Survival of the Beautiful

Survival of the Beautiful

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On Saturday, February 25, The New York Institute of the Humanities at New York University and The New Jersey Institute of Technology will present an “all-day wonder cabinet” guest curated by David Rothenberg, a professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a recording artist with ECM Records. “Survival of the Beautiful: Artists and Scientists Ponder the Aesthetics of Evolution” runs from 10:45 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. at NYU’s Cantor Film Center and is free and open to the public (on a first-come, first-in basis).

Here’s the description of the event, which features Jaron Lanier, Laurie Anderson, David Abram, Philip Ball, and Tyler Volk, among others:

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?

Rothenberg published a 2010 book on these themes, Survival of the Beautiful, 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.

For more information on the program schedule and a full list of participants, click here