Sunday, March 27, 2016

Why Does the World Bother? ~ Wrestling with Novelist Anthony Doerr Over Beauty

In which the blogger, clearly defying logic, turns to precolonial Mesoamerican obsidian blades to challenge novelist Anthony Doerr on why there’s so much beauty in the world.  Yes, another idiosyncratic essay.
Beauty – That quality of a physical object or animal which is highly pleasing to the sight: perceived physical perfection; exceptional harmony of form or colour.
        ~ Oxford English Dictionary (definition I.a.c.), accessed online March 12, 2016.
Beauty has always been recognized as a fundamental part of human experience but, like truth and goodness, beauty is a complex term that resists definition.  Among the more persistent descriptions are terms like:  a harmony of parts, unity in diversity, complexity, integration, patterns and clarity - qualities readily observable in nature.
~ Zsuzsi Kovacs, et al., How do Aesthetics Affect Our Ecology? (Journal of Ecological Anthropology, Vol. 10, 2006, p. 61)
In his memoir Four Seasons in Rome:  On Twins, Insomnia, and the Biggest Funeral in the History of the World (2007), novelist Anthony Doerr asked a question regarding why the world is so beautiful, and, given how he framed the question, suggested a troubling answer.  Indeed, as I argue below, I think he asked the wrong question.  This post follows a fairly twisted path to get to that point.

In 2005, Doerr was a fellow in literature at the American Academy of Arts and Letters in Rome.  The ostensible reason for this year-long fellowship was to work on a novel, one that would be published nearly a decade later in 2014 as All The Light We Cannot See, a highly acclaimed book and justifiably so.

Four Seasons in Rome is a warm and thoughtful account of that year in Italy.  On one level, it's mostly about doing myriad things other than work on the novel.  Such neglect of the novel is not so surprising because he was overwhelmed by being a stranger in two strange lands – Italy (where he and his wife had never been, neither spoke Italian) and fatherhood (he and his wife were abroad with their six-month old twin boys, their first children).  Hard to imagine that much of anything could be accomplished under those circumstances.

As an aside, I would note that the best book about not writing a book is Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage:  Wrestling With D.H. Lawrence (1997).  It’s a wildly funny ride with Dyer as he struggles to do research on D.H. Lawrence for a study he doesn’t produce (though, in a way, he does, and it's titled Out of Sheer Rage).

Woven through Four Seasons are Doerr’s musings on Natural History, an extensive encyclopedia written by Pliny the Elder of Ancient Rome (who died in 79 CE); Doerr read this work during his year in Italy – clearly, he was doing all he could to avoid novel writing.  As his year was coming to a close, he also reached the end of the last volume of Natural History, and reflected on Pliny’s assertion that Italy is the most beautiful of all places.  Doerr concluded that different places each have their own beauty, a thought which led him to observe:
The Natural History, the umbrella pines, Borromini's Sant'Ivo, the question of the starlings, and the question of fatherhood – my interest in them all rotates around one question:  If we creatures are on earth only to extend the survival of our species, if nature only concerns itself with reproduction, if we are supposed to raise our kids to breeding age and then wither and slide toward death, then why does the world bother to be so astoundingly, intricately, breathtakingly beautiful?  Is it all merely genetic variation?  Geology and weather?  Chemical twitch, electrical impulse, feathers and mating calls?
Pliny can't answer.  I return the Natural History to the library downstairs. (p. 186-187)
I find this passage problematic.  At the outset, there’s its mixing of the beauty in the natural (pines, starlings, etc.) with beauty in the man-made (the church by architect Francesco Borromini).  Though that does give me the latitude to turn to something man-made in my response to him, I’m not sure that a church designed to be beautiful raises the central question Doerr is asking here.  That said, what is he really asking and what answer is he suggesting?

I explore here two interpretations of what Doerr wants us to take away from this passage.


