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Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution Hardcover – October 25, 2011

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Editorial Reviews


A searching, accessible, and often ecstatic book. (Wall Street Journal)

Not many authors could find a way to interweave abstruse art theory with discussions of squid and their glorious "dynamic tattoos," elephants who paint, and Paleolithic cave art, but Rothenberg succeeds, with this entertaining wander through the world of art and the places where it intersects science. (Publishers Weekly)

[a] bravura investigation..with verve, multidiscipline fluency, and an encompassing vision, Rothenberg accomplishes his mission to change the way we perceive and understand the intertwining of natural evolution and human cultural evolution, beauty and life, art and science. (Booklist (starred))

The colour blue rules for the male satin bowerbird of Australia. The interior decorators of the avian world, they gather plastic, shells and feathers of that hue to adorn their meticulously built stick structures, all to lure a potential mate. This is just one indication, argues philosopher and musician David Rothenberg, that beauty is not random but is intrinsic to life--and that evolution proceeds by sumptuousness, not by utility alone. Rothenberg covers topics such as camouflage, abstraction, the profound impact of art on science and much more to explore his theme. (Nature)

A door-opener to new ideas and connective tissue in the skeleton of science, particularly biology and Darwin's theory of evolution. Chances are good you'll find Mr. Rothenberg's 'mad quest for some evidence of aesthetic ideas in the very way nature is put together' to be persuasive. (New York Journal of Books)

Rothenberg is a learned and thoughtful guide across the realms of science and art. (Washington Independent Review of Books)

[Rothenberg] seems uniquely qualified to be herald and interlocutor for the present convergence of biology and art. (Chronogram magazine)

I have been waiting for a long time for a book like Survival of the Beautiful that suffers not a jot of art's inferiority complex in the age of science … It's one terrific romp through the ineffable and embracing glory of the aesthetic experience. (Alison Hawthorne Deming, Orion)

This is the triumphant lesson of Survival of the Beautiful: nature is not entirely red in tooth and claw, it also allows the beautiful right of passage. (Peter Forbes, The Guardian (UK))

Rothenberg's passionate optimism - a belief in the beauty of nature, and vice versa--together with his elegant prose turns Survival of the Beautiful into an exhilarating and thought-provoking trip. (Philip Hoare, The Telegraph (UK))

Survival of the Beautiful is a wild ride. At its heart is a wonderful wish: to make us see the stories and the beauty in everything from the warbles of flying cranes to the cries of crows, From the shape-shifting squid to the bower-building bird, to the elephant and to the cryptic moth, which hides beneath his drab wing-tops a flash of crimson red. (William Bryant Logan, Toronto Globe and Mail)

Rothenberg comes to an inspired conclusion: Aesthetic selection introduces a new kind of randomness into nature that unites art and nature, man and beast. (Christopher Potter, Sunday Times of London)

Survival of the Beautiful is not just a book about beauty, but a beautiful book. And also an important one, which moves the debate about the biology of aesthetics beyond the cozy fables of evolutionary psychology to probe the deep nature of art and its origins. Both provocative and generous, Rothenberg's work is pervaded with a sense of wonder at and appreciation of the world. (Philip Ball, author of Critical Mass and The Music Instinct)

David Rothenberg is a brilliantly fun guide on a journey that takes us from bower birds to the neuroesthetics of Semir Zeki. Survival of the Beautiful is just about the best travel literature of the mind out there. With wit by turns gentle and sharp, Rothenberg shows us how art is shaped by animals, and by us. (Roald Hoffmann, chemist and writer, winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry)

The nerdy mindset of modernity often suffers allergic outbreaks when confronted with the softer side of cognition. Esthetic pleasures are then cordoned off from the serious core work of science. But David Rothenberg makes a convincing case that beauty is an intrinsic aspect of reality. He argues, among other things, that without modern art, modern science would have been hobbled by inadequately challenged cognitive habits. Beauty evolved. Perhaps we should take it seriously. (Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget)

What I love about David Rothenberg's work is that he counteracts--with wit, poetry and philosophical subtlety--the prevailing tendency of most nature writers toward biological reductionism. While reporting on the latest scientific conjectures about beauty, human and inhuman, he shows that all our theories still fail to do justice to nature's unutterable strangeness. (John Horgan, author of Rational Mysticism and The End of Science)

David Rothenberg is a rarity--an actual polymath--and his writing, like the music he plays, reveals an extraordinary mixture of curiosity, intelligence, and playfulness. Tracing complex ideas that link consciousness, human spirit, and creativity within the framework of Darwinian theory is the sort of book you would expect from a man who makes music with whales and cicadas. Where does the impetus for the making of art and music reside? How does that fit into an evolutionary scheme? Read this book, and enter into Rothenberg's world. You will be rewarded with a exploration of these questions that is both entertaining and revelatory. (David A. Ross, Director Emeritus, Whitney Museum of American Art)

A fun, freewheeling discussion of the role of aesthetics in evolution and a celebration of the beauty to be found in the great diversity of life. (Kirkus)

About the Author

David Rothenberg is Professor of Philosophy and Music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and the author of books including Thousand Mile Song and Why Birds Sing. His articles have appeared in Parabola, The Nation, Wired, Dwell, and Sierra.


