Animals make good use of art, beauty, author finds

  • By Sharon Wootton Herald Columnist
  • Saturday, February 16, 2013 8:01pm
  • LifePhotography

Charles Darwin had a problem with the male peacock’s exuberant tail.

“The sight of a feather in the peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!”

His theory of evolution through natural selection, when reduced to a sound bite, is the theory of survival of the fittest. Enter the peacock, whose tail is unwieldy, can attract unwanted attention, and does not appear to contribute to its physical survival.

So Darwin moved to his next theory, sexual selection, in which females of certain species prefer certain attributes in males. Many of those attributes are simply beautiful.

It may be the earliest form of art appreciation, writes David Rothenberg in “Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science, and Evolution” ($30). The professor of philosophy and music uses the male Australian satin bowerbird as his entry into the animal world of art.

Not only does he build a complex avenue of vertical footlong twigs, he decorates it, preferably with anything blue, even crushing berries and using a soft piece of bark to paint the inner wall.

This, Rothenberg writes, is an example of the male of a species creating art to attract a female, who apparently has a streak of art appreciation in her genetic code.

Rothenberg, in this fascinating book, argues that science can make better sense of beauty if it takes sexual selection more seriously as the development of taste among animals.

Sexual selection in birds, for example, simply is not enough to explain the specific complexity of what is sung or displayed.

In some species, perhaps only the most fascinating survive in that place between art and science.

Other potential books for your shelves are:

Andy Kirkpatrick’s “Cold Wars: Climbing the Fine Line between Risk and Reality” ($19) is as close as a nonclimber is going to get to understanding what drives an extreme climber.

Kirkpatrick, author of “Psychovertical,” aptly connects the dots of being driven, choosing to risk everything, painful push-pull with his wife and children, times when he felt like he can’t go up — or down, the tears and the rage and the frustration vanquished by exhilaration.

Julie Zickefoose’s “The Bluebird Effect: Uncommon Bonds with Common Birds” ($28) has earned a permanent place on my bookshelf, as well as the title of Perfect Gift Book.

Naturalist Zickefoose creates 25 portraits of birds through insightful observations, anecdotes, prose, watercolor paintings, sketches, science and slices of her life.

Don’t rush through this one; savor the writing, art and stories.

It’s been awhile since a wolf-related book held my interest, but that changed with “The Hidden Life of Wolves” ($25), released earlier this month.

Jim and Jamie Dutcher have spent 20 years studying and documenting much-maligned wolves in words, excellent photographs and film. It was their work with Idaho’s Sawtooth Pack that lead to new understanding of wolves’ social hierarchy and behaviors.

“Hidden Life” goes deep into the lives of wolves but also includes wolf myths (and reality), human fears, battles over re-introduction (see the poster that called a wolf a “government-sponsored terrorist”), 1933 sheet music of “Three Little Pigs,” wolf language and more.

Outdoor photography is, in the end, about your relationship with nature. Photographer and instructor Nat Coalson’s “Nature Photography Photo Workshop” ($30), explores the mental aspect of shooting outdoors as well as the technical.

Written clearly and with technical explanations for the images, Coalson covers the expected range of information in a clear and concise matter with photographs that make you want to read about the process.

Take advantage of several photographic assignments in the book.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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