Updated: Dec 20, 2022
Have you ever wondered why beauty exists? Why are colors attractive and songs soothing? Before we get started I should give the definition of beauty that will be guiding this post. Of course beauty is subjective, so I wanted to clarify what I mean when I talk about the term beauty. The definition I use is beauty is that which is desired to be returned to, which I got from Frank Wilczek who said “beautiful things are things that evolution has primed us to enjoy and want to come back to and feel pleasure in experiencing”. Me being an environmentally minded guy, of course this resonated with me.
The first thing people might think of when talking about beauty in nature is birds. Beauty is one of the drivers of evolution for many bird species, a term called sexual selection. For many species, males compete to show off how bright and magnificent their feathers are, which shows the females how healthy their genes are. Of course, the females aren’t thinking “wow he looks like he has good genes” as much as they’re probably thinking, “woooo look at the feathers on that guy!” This is why we see birds like the Northern Cardinal with bright red feathers that stand out from their surroundings, or peacocks with feathers so large and heavy they can barely get off the ground.
This also applies to the birds with the most beautiful calls, or homes that they build. There is a reason we are hearing the Northern Cardinals practicing their songs at this time of year. Beauty for the birds has become more important than avoiding predators. In terms of our definition, the birds that are beautiful are the ones that the females want to be with or return to if they have gone. They are the ones who get the mates.
Another place of beauty in nature is our food. There is something eye-catching about the ripe fruits and vegetables that we consume (or should consume) daily. Fruits and vegetables are the reproductive parts of plants. Their purpose is to protect and nourish the seeds within them for the next generation. When they first begin to grow they are dull and not very eye-catching. Later on, at the right moment when the fruit or vegetable is ripe, they turn bright colors. Our brains have evolved to associate those bright colors with ripeness so we know when to eat the food. Of course, if we wait too long and the fruit or vegetable starts to rot, it is no longer beautiful in both sight and smell, so we know not to eat it. In terms of our definition, the beautiful fruits and vegetables are the ones that we choose to eat and we will return to those foods.
Beauty can protect us as well. There are many creatures with bright vibrant colors that tell us to stay away. A recognizable species that demonstrates this is poison dart frogs. Their bright colors tell us that they are toxic. An example more close to home in Connecticut would be the Yellow Spotted Salamander who, as the name suggests, has bright yellow spots along their bodies which tell us that they are toxic. These salamanders have glands in them that excrete toxins if they are eaten. This is also seen in other species including snakes, and mushrooms. There are also species that try to fool us with bright colors even if they are not toxic as a form of protection, such as the milk snake imitating the coral snake.
So how does this fit into the definition of “the desire to be returned to”? I just mentioned how these colors are meant to send us away which seems to contradict that, but in a way, these colors show the species’ objective to be noticed. They are not trying to hide. They want to be seen so that the message of “don’t eat me” is clear. They are drawing our eyes to them so we can see the warning.
To summarize, many creatures on planet earth experience beauty for different reasons. Our perception of beauty has allowed us to survive, from finding the right partners, finding healthy foods, and avoiding danger. Beauty can serve many other functions in the natural world. Let me know in the comments below if you can think of other functions as well.