Survival of the Beautiful: An Interview with David Rothenberg on Art, Science, and Evolution

“All of a sudden the conversation ends, far too soon. I want to give this kid advice, talk more, realize immediately that I do not have enough serious conversations in my life. Too much of all that I say is gossip, banter, jokes, odd little stories. I hope this whole book isn’t all odd little stories, though I also hope within its serious claims you will find wonder and joy.”

-from Survival of the Beautiful by David Rothenberg


Art, Science, and Evolution

David, your book touches on many different topics but the core theme seems to be that art (both the creation of art and the ability to appreciate art) is an indispensable tool to allow us to fully understand the world. In fact, you argue that scientists can benefit from using visual art processes to find answers to unconventional questions.

Perhaps the most striking example of this was in the discovery of the structure of DNA. You quote Roald Hoffman, Nobel Prize-winning chemist, poet, and philosopher:

“[Watson and Crick] didn’t synthesize DNA, they reasoned out its structure, almost willing a model into being.”

Similarly, Jane Richardson’s illustrations of the folded structures of proteins (derived from x-ray crystallography data) became “the standard for depicting proteins, helping scientists understand how proteins work and how to build them”.


It’s an interesting point considering how often people tend to compartmentalize certain skill sets. Most of us are comfortable with either the humanities or with science and mathematics. It’s rare that individuals or institutions stress the importance of both to an integral understanding of the world. And your thoughts seem to always come back to the connection between the two. In fact, much of your book focuses on just how nature “creates” beauty in the first place. On pg. 51 you  say the following about nature:

“The range of possible choices for form is thus from the outset determined by simple mathematics applied to growth of molecular form.“

You talk about some of the natural laws behind the formation of patterns found in nature (honeycombs, fur and feather patterns, horn and antler shapes).

LOB: How do the laws of physics and biology condition the visual forms that are possible in nature?

Rothenberg: “[Evolutionary biologist] Richard Prum and his colleagues demonstrated how there are only nine basic types of feather patterns possible according to the “reaction-diffusion” mathematics that makes feather patterns happen in the first place.

And chemicals are only put together according to certain basic patterns.  Growth of molecules that build up animal horns also happen only according to a few basic possibilities, and very often these patterns are the result of simple mathematical rules leading to complex, intelligent-looking patterns.  The most famous example of that is the intricate, script-like designs that sometimes appear on sea shells.”

On pg. 70 you discuss with Prum some of the unusual behavior and characteristics found in the animal world such as bowerbird sculptures (which are used for courtship but are not nests [see below]) and the apparent existence of certain “artistic” principles that female bowerbirds clearly prefer.

Prum says: “Is the ability for preference to evolve structured by the nature of the brain? I would answer hell yes!”

LOB: Are you and Prum saying that the way the brain is physically structured determines what humans (and possibly other animals) will find attractive? In other words, are we “forced” by nature to enjoy a predetermined set of visual forms because our brain has evolved to appreciate only those which are possible in nature?

Rothenberg: “For most animals, aesthetics preferences are either hard-wired in their brains, or in the case of bird song, learned by their brains.  Humans must have some of these aesthetics preferences in our mental nature, but because there is such variation in the way we live and the art we create, much of our aesthetic sense is certainly learned and difficult to predict.  But we do not do that learning in isolation—each of us grows up in social and cultural worlds that help to define what forms we like.  But humans can veer from the norm and decide to like things that are unpopular!

What is preferred may build on pre-existing tendencies in the brain, but human culture allows for a lot of diversity in aesthetics, a diversity that Prum suggests is arbitrary, but I think often may depend on specific features in a culture, such as the preference for brown colors in American Southwest architecture and art.  Clearly this is influenced by the environment in that part of the world.  (Though I have heard that hundreds of years ago early adobe dwellings were painted in vibrant, bright colors, which are less popular today.  So an element of whim may always remain…)”

LOB: On the same note, why do certain preferences arise in one species, but not another? For example, why do some species of bowerbirds use blue to decorate their structures, as opposed to another color? And why don’t all bowerbirds prefer it? Why don’t all humans prefer blue for that matter?

