Darwin vs. Beauty: Explaining Away the Butterfly
By Jonathan Witt
There is nothing necessarily illogical about seeking to “explain away” something, since the something in question may be an illusion; but a first step in understanding Darwinism’s response to the beauty of the butterfly—and to beauty generally—is to recognize that Darwinism does seek to explain away our experience of it. In particular, it seeks to explain away our sense that beauty in some way connects us to the transcendent.
To his credit, Charles Darwin recognized there were instances of extravagant natural beauty that outstripped the explanatory power of Darwinian natural selection, so in The Descent of Man he developed his theory of sexual selection to fill the explanatory gap. There Darwin argued, in essence, that the peacock has an extravagant tail, Shakespeare an extravagant gift for spinning tales, and Mozart an extravagant ability to compose, the better to attract a mate.1
His explanation, while scientific in its orientation, was part of a larger philosophical project known as reduction— the idea that the best way to understand something is to identify its material parts, and to do so at lower and lower levels (from traits to cells to molecules to atoms, and so on). At its most extreme, reductionism views things as ultimately just the sum of their parts. Thus, to a Darwinian reductionist, the grace and beauty of the butterfly or the songbird or the poet ultimately spring from some advantage this beauty lent the creature and its ancestors for survival and reproduction (“survival of the fittest”).
And at this point Darwinism is only getting warmed up. Darwinian reductionism is the great equalizer, boiling all of life down to either natural selection or sexual selection, and beneath that, to genetics. “Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by tortuous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control,” explains evolutionary apologist Richard Dawkins. “They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.”2
If we imagine that the higher things in life are somehow exempt from this reductionist acid, Harvard sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson sets us straight. He leads into the matter by suggesting that when humans have grown wiser, the human mind “will be more precisely explained as an epiphenomenon of the neuronal machinery of the brain. That machinery is in turn the product of genetic evolution by natural selection acting on human populations for hundreds of thousands of years in their ancient environments.”3 A bit later he adds, “The social scientists and humanistic scholars, not omitting theologians, will eventually have to concede that scientific naturalism is destined to alter the foundation of their systematic inquiry by redefining the mental process itself.”
As for the beauty of artistic genius, the “sensuous hues and dark tones have been produced by the genetic evolution of our nervous and sensory tissues,” he writes. “To treat them as other than objects of biological inquiry is simply to aim too low.”4
Wilson puts a brave and noble face on his recommended approach, implying as he does that his opponents are aiming “too low.” But what exactly is high about Darwinian reductionism? Treating artistic beauty as a mere byproduct of evolution doesn’t lead to a higher, deeper, or nobler understanding of art. It undermines the very foundation for saying anything is noble or low or wicked…
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