9/13/2017

Are Flowers Inevitable?

""Beauty will save the world." ~Dostoyevsky

"Objective" science seems to be skewed toward a utilitarian view of nature: nature as machine without a subject, without a taste for beauty. Are we so sure that beauty is a by-product, and not the motive, the beginning and end, of evolution?

A biosphere could have evolved without blossoms. Are flowers inevitable? The job of cradling seeds and distributing pollen might have gotten accomplished in a more mechanical and economic fashion. Whatever the work of fragrance is, from rose to musk, we might sense it as a thread of vibration, a ray of gray light, without a scent. Yet we, and perhaps the bees also, sense the garden as sweetness, with shade upon shade of subtle textures, flavors, aftertastes. Why do birds sing? Another form of communication might have been evolved, an electrical buzz too quiet for humans to hear, and more mathematically accurate for the birds.

I suggest that beauty is a driving force, and you reply that natural selection needs no motivation, for nature's mechanisms run on a simple will to survive. But is that not a motive? And what is so great about survival for its own sake? Without the possibility of savoring, mere survival is just work, a losing struggle against entropy. Without appreciation of the Beautiful, we give up hope, and don't live at all.

Read "Man's Search For Meaning," by psychiatrist Victor Frank, who not only survived the concentration camp at Auschwitz, but concluded from his study that the people who survived there did so, not because they had a hardier physical constitution, but because they nurtured a transcendent purpose, and cherished some beauty to live for.

We don't know how deeply mute creatures like bees and hummingbirds appreciate fragrance, color, song, or if they do at all, for they are mute. All we know is that men and women have evolved a capacity for wonder, and for singing about it. Is this capacity for wonder a random by-product of natural selection, or is it the reason we are here?

I don't know. But I do know that naked men with bare hands cannot do nature's tasks nearly as well as animal and vegetable species do, whether running, or swimming, or flying, or hunting, or cross-pollinating. We had to invent tools simply because we were inept without them. Comparing a man to a panther or an ant, it is obvious that the man is inferior at particular tasks, whether large or small. But at the general task of being astonished, and singing about it, humans do better than others, and were probably created for nothing else.

The words of Rabbi Heschel, "To be spiritual is to be amazed," I would paraphrase by making an even simpler claim: "To be human is to be amazed: this is our chief work."


Photo by Laurent Berthier

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