Rothenberg: “Good question!  Strict adaptationists will try to find a practical reason for the preference of blue, for example: do the slightly-blue male satin bowerbirds try to intensify their own blue-ness by decorating their bowers with blue?  Richard Prum says no, suggesting the preference for blue decorations is arbitrary, something the females just happen to have evolved to like.”


Art and Aesthetics

One of my favorite sections in your book was your primer on modern art. Like many people, I did not understand or appreciate most modern art, especially that which used raw geometric forms and curves (Mondrian, Kandinsky, and Pollock, for example) as its expressive language.

You talk about how art in the modern age evolved up to the point where the ubiquity of photography made realistic depictions somewhat moot. Visual artists, thus, became bored with attempting to depict realistic objects and began to experiment with depicting what they saw as the elemental forms beneath the visuals of nature. While this latter type of art may not suit everyone, it is probably true that most people could learn to appreciate it more if they understand the ideas behind it.

One example you provide is that of Jackson Pollock beginning his paintings by “dripping [...] recognizable subjects, including human heads, shoulders, fingers, legs, perhaps a dog lying underneath a table.“ But he then proceeded to add layers of more abstract paint drips that covered these original forms and accentuated simpler and more primitive lines. Still, there is an overarching pattern of poles horizontally across the landscape that vie for attention even as our eyes dart back and forth to other lines in the periphery.

You relate this to some studies done by Russian psychologist A.I. Yarbus, in which special contact lenses placed over subjects‘ eyes tracked the patterns in which they looked at different paintings. As it turned out, the attention patterns through which they absorbed the image were similar to the basic visual patterns discernible in a Pollock painting. 

LOB: So it seems you’re saying that Pollock may fascinate us because, knowingly or not, his art speaks in a language that fits the way in which the brain naturally absorbs visual input?

Rothenberg: “That’s what [mathematician] Richard Taylor thinks, that Pollock makes the best drip paintings because they unwittingly contain the same fractal noise/information ratios as natural patterned forms.  I’m not sure if that’s strictly true, but I do think his genius is calling attention to the beauty of gesture and energy in emphatic overlaid drips, and taking his imagery seriously leads us to find a new kind of order and beauty in the natural world.  That’s important enough as it is, but it might also encourage science to investigate the details of such a beauty, which I believe is the real strength of Richard Taylor’s work, not in its claim to authenticate or explain the value of Pollock’s aesthetics.”


Art, Perception, and Awareness

As you often say in your book, visual art can help us to see the world in ways that we haven’t before.

Going back to aesthetics, I think the appeal of modern art seems to elude most laypersons initially because they are conditioned to look for recognizable objects and get confused when faced with apparent visual nonsense. However, as you state on page 122,

“The successful piece of art should encourage interested contemplation, movement, or exploration with the eyes.”

I like that statement and I  think it goes a long way toward explaining people’s reactions (or lack thereof) to different types of visual experiences.

As with music, I think artistic taste can evolve in individuals. Sometimes we need to be taught why something is appreciated by others, we need to look a different way, we need to understand the context in which the art was created to, at the very least, understand what the artist  intended (or conjure up our own interpretation). A lot has been written on aesthetics, and you cover a lot of that ground in your book, but I’d like to talk instead about the power of visual stimuli to evoke certain emotional responses.

It seems that when art captivates us, it causes a soothing immersion response. We lose ourselves in the object of perception, the brain becomes pacified and tends to shut down the more primitive defensive functions such as those that cause us to feel anxiety, fear, etc.

On page 241 you quote Ellen Dissanayake’s book Homo Aestheticus: “[Humans conquered their environment through fire and tools but] they still needed to conquer the fear of a threatening environment with rituals, music, and beautiful works that could emotionally soothe and satisfy us”. And most people have felt the soothing state in the visuals of nature itself. On the other hand, certain visual experiences can induce anxiety.

