September 13, 2006

Evolution and beauty

Simon A. Levin poses these "fundamental questions in biology" (in PLoS Biology, open access):
What features convey robustness to systems? How different should we expect the robustness of different systems to be, depending on whether selection is operating primarily on the whole system or on its parts? How does robustness trade off against adaptability? How does natural selection deal with environmental noise and the consequent uncertainty at diverse scales? When does synchrony emerge, and what are its implications for robustness? When and how does cooperative behavior emerge, and can we derive lessons from evolutionary history to foster cooperation in a global commons?
Evolution is a decentralized decision-making mechanism. It is based on a massively trial-and-error process. It is a continuous, real-time test of a huge variety of alternatives. It has no prospective powers. It has no government. It has produced robustness, adaptability, cooperation and beauty.

3 comments:

  1. I posted this cvomment yesterday, but it didn't show up. Never mind, it is worth posting again.

    OK, so we recognize some things as beautiful, but have you stopped to consider why we find some things beautfiul. What -- if any -- selective advantage does an aesthetic sense confer?

    I don't know, but I highly recommend a paper that I think has been neglected, The Illusion of Beauty by Nicholas Humphrey, a thinker I also think has been neglected.

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  2. Interesting. Above all, we are extremely sensitive to the beauty of human faces and other human traits, and of human creations. Perhaps it was adaptive to get aroused by human features that signal reproductive quality (good genes, good health, youth, resource provisioninig, etc.). And maybe this intense appreciation of people's features and creations spills over to other objects.

    As Humphrey notes, we seem to get aroused by features that look difficult to produce by chance. Thus we find beauty in symmetry, repetition, rhythm, or harmony. It is easy to produce an ugly face - most facial configurations that we can think of are ugly. A beautiful face is strikingly nonrandom and difficult to produce. Maybe we extend this sort of appreciation to other objects that are remarkably nonrandom and so "difficult to produce." Flowers and butterfly wings are cases in point. They both feature symmetry, repetitive patterns, geometric cleanliness, and unusual color configurations. They strongly depart from randomness. The same reasoning explains why many people reject "art" or "music" that looks haphazard or "easy to produce."

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  3. Biodiversivist9/18/2006 02:22:00 AM

    "...a decentralized decision-making mechanism. It is based on a massively trial-and-error process. It is a continuous, real-time test of a huge variety of alternatives."

    ...nice analogy for a regulated free market.

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