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The barb of variety

Josef H. Reichholf's book on the origin of beauty is a declaration of love for a nature that is not simply utilitarian but also wasteful and theatrical. By Horst Bredekamp

Well-meaning critics struggled to conceal their perplexity, behind which laid a thick wall of denial. The second part of "Descent of Man" published in 1871 contained Charles Darwin's treatise on "sexual selection", which presented perhaps his greatest failure. Darwin was confronted with the problem of not believing that nature, which was literally exploding with variety and diversity, could be explained solely with the aid of "natural selection". To resolve this conflict he came up with the theory of "sexual" selection, making the female eye the agent of evolution. "Female choice" as he called it, was in no only way solely obligated to follow a commitment to strength and guaranteed survival; the female interest essentially followed another principle, one that could be described as the desire for variation. This meant that Darwin was defining nature, to a certain extent, as a history of erotic form – or even art. In regarding the bodies of animals as self-produced images, he defined his second pillar of evolution as an astonishing pictorial theatre which arose out of the interplay of the female eye in the search for variation and the readiness of the male to mutate.

The Origin of Beauty: Darwin's greatest Dilemma.
By Josef H. Reichholf. (C.H.Beck Verlag)

Fellow naturalists like Alfred R. Wallace were so dismissive of Darwin's theory because they could not accept the existence of a variational drive independent of the pressure to conform to the environment.

Evolutionary biology has never managed to shake off this discomfort, even if the theory of sexual selection continues to be picked up by outsiders and has been cautiously integrated into and developed by the mainstream. The misgivings were also culturally determined. Unlike Darwin's 1859 treatise "The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" which hit a nerve at a time when the struggle for survival was being unleashed under the conditions of burgeoning capitalism, his concept of sexual selection inadvertently struck at the neurotic core of the Victorian obsession with controlling drives. This provoked a resistance whose unacknowledged psychological roots made it virtually invincible.

The ambitious venture by the Munich evolutionary biologist Josef H. Reichholf ignores such quarrels of scientific history because Darwin's basic idea strikes him as self-evident. He does not seek to justify it so much as solve the problems it poses. His book presents a formidable abundance of insights, which the author formulates in the most poignant language as the fundamental questions of evolutionary biology.

The theory of sexual selection relies on the category of beauty. Until now, the most comprehensive presentations of this concept in the work of Charles Darwin have come from literary scholars like George Levine and Winfried Menninghaus. Reichholf acknowledges their work but promises to get to the heart of Darwin's problem in the natural world. Aware that the search for the "matter itself" is the product of a theoretical decision, the author regularly punctuates his lists of examples with reflections on the legitimacy of his approach and the fundamental questions that arise from it.

The book excels in the passages where, during the discussion of existing knowledge, the author suddenly leaps to his own observations about the courtship behaviour of the Black Grouse or the texture of feathers. Here his writing takes on a quality that touches the most brilliant passages of Darwin's own. At the end of his "Origin of Species" where he describes an "untangled bank", Darwin talked about beauty in such soulful terms that he acquired the status of a talented novelist, and in several chapters of "Sexual Selection" this adulatory enthusiasm for nature's creations as works of art shines through.

In his extensive discussion of the world of birds, Reichholf begins with Darwin's paragons, the peacock and the Great Argus. The regularity of his encounters with the unexpected prompts him to ask whether there might be some order in diversity. But, he notes, it is difficult to find plausible answers to such a question when the human perception of colour alone differs from that of the animals in question. Moreover, abundance, diversity and excess not only exhaust themselves in the development of species' form and colour but also in the richness of the variety and individuality of voices and songs. These too can only be classed outside the sphere of pure necessity.

The author's central example is the stag and the interplay between the unique antler forms and their beguiling acoustics. For the hinds it is not, as one might expect, the most aggressive males that are attractive. So-called killer stags which murder their opponents are spurned, whereas the males with antlers resembling the crown of a tree and which have deep belling voices have far greater chances of being accepted by a female. The elucidation of the courtship rituals of deer is just one of the sections of the book in which the author passionately pursues a display of splendour as unfolding over countless generations.

Biologists will probably be most impressed by Reichholf's dismissal of the so-called handicap theory, which holds that the extraordinary extravagance of, say, the peacock's plumage is evidence that its owner can afford such luxury impairments in the struggle for survival due to superior power and health. In a series of cases Reichholf demonstrates that beauty can certainly indicate health, which is presented to the female as a sign of honesty. Beauty in such cases is associated with an expression of reliability that demonstrates the ability to sire strong offspring and provide for the young.

In contrast to this restrained confirmation, however, comes a rebuttal of the handicap theory that divides into two extremes. First Reichholf points out that what might appear to be a handicap can be absolutely functional, and in doing so he also contradicts Darwin. He explains, for example, that the peacock's vast plumage makes for excellent protection, functioning as a buffer in an attack and, moreover, that it can be shed instantaneously if the bird needs to flee. Which leaves the theory about the peacock's tail as a theatrically staged luxury weakness in tatters.

