Survival of the Beautiful

Survival of the Beautiful

The New York Institute of the Humanities and New Jersey Institute of Technology Guest-curated by David Rothenberg
Made possible with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


Why did the peacock’s tail so trouble Charles Darwin? Natural selection could not explain it, so he had to contrive a whole new theory of sexual selection, which posited that certain astonishingly beautiful traits became preferred even when not exactly useful, simply because they appealed to the opposite sex, and specifically so in each case. And yet the parallels in what gets preferred at different levels of life suggest that nature may in fact favor certain kinds of patterns over others. Visually, the symmetrical; colorwise, the contrasting and gaudy; displaywise, the gallant and extreme. Soundwise, the strong contrast between low note and high, between fast rhythm and the long clear tone. For that matter, plenty of beauty in nature would seem to arise for reasons other than mere sexual selection: for example, the mysterious inscriptions on the backs of seashells, or the compounding geometric symmetries of microscopic diatoms, or the live patterns pulsating across the bodies of octopus and squid.

Humans see such things and find them astonishingly beautiful: are we wrong to experience Nature in such terms? Far greater than our grandest edifices and epic tales, Nature itself nevertheless seems entirely without purposeful self-consciousness or self-awareness. Meanwhile, though we ourselves are as nothing compared to it, we still seem possessed of a parallel need to create. So: can we in fact create our way into better understanding of the role of beauty in the vast natural world? David Rothenberg recently published a book on these themes, Survival of the Beautiful (Bloomsbury, 2011), and many of the protagonists he encountered on his quest will join him on stage at the Cantor Film Center to debate the question of whether nature’s beauty is actual, imaginary, useful, excessive, or perhaps even entirely beside the point.


10:45 am
DAVID ROTHENBERG and JARON LANIER offer a musical and conceptual introduction.

11:00 am
GAIL PATRICELLI on building a fembot bowerbird to study how male bowerbirds woo females through elaborate dancing and decorating rituals; drawing on her example, RICHARD PRUM explains why everyone misses the point of sexual selection except him.

12:00 pm
OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI responds to Prum’s claim by way of introducing CHRISTINE ROESKE, a postdoc in his lab, who, veritably haunted by the beauty of the nightingale’s song, nevertheless tries to subject it to scientific analysis.

12:45 pm
ANNA LINDEMANN, Prum alum turned performance artist, enacts her Theory of Flight.

(1:00 – 1:30 pm: Break)

2:00 pm
PHILIP BALL shows how chemistry and physics might trump biology in their ability to account for formal natural beauty. TYLER VOLK deploys his concept of metapatterns to explain how 3 realms and 13 steps (from quarks to culture) make us who we are.

3:00 pm
We know how Science is regularly said to influence Art, but SUZANNE ANKER explores the flow in the other direction. DAVID SOLDIER and VITALY KOMAR revisit their classic elephant art experiment, asking whether we can learn anything about art by teaching animals to make it.

4:00 pm
Composer DAVID DUNN details his proposal to use music to save the forests of the American West from destruction by pine bark beetles. DAVID ABRAM on how synaesthesia (the blending of the senses) might help us feel our way into the experience of another animal.

(5:00 – 5:30 pm: Break)

5:30 pm
Digital artist SCOTT SNIBBE recounts how he helped morph Björk’s love of science into the Biophilia app.

6:15 pm
BABA BRINKMAN, direct from off-Broadway, performs a special version of The Rap Guide to Evolution.

7:00 pm
JARON LANIER explains why if squid only had childhoods, they would rule the world. LAURIE ANDERSON explains how animals can learn music and art, along with ELISABETH WEISS.


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Survival of the Beautiful

Artists and Scientists Ponder the Aesthetics of Evolution
An All-Day Wonder Cabinet 
Saturday Feb 25th, 2012
NYU’s Cantor Film Center
36 East 8th Street
Free and Open to the Public (first-come, first-in)