There’s no shortage of ugliness in our world. A quick scan of today’s environmental headlines reveals any number of horrors: burnt-out Californian forests, flooded Midwestern plains. It’s hard to pause to appreciate the wildflowers in bloom when dead whales wash ashore with plastic-engorged stomachs on beaches all over the world.
Perhaps it helps to know that when we fail to see the beauty around us, other creatures don’t. Some scientists now believe that animals appreciate beauty for its own sake.
Usually, the first (and most common) purpose ascribed to beauty is its functionality. Beauty can alert us to healthfulness or the presence of fertility, a useful and vital role in producing healthy offspring. In this scientific view, beauty serves no other purpose than as a genetic signpost.
But another potential exists. Some scientists recently proposed that beauty in the natural world might sometimes exist just for aesthetic purposes. In his book The Evolution of Beauty, ornithologist Richard Prum suggests that some animals may appreciate beauty outside of any reproductive purposes and may choose mates based on an aesthetic sense alone, a phenomenon known as sexual selection. He cites the laborious process a male bowerbird undertakes when building his bower, or nest. “The bower serves no physical purpose other than as a location where courtship takes place,” he says, indicating that this artistic demonstration is meant solely for the female bowerbird’s aesthetic enjoyment.
Jeff Schloss, a professor of biology at Westmont College, said in an interview that Prum’s theories have further inflamed an “ongoing debate” in the scientific world. Schloss, who studies the evolution of altruism, feels Prum is “onto something,” though he finds Prum’s theory a bit too dismissive of other options. He noted that recent studies of human attractiveness do support some of Prum’s theory. For instance, facial symmetry, a cross-cultural standard of beauty long thought to be an indicator of health, has been recently questioned as an indicator of genetic fitness.
It seems, then, that animals and humans alike have the capacity to appreciate beauty for beauty’s sake. Can beauty be about more than just natural selection? Scripture provides ample evidence of creation as a source of pleasure. Psalm 96 describes the earth—and its creatures—as having an awareness of God’s majesty and praising him in kind: “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them” (vv. 11–12).
Madeleine L’Engle remarked that when looking for inspiration on the nature of God, she often turned to scientists, calling them “contemporary mystics.” But what is it like to be one of those scientists, seeing this beauty up close and personal?
Schloss remembers sensing God in the night sky even before becoming a person of faith. “I just thought, ‘This is so beautiful. There’s something there that I don’t yet have and I don’t yet see.’ And I think that was Jesus,” he says. “I wanted to be grateful, but I didn’t have anybody to be grateful to.” Schloss says that, as a scientist, he sees resounding evidence of God’s wisdom and guidance in the natural world. “God hasn’t just arbitrarily designed creatures and imposed rules on them,” he says. “I think he’s designed us specifically to flourish when yielding to the good, and he’s given instruction on what the good is, for our flourishing. And boy, that’s a good creation!”
Scripture tells us that God is good and cares for his creatures. Psalm 104 depicts God tending to and providing for all his creatures, big and small, from birds and badgers to lions and the cedars of Lebanon. In Matthew 6, Christ also reminds us that even “the grass of the field” is clothed by God’s tender hand. Romans 1:20 says that the created world leaves us “without excuse,” and that it illustrates God’s character in full, vivid color.
Scripture also tells us that the created world will respond to God with worship (Isa. :12–13). But is it already? If even the trees of the field clap their hands, perhaps the crafty bowerbird, when building a beautiful nest for its mate, is also singing a song of praise. Perhaps God endowed all his creatures with an appreciation of beauty in order to draw them closer to himself.
In The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis describes pain as “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” Our world is surely as deaf as ever. But what if God were using beauty to rouse us? What is he trying to say? Schloss says he feels “a sense of nostalgia” in the beauty of the natural world. “I think it’s the heaven that we’re not fully in,” he says, paraphrasing another quote from Lewis.
If we pay close attention, we can see the created world as a perpetual testimony of who God is. John Piper says God takes pleasure in his creation knowing that this living testament to God’s glory will ultimately point us back to him: “[God] means for us always to look at his creation and say: If the work of his hands is so full of wisdom and power and grandeur and majesty and beauty, what must this God be like in himself?”
Theologian Christopher C. Knight posits that God is more intimately connected to the created world than we often think. He says we should do away “with the assumption that God is essentially ‘outside’ the creation,” noting that this helps us avoid being accidental Deists. Knight suggests that God, as one ancient Eastern Christian prayer puts it, is “everywhere present and filling all things.”
What can be said for us, then, that live on this planet of washed-out plains and burnt-out forests and whales choked with plastic? “A tremendous amount of ecological deterioration is due ultimately to our idolatry,” Schloss says, “by trying to fill our deepest yearnings with the stuff of creation rather than the creator.”
Ezekiel likens idolatrous Israel to a shepherd who neglects his flock. “Woe to you shepherds of Israel who take care only of yourselves!” he warns. “You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool, and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock” (34:2–3). The earlier prophet Isaiah wrote of the restoration that creation would undergo, if only we would set our idolatry aside: “The mountains and hills will burst into song before you, and all the trees of the field will clap their hands. Instead of the thornbush will grow the juniper, and instead of briers the myrtle will grow” (55:12–13).
When we experience the beauty of the natural world, God himself is calling to us. He is reminding us of the way things could be, if only we would follow him and tend his creatures. Schloss sees this as yet another testament to God’s goodness. “The way human creatures are designed biologically, we flourish when in touch with the good, the true, and the beautiful,” he says, “and God has so constructed our nature all the way down to our physiology that conforming our lives to these transcendent goods actually enhances life.”
We can join the bowerbirds in appreciating the beauty of this world, and the trees of the field in their song of praise. And when we do, we will draw near not only to the good and the beautiful, but to God.
Elyse Durham is a writer in Detroit.