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury Press (October 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781608192168
  • ISBN-13: 978-1608192168
  • ASIN: 1608192164
  • Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.2 x 9.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #221,935 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

I am a writer, musician, and philosopher, most interested in how humanity is connected with the natural world. I have explored this connection in music and words, in recordings, books, lectures and performances.

You can look at my five websites for more information:

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

11 of 13 people found the following review helpful By Lord of Brooding on January 3, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Survival of the Beautiful journeys through a dizzying constellation of subject matter in search of the beauty that lies at the heart of nature. It is an equal meld of philosophy, science writing, ecological narrative, aesthetic guide, and spiritual tome. Rothenberg touches on many different topics but the core theme is that art and beauty are indispensable to allow us to fully understand the world.

At first, as in a slow-moving but finely-crafted film, we read about so many topics in such quick succession that we wonder "where is this all going?". Then, gently and surely, Rothenberg begins to bridge the gaps between his tales of nature inspiring military camouflage theory, the role of art in the discovery of protein structures, bizarre bird sculptures that serve no purpose except to impress, the mathematics of evolution and Jackson Pollock, and modern experiments in situational art where children get adults to think deep thoughts. What seemed like chaos at first eventually coalesces into a landscape of ideas that reveal Beauty as the glue that binds all of our different perspectives of the universe.

By the second half of the book I found myself hungrily taking notes and coming up with all sorts of questions sparked in quick succession. I wondered things like "What is art? Why do we create art? Why does nature bother to create so much beauty that, sometimes, serves no adaptive or sexual purpose? How do science and art differ in the way they perceive the world? And why should we care?"

One possible reason to care is inherent in Steve Jobs' phenomenal success at melding art and technology. Jobs is a perfect example of how deeply the human being craves aesthetic satiety, a dimension of life that a purely technological approach cannot comprise.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful By John P. O'Grady on February 7, 2012
Format: Hardcover
Author of seven other strikingly original volumes, Rothenberg is a jazz musician and environmental philosopher who writes with an elegant audacity reminiscent of William James. Survival of the Beautiful is his cunning and playful study (in the painterly sense) of how beauty prowls the domain of evolutionary science like a panther in a sedate suburb. "I do not believe evolution as we know it can explain art," he writes, "but a deeper consideration of art can enhance our understanding of evolution." Rothenberg is keenly interested in what cutting-edge scientists across a wide range of disciplines are up to in their investigations of nature. He seeks them out--whether they be in their labs or out in the field--in order to delve more deeply into their enterprises and perhaps ask a few sportive questions. This is an important and enthralling book, gracefully written and generous of spirit.
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6 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Amelia Amon on December 3, 2011
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
Survival of the Beautiful is a tour de force for David Rothenberg. This crucial call to reassess the importance of aesthetics, from evolution through to contemporary art, was inspired by research on two of his previous books, "Why Birds Sing: A Journey Into the Mystery of Birdsong" & "The 1000 Mile Song: Whale Music in a Sea of Sound". But his influences go further back to his architect father and artist mother, his early work with deep ecologist Arne Naess, and particularly his own love of playing music.

If we find experiencing and creating beauty compelling, why do we require functional explanations when we witness similar behaviors in other species? Are peacock hens actually calculating the odds for their future offspring, or might they reveal an evolved sense of aesthetics, when they go for the best male tail?

Rothenberg brings together cutting edge science on how genes are expressed along with current exceptional trends in art and culture. Beautiful, evocative illustrations illuminate each major point. Taking us beyond the instinctual appeal of symmetry and harmony, Rothenberg's book is, in itself, an evolved and exuberant gesture.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By DF on April 26, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
The discussion of bower birds at the beginning of the book was utterly fascinating, and I was looking forward to the rest of it. There is truly much to think about in the book, and I also appreciated the many sketches of bowers, the discussion and pictures of feathers, the many black and white pictures, and the few, but excellent, color photos in the hard-cover edition.

However, as I read on, the arguments about the nature of art and the origins of artistic behavior, how and why they evolved, how artistic appreciation may have evolved, and so on, were, for me, far from "accessible" and "clear," although other reviewers seem to have found the book to be exemplary in that regard. I found myself wishing for a chart laying out the various conflicting theories, who holds them, and who agrees with whom on what points.

Perhaps the fault lies in my having majored in a field far removed from biology and evolution, but I can't help thinking that if Rothenberg had been thinking more clearly--or writing more clearly (One passage that would have benefited from editing and a bit of explanation is his friend Tchernichovski's anecdote in Chapter 3 about observing gazelles. Within three consecutive sentences, "you" is used to refer to three quite different entities, and there are other things that are confusing about this paragraph, too.)--it would have been easier to follow his arguments, and that is why I didn't give the book five stars.

Another, though minor frustration. Figure 16 is a drawing of "Anchiornis huzleyu first dinosaur whose real colors we have discovered". Now, wouldn't you love to know what colors those are--see a color rendition of the drawing, perhaps? Too bad! I have been looking, but haven't found one yet, not in this book!
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