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 ...1
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