Whenever I’ve observed deep red/orange sunsets such as the one above, I am always aware of very subtle sense of unease. I can understand why people say it’s beautiful, and I agree, but something about the emptiness of the sky and the water in combination with those colors unsettles me. I’ve felt something similar when viewing abstract art with similar visual characteristics.

However, when viewing a skyscape or sunset with shades of blue, such as below, I don’t get the same feeling.

There’s still a sense of emptiness and vastness. But this combination of colors is soothing and does not induce the same unsettling feeling as in the one above. It makes me wonder why the brain’s response to the colors above is alarm, rather than peace, or neutrality. How does this process occur?

LOB: Have you ever come across a discussion of this phenomenon and do you have any thoughts on what is behind it? Do you think the brain is wired to instinctively react a certain way to different colors or shapes? Adaptive reasons for such a response could exist, I suppose, but given that color is just a visual expression of different wavelengths in the light spectrum, why should it affect us on an emotional level?

Rothenberg: “Your responses to sunsets and blue sky are interesting.  There is a large literature trying to explain what specific colors are supposed to mean, from Rudolf Steiner to Alexander Theroux and Semir Zeki.  As usual, I take the middle ground, believing there is a mixture of nature and nurture that lead to our preferences for such things:  Do Touareg nomads in the Sahara wear blue so they meld with the sky?  Or do they do it just to look different from all other wandering tribes?  Probably a mix of both reasons.”

Of course, context plays a big role in perception. Some colors that I generally find unappealing, such as red, can be combined with other colors, like white, which make a more pleasant combination.

Similarly, I find black and blue can be very calming, but are even more effective when interspersed with some white (see examples below). The combination below of black and white using sharp and clean lines with a third clean color element (gold) is both soothing and “vibrant”. (It’s also interesting that this particular image also mimics patterns found in nature and I find it very calming and alive.)

But when black and white are “smudged” (as in below) the image feels chaotic and “negative” to me.

I’m not sure if this response to color is common or just my own, but I have heard many people comment that they find blue to be a very soothing color. Likewise, red is often associated with energy, passion, and movement.

My point is not necessarily that there are universal rules for how colors make us feel. Different people may have different reactions for different inputs. But there does seem to be something to the idea that our brain contains innate trigger points that react to stimuli without any reference to logic or thought.

So it’s interesting that art seems to have a power to affects us on a very deep and unconscious level. Similarly to what you say in your book, I think that by integrating our knowledge of our brain’s response to visual stimuli, not only can we gain new insights into reality, but we can maximize our productivity, moods, and performance. I’ve noticed that when I work with a file in Excel, for example, I tend to spend quite a bit of time working on the formatting (colors, borders, cell alignment, etc.). This may seem like a waste of time to most people but, being very sensitive to sensory input, I have found that it’s easier to work and concentrate when I have created a pleasing aesthetic (according to my taste, anyway) on my screen. Not to mention that the act of fiddling with the formatting is a subtly-pleasurable experience in and of itself which gives me a calming feeling.

Rothenberg: I write in red when I am giving myself a ‘warning,’ reminding myself that I have to work on something or correct a mistake.  I write in blue when I am impressed with my own ideas or emphasizing originality.  I write in teal to recognize that I have taken care of an issue or deleted it.  I write in black when I commit myself to the text.

LOB: Right, yes, I think we all have our own systems of making “art” functional and integrally important to our daily lives. Yet we downplay its significance when it comes to supposedly “serious” matters!…


Art and Science: An Integrated Approach

Science uses symbols and logic to construct mental models of the world that can be manipulated and used to predict outcomes (with more or less success). Art, whether it knows it or not, uses visual symbols to induce a neurological process that leads to a direct experience. Awareness is involved in both, but the artistic approach is much more immediate because it bypasses the mind, even if for an instant. Both approaches have their place, of course.