The first interpretation is this:  Doerr is simply marveling at how beautiful the world is, despite knowing that what he encounters in the natural world is the work of forces that do not deliberately create beauty, unless that beauty arises as a natural by-product of those forces or, perhaps, serves some utilitarian purpose.  It’s wonderful, we might suppose him to be saying, that from materialistic forces, such as evolution or geologic processes, such beauty arises.  Most beauty is, thus, merely happenstance, to be wondered at, to be sure, but not to be given much weight in our perception of what’s fundamentally at work in the world.

Frankly, I do not think this is what Doerr is proposing.

Purposeful Force

I think that Doerr, moved by all of this incredible beauty, asked a loaded question in order to posit the possibility that some purposeful or guiding force is shaping nature and the world in order for us to bask in this beauty.  That interpretation is embedded in how the main question is phrased - "Why does the world bother . . . .?"  And I believe he would answer “No” to each question he then asks about how beauty arises – the first of those is:  “Is it all merely genetic variation?”  That "merely" is revealing.

Am I suggesting that Doerr was attributing the beauty in the world to God or some intelligent designer?  I think he was, at least, leaning that way.  Though I admit there's some poetry and romance to the posture Doerr assumed here, its anti-science stance is anathema to me.  Beauty created specifically for our eyes and for no other reason, would destroy the foundation of science.

Charles Darwin certainly recognized the danger that such a proposition, if applied to beauty in living organisms, posed for his theory of evolution.  In On the Origin of Species, he addressed it directly.
The foregoing remarks lead me to say a few words on the protest lately made by some naturalists, against the utilitarian doctrine that every detail of structure has been produced for the good of its possessor. They believe that very many structures have been created for beauty in the eyes of man, or for mere variety. This doctrine, if true, would be absolutely fatal to my theory. (1859 edition, p. 199)
Darwin acknowledged that, beautiful or not, “many structures are of no direct use to their possessors.”  He partly dealt with this by observing that many attributes we currently see in organisms were “formerly useful.”  In addition, growth of one part of an organism might require changes in other parts that are of “no direct use.”  He observed that the “beauty” promoted by sexual selection might “be called useful only in rather a forced sense.”  (I’m uncertain why its utility is questioned if it allows its possessors to secure mates.)

The response Darwin felt carried the day regarding the appearance of features not obviously utilitarian, and perhaps beautiful, was
that the chief part of the organisation of every being is simply due to inheritance; and consequently, though each being assuredly is well fitted for its place in nature, many structures now have no direct relation to the habits of life of each species. (p. 199)  (The emphasis in that sentence, I think, should be on “now.”)
So, though we might find aspects of other kinds of living organisms are beautiful in our eyes and conclude that much of such beauty is without any apparent relationship to the organisms' ability to reproduce, if Darwin is correct (and he certainly is), such beauty is not produced deliberately for our eyes or sensibilities.  It may serve, or have served, some utilitarian purposes for those organisms.  Regardless, we do know that genetic variation is behind that beauty.

Exhausted Polyhedral Obsidian Cores

Several weeks ago, as I wrestled with Doerr on beauty, I happened to come upon a small bag of precolonial Mesoamerican Indian obsidian artifacts I had stashed long ago in a trunk in my basement. Over 50 years back, when I lived in Mexico, I collected these worked pieces of obsidian at the ruins of Teotihuacan, the ruins of the ancient city near Mexico City.  (At least, I believe I found them there.)  Even as I drafted this post, I was exploring, for the first time, what these obsidian artifacts might be.  What I found offered me a wonderful example of beauty arising as a by-product of some process.  It also led me to shape what I think are other, better, more engaging questions than the one Doerr asked.

Anthropologist Bradford W. Andrews has written extensively about the processes that Mesoamerican Indians applied to blocks and nodules of obsidian to produce prismatic blades, a particularly common tool which, in cross section, is prism shaped.  These very sharp blades were used for cutting or modified further and shaped into other tools such as projectile points for hunting and lancets for bloodletting.

For this discussion, I have relied on the following:  Andrew’s article titled Stone Tools in Mesoamerica:  Flaked Stone Tools which appears in the Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures (2014), and Pathways to Prismatic Blades:  A Study in Mesoamerican Obsidian Core-Blade Technology, which he edited with Kenneth Hirth (Monograph 45, The Cotsen Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles, 2002).