Reichholf's decisive rejection of the handicap theory however begins at the most diametrically opposed point, with the conviction that beauty emerges in a sort of self-propelled release of excess vital energy. An experiment in which zebra finches were fitted with coloured rings on their legs resulted in a significant preference for these conspecifics and demonstrated the triumph of variety over all other criteria. From this and other observations the author deduces that it is not necessarily external circumstances that lead to variational-based mating and thus the evolutionary impetus, but far more the possible forms of internal development.

For Reichholf however this means it is not enough to describe evolution as an interplay of external influences and inner reaction. In adaptation he says, the more powerful force is the kaleidoscope of possibilities which relativises all mechanics of necessity. In essence his redefining of sexual selection is a reflection on the degrees of freedom in evolution. The more complex organisms become, the more they liberate themselves from external living conditions and allow the attraction of beauty to play out its anarchic game.

With this conclusion the author, together with the poet Miki Sakamoto, addresses something that also defines human behaviour. Here, too, the definition of beauty is affected. In Reichholf's opinion this cannot be reduced to measureable symmetry and a healthy appearance; more important is the added tension of variation on the expected average specimen. The ideal images of what is regarded as human beauty appear pleasant but are bland and only minimally attractive because their symmetry lacks the barb of variety. Even for Darwin this provided the only possibility of defining beauty. He defined it as variety. According to this definition, forms that appear ugly can also achieve the category of beauty as long as they are recognised as variation. This alone allows us to see evolution as the search of the female eye for variety.

In this context it is regrettable that the author was not able to include a series of profound art and cultural historical discussions of the problem: "Endless forms" (Cambridge and New Haven 2009), "Darwin. Kunst und die Suche nach den Ursprüngen" [Darwin. Art and the search for origins] (Frankfurt am Main 2009) and "Was ist schön?" [What is beautiful?] (Dresden 2010). In the catalogue of the exhibition in Dresden's Hygiene Museum, Menninghaus drew a direct link between Darwin's predilection for the question of ornamentation and the British love of ornament and its art historical formulation. If Mario Praz, one could conclude, could explain English dark romanticism as a revenant of a buried world of images, then Darwin's concept of sexual selection is like a transferral of this impulse onto nature. Darwin's concept of sexual selection can be understood against this background also as a natural variant of the return of suppressed Catholic imagery. These references suggest a conceptual framework in which Darwin developed his second key idea. This does not relativise this concept but defines the form of possibility of his own cultural environment.

Conceptually then it would have been helpful if the author had ascribed the phrase "survival of the fittest" that was so appalling under Social Darwinism not to Darwin himself, but to Herbert Spencer. Then he could have done away with a prejudice, especially as Darwin himself, when explaining the principle of sexual selection sighed: "Too much (...) survival of the fittest. "In view of the wealth of material and aspects covered in the book it is unavoidable that peer reviewers will point out omissions and weak points in the details. For example, it is hard to comprehend why the two-volume collection "Bird Coloration" from 2006 (here and here) was not included. But complaints of this kind do not affect the substance of the book. In times of large-scale molecular biological studies the reader senses that the book wants to remind us about the sort of research that studies living beings in their natural or artificially formed environments and also holds them in deep admiration. In this respect the book is also a declaration of love for a nature that is not only utilitarian but also wasteful, which does not simply fulfill expectations, but exaggerates and in which the theatrical is just as valid as the mechanics of natural selection. In essence, this is a book about freedom. Seldom has evolution been described on this level not as the realm of hard necessity, but as an abundance of possible forms.

The author draws his conclusions from the immediate observation of nature and yet arrives at opinions which in their implications have a clear, critical contemporary reference. His book defends altruism, an all-too precarious commodity these days, in the question of why deer antlers have developed in such a way that they are unable to inflict overly drastic wounds on opponents. It also recognises a sort of compensatory justice in the fact that males have better survival chances but that females, for their part, have the privilege of choice. Ultimately he defines the category of freedom as the product of the search for beauty occurring in nature as an evolutionary process itself.

For Reichholf the principle of sexual selection promotes altruism, justice and freedom. Darwin sometimes described nature as the great "slaughterhouse" but his theory of sexual selection put forth an image of productive wastefulness. Anyone who believes that Darwin's second theory is too beautiful to be true will find themselves on shakier ground after reading this book.


Horst Bredekamp is professor of Art History at the University of Humboldt-University of Berlin and a permanent fellow of the Wissenschaftskolleg in Berlin. He is the author of numerous books on art history, including the highly acclaimed "The Lure of Antiquity and the Cult of the Machine".

Josef H. Reichholf was born in 1945 in Aigen am Inn. A zoologist, evolutionary biologist and ecologist he is a professor of Conservation at the Technical University, Munich. Reicholf is also a presidium member of the German WWF and has received, among others, the Sigmund Freud prize for scientific prose.

This article was originally published in the Süddeutsche Zeitung on 2 May, 2011

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