Many concepts, such as mathematics or the idea of time, can only exist as mental constructs. There is no such thing as an experience of time. Only an experience of memories occurring in the present moment. One cannot experience 2 + 2 = 4; one can only apply those concepts to physical objects which, by their very nature, are not a “2” or a “4” but simply take on those characteristics in our mind.

An even better example of the importance of integrating art and science would be Apple, Inc.’s ability to use aesthetics to create satisfying experiences for customers. Steve Jobs grasped this concept deeply, but many companies still don’t. People can derive great pleasure not just from a product’s functionality, but from the way it looks and feels (something car companies probably understand better than most other industries). In fact, Jobs would say that a product’s functionality is very much a product of the way it makes one feel.

Yet in the scientific world there still seems to be relatively little importance given to the aesthetic experience in terms of both the explanation of theories and in the development of theories. One of the realizations missing in the scientific arena, for example, is something you noted in your book:

“In the name of pure aesthetic contemplation, twentieth-century art becomes a laboratory of possible experiments to reveal the inner workings of our mysterious brains.”

LOB: You conclude at the end of your book:

“The beautiful is the root of science and the goal of art, the highest possibility that humanity can ever hope to see.”

For those who may not yet have read your book, what does beauty tell you about the world after all? What is its point? Is it there simply for pleasure, or to reveal something?

Rothenberg: “The whole book Survival of the Beautiful is the answer to that question.  If the book succeeds, by the time you complete the last line you should retain a sense of that answer that can be conveyed no other way than by reading the book, from beginning, through the middle,  to the end.  Through beauty we reveal the truth of the world—I think John Keats said something like that.  Many people, however, would disagree with such a view, calling it naïve, simplistic, overly aesthetic, and not taking the great struggles, injustices, and problems of life seriously enough.  I would not say they are wrong.  But if you don’t care for beauty it will not care for you, and I am trying to bear witness to one important human way of making sense of the world.  So I hope my readers will try out my point of view, and see what they can learn from it.”

Thank you very much for your time. There are so many wonderful topics raised in your book that we didn’t get a chance to talk about such as Ernst Haeckel’s radiolarians and their impact on science and art.

Another favorite section of mine was your description of your participation in one of Tino Sehgal’s mysterious “constructed situations” (a mixture of performance art and philosophical salon). You also introduce us to a wonderful artist I had never heard of, Patrick Dougherty, who melds nature and craft into incredible works of art.

I hope our readers will take the time to read your work and delve into all the aspects of beauty you have laid out before us. It’s truly worth looking another way at the world around us.


About David Rothenberg: Musician and philosopher David Rothenberg is the author of Why Birds Sing, also published in Italy, Spain, Taiwan, China, Korea, and Germany. In 2006 it was turned into a feature-length TV documentary by the BBC.  Rothenberg has also written Sudden Music, Blue Cliff Record,  Hands End, and Always the Mountains.  His articles have appeared in Parabola, Orion, The Nation, Wired, Dwell, Kyoto Journal, The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, and Sierra, and his writings have appeared in at least eleven languages.  His last book Thousand Mile Song, about making music with whales, is being turned into a TV documentary for Canal 3 in France, and an American feature documentary is under development.

He is currently collaborating with researchers from CUNY, NYU, and the Netherlands Institute of Ecology on the quantification of the musicality of nightingale songs, a project that stems from his earlier book on bird song and music.  His latest major label music CD, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House, a duet with pianist Marilyn Crispell, came out on ECM in May 2010.  In 2011 Rothenberg also released CDs with pianist Lewis Porter and electronic musician Scanner.

Rothenberg is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. His website is

Click here for a video interview with David on

2 comments on “Survival of the Beautiful: An Interview with David Rothenberg on Art, Science, and Evolution

  1. Chuck Wentworth says:

    Very interesting interview. I’m fascinated by these subjects, that in essence, offer an alternative way of thinking, considering, and investigating the human mind, and how much is related to innate abilities, and how much is subject to interpretation from learned, cultural/environmental, stimuli. Very nicely done…

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