According to Andrews, this kind of blade production emerged substantially during the Middle Preclassic period from 900 to 300 BCE.  The multistep process that Indian craftsmen followed to generate the blades was not only of particular utilitarian value to the community, but was also imbued with deep and complex symbolism and ritual significance.

The two illustrations by Andrews shown below were published in the article Stone Tools in Mesoamerica, and are reproduced here with his generous permission.  (They have been enlarged and darkened slightly.)  Together these two images depict the sequence of stages in the production of prismatic blades, the overarching objective of the entire process.

The steps in the first image involve percussion or striking of the obsidian block or core, first to shape it and then to remove macroblades and small percussion blades.  These actions generate ridges or arrises running down what is called, at that stage, the polyhedral core.

Next, pressure is applied to the core to break off pressure blades and, in the process, to create more regular ridges that run the length of the core.  In the last stage, prismatic blades are created, also by pressure; these have two ridges running down their dorsal side.

Here is a piece of a prismatic blade that was among those artifacts I (presumably) collected at Teotihuacan.  Andrews notes that Teotihuacan hosted a “socially complex society” in which “blade production had become a specialized occupation carried out by skilled craftsmen.”  (Stone Tools in Mesoamerica, p. 5.)  By 500 CE, the city had a population of 125,000.

Even today, the edges of this blade fragment, though decidedly roughed up by the passage of time, are capable of cutting.  It’s a fitting end result to the process just depicted – a highly effective tool.

But that’s not where, to my eyes, beauty comes in.  Remove as many prismatic blades as can be profitably removed from the core and the craftsman is left with what is called an “exhausted core.”  Destined for the trash heap?  Probably, though not always.  Sometimes they were broken into smaller pieces and polished into beads.  Pictured below are two significantly reduced cores that I found those many years ago.  (I will subsequently call them “exhausted” cores, because I believe they had reached that stage and it’s such an expressive adjective).  The one on the left is a fragment of such a core.

And this is where, at least for me, beauty comes in.  These exhausted cores, which I now know as the by-products of the many steps taken to produce cutting tools, are beautiful.  Focus specifically on the one on the right.  It is graceful with long ridges flowing down the length of its tapered, glassy body.  There is an engaging harmony to its form that appeals to me, indeed, more than the intended products that the Indian craftsmen so painstakingly made.  When I first found these objects, I assumed they were jewelry or ceremonial objects of some sort – I thought that, without a doubt, they were the intended products of some unknown process undertaken by Indian artisans.  Not so.

I offer them up as a bit of evidence to refute what I believe Doerr to be saying in the passage in question.  They are beautiful to me, but not deliberately.  They are what was left over after a purposeful process was applied to a block or nodule of obsidian.  There was no intention to make them beautiful for me, yet I do consider them to be beautiful.  Why?

Ah, I think that's a better way, a scientific way, to approach the subject of beauty in the world.  This  doesn't look outward for some larger force arbitrarily making the world beautiful specifically for humans.  Rather, it turns inward with an initial question that asks:  Why do we perceive some things in the world around us as beautiful?  Break that into two fundamental parts:  What attributes of those things we consider beautiful make them beautiful?  What in our evolutionary history and in our make-up leads us to see those things or those specific attributes as beautiful?

This opens up issues that Doerr blithely passed over, such as differences among cultures regarding what's deemed beautiful.  What are the cultural norms here?  Some of the objects that Doerr identified as beautiful in the world might leave parts of the human community cold.  Also, looking inward brings our evolutionary history and our genetic make-up to the fore.  In passing, I would note that biologist E.O. Wilson in Biophilia (1984) explored why certain landscapes are deemed beautiful and posited that the emergence of early human species in the African savanna was the key.  He asked, “. . . is the mind predisposed to life on the savanna, such that beauty in some fashion can be said to lie in the genes of the beholder?”

These new questions are a topic for another day.  Best to leave it now at this – I think Doerr asked the wrong question; there are sounder and more fruitful ones to be addressed.

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