cryptic moth, which hides beneath his drab wing-tops a flash of crimson red."—William Bryant Logan, Toronto Globe and Mail

"Rothenberg comes to an inspired conclusion: Aesthetic selection introduces a new kind of randomness into nature that unites art and nature, man and beast."—Christopher Potter, Sunday Times of London

"Survival of the Beautiful is not just a book about beauty, but a beautiful book. And also an important one, which moves the debate about the biology of aesthetics beyond the cozy fables of evolutionary psychology to probe the deep nature of art and its origins. Both provocative and generous, Rothenberg's work is pervaded with a sense of wonder at and appreciation of the world."—Philip Ball, author of Critical Mass and The Music Instinct

"David Rothenberg is a brilliantly fun guide on a journey that takes us from bower birds to the neuroesthetics of Semir Zeki. Survival of the Beautiful is just about the best travel literature of the mind out there. With wit by turns gentle and sharp, Rothenberg shows us how art is shaped by animals, and by us."—Roald Hoffmann, chemist and writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry

"The nerdy mindset of modernity often suffers allergic outbreaks when confronted with the softer side of cognition. Esthetic pleasures are then cordoned off from the serious core work of science. But David Rothenberg makes a convincing case that beauty is an intrinsic aspect of reality. He argues, among other things, that without modern art, modern science would have been hobbled by inadequately challenged cognitive habits. Beauty evolved. Perhaps we should take it seriously."—Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget

"What I love about David Rothenberg's work is that he counteracts—with wit, poetry and philosophical subtlety—the prevailing tendency of most nature writers toward biological reductionism. While reporting on the latest scientific conjectures about beauty, human and inhuman, he shows that all our theories still fail to do justice to nature's unutterable strangeness."—John Horgan, author of Rational Mysticism and The End of Science

"David Rothenberg is a rarity—an actual polymath—and his writing, like the music he plays, reveals an extraordinary mixture of curiosity, intelligence, and playfulness. Tracing complex ideas that link consciousness, human spirit, and creativity within the framework of Darwinian theory is the sort of book you would expect from a man who makes music with whales and cicadas. Where does the impetus for the making of art and music reside? How does that fit into an evolutionary scheme? Read this book, and enter into Rothenberg's world. You will be rewarded with a exploration of these questions that is both entertaining and revelatory."—David A. Ross, Director Emeritus, Whitney Museum of American Art

"A fun, freewheeling discussion of the role of aesthetics in evolution and a celebration of the beauty to be found in the great diversity of life."—Kirkus Reviews

"[A] bravura investigation . . . with verve, multidiscipline fluency, and an encompassing vision, Rothenberg accomplishes his mission to change the way we perceive and understand the intertwining of natural evolution and human cultural evolution, beauty and life, art and science."—Booklist (starred review)

"Not many authors could find a way to interweave abstruse art theory with discussions of squid and their glorious 'dynamic tattoos,' elephants who paint, and Paleolithic cave art, but Rothenberg succeeds, with this entertaining wander through the world of art and the places where it intersects science."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • David Rothenberg

  • David Rothenberg is Professor of Philosophy and Music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of books including Thousand Mile Song and Why Birds Sing. His articles have appeared in Parabola, The Nation, Wired, Dwell, and Sierra.

  • David Rothenberg