The Beauty of Charles Darwin

By Swami B.V. Tripurari

Central to Darwin’s theory of evolution is the idea that species have evolved to what we know them to be today out of the necessity to adapt in order to survive—natural selection. If a feature of a species were not advantageous for survival and served no purpose in that pursuit, it would not exist. However, Darwin himself found no such purpose in the beauty of the world and reasoned that beauty existed ultimately unto itself and for itself alone. That is, Darwin did not think it was necessary to connect aesthetics and survival. He believed that animals could appreciate beauty for its own sake. Darwin proposed that animal ornamentation evolved through a separate process he called sexual selection, in which females choose the most appealing males in accordance with their subjective standard of beauty and thus males evolved toward that standard regardless of the costs. Thus he posited a high level of cognitive sophistication in animals—unpopular in his time—that only today many are beginning to acknowledge.

Although modern evolutionary theorists have largely dismissed this aspect of Darwin’s insight and attempted to reduce nature’s beauty emanating from any particular species to nothing more than symptoms of good health, the jury is not in on the issue. Indeed, it is quite possible that just as mathematics evolved because there are equations to discover—Platonic as this idea might be—our aesthetic sensibilities evolved because beauty objectively and universally exists, even as it lies also in the eye of the beholder to whom it chooses to show itself—Reality the Beautiful.

While the struggle for existence may force us to adapt in order to survive in a world where, to use a phrase for the Sacred texts of the Hindus, “one living being is food for another,” beauty can just as well bring about our material demise. Should beauty capture our eye, we may lose sight of survival. But  when that beauty takes the form of well-reasoned love, such a demise through self-sacrifice is often thought to result in a net gain that makes life worth living and speaks to us loudly of life beyond biology that is itself constructed out of meaning as opposed to a limited and ultimately meaningless biological organism.

It is fair to ask whether it is our wonder at the beauty of the natural world that has inspired the human belief systems we call religion. But in seeking to convey in language its notion of God as the perfect object of love, the Sacred texts of the Hindus turned to nature’s beauty—a reflection of the Godhead—and described the most lovable form of God in terms of natural beauty as it appears in its prime of youthfulness. The force of beauty, powerful enough to compel us to forego material survival, thus speaks to us in the Hindu texts of the possibility of a personification of beauty that transcends death and makes life worth living. That person is adolescent Krishna—Yogesvara—as seen through the subjective eye of the greatest yogini, Radha. May she bless us with such a vision that we may tread lightly in this world, thrive, and ultimately survive in utter amazement at irreducible beauty existing by itself and for itself and teaching us thereby something Darwin had to admit did not quite fit within his otherwise rather bleak and unbecoming theory of natural selection, however true.


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