You are here

Lecture 8. The Fact of Beauty.

§ 1. A Synoptic View of Animate Nature Must Include the Fact of the Pervasiveness of Beauty. § 2. General Characteristics of the Æsthetic Emotion. § 3. Beauty a General Quality of Animate Nature. § 4. Theoretical Objections to the Thesis. § 5. Concrete Objections. § 6. Factors in Æsthetic Delight. § 7. Aspects of Beauty in Animate Nature. § 8. Biological Significance of Beauty to the Beautiful Organisms themselves. § 9. Beauty of Animal Artifice. § 10. Evolution of Æsthetic Emotion. § 11. The Significance of the Pervasive Beauty of Animate Nature.

§ 1. A Synoptic View of Animate Nature Must Include the Fact of the Pervasiveness of Beauty.

IN an inquiry into the significance of Animate Nature, there is no getting past the fact of Beauty. Whatever we make of it, the Beauty of Nature is a joy for ever to many, not only to the cultured, but to the unsophisticated who never heard of the æsthetic attitude. Man's contemplative and disinterested delight in the beautiful is well-nigh the best of him; and it is a reasonable and verified belief that we get at something in this way which can be reached by no other, certainly not by scientific analysis or by logic. There are curiously few general affirmations that we can make about Nature; one is that Nature is in great part intelligible or rationalisable, and another is that Nature is in greater part beautiful.

It is our object in these lectures to indicate what contributions Biological Science has to offer to a general view of the world, and it is impossible for biologists to pass over the pervasiveness of beauty in the realm of organisms. We cannot say that science is required to discover this beauty in its obvious expressions in bird and flower, but its luxuriance in the unobtrusive, in the well-concealed, in internal and microscopic structure, and among the unicellulars cannot be discerned without scientific investigation. If the popular impression be that beauty is the exception, the scientific impression is that beauty is the rule. For a long time, perhaps till the middle of the 19th century, Beauty was very generally spoken of as a quality of the exotic—the orchid and the Bird of Paradise—now we feel it most at our doors. St. Peter's lesson has been learned, for we find nought common on the earth. As one of the poets says, “Beauty crowds us all our life.” Moreover, sound science tells us much that is very interesting regarding the beautiful and intensifies our appreciation of its significance.

§ 2. General Characteristics of the Æsthetic Emotion.

We mean by the beautiful that which excites in us the particular kind of emotion which we call æsthetic. This is experienced in many degrees of intensity and of purity, but it is distinctive. The æsthetic emotion is not excited by touch, taste, or smell. The æsthetic emotion is an end in itself, like intellectual contemplation, though it may liberate Man's formative impulse. It grips us as organisms, ‘body and soul’ at once, and abides with us incarnate. The thing of beauty is a joy for ever. Prof. B. Bosanquet points out (1915) that æsthetic feeling has qualities of permanence, relevance, and community. That is to say, it brings no satiety; it is annexed to particular qualities—not a feeling of general well-being; and it grows as we share it with others. In all but its simplest expressions, it strikes the chords of imagination, for, as Professor Bosanquet insists, “the æsthetic attitude is an attitude in which we imaginatively contemplate an object, being able in that way to live in it as an embodiment of our feeling.…The æsthetic attitude so far as enjoyable” is “the pleasant awareness of a feeling embodied in an appearance presented to imagination or imaginative perception.”

§ 3. Beauty a General Quality of Animate Nature.

Now, what seems to us to be a fact, and a very interesting fact, is that all natural, free-living, fully-formed, healthy living creatures, which we can contemplate without prejudice, are in their appropriate surroundings artistic harmonies, having that quality which we call beauty. That is to say they have qualities—objective qualities—which excite in us a particular kind of emotion, often of a very high order. To many of us—of the eye-minded type—the blotting out of the annual pageant, say of flowers and of birds, would be the extinguishing of one of the lights of life. But we must pause to inquire whether our proposition really expresses a fact.

§ 4. Theoretical Objections to the Thesis.

The first objection is, that beauty is in no sense a quality of things, but is wholly in our minds—purely subjective. Hegel, forgetful of Schelling and Goethe, remarked that it had never occurred to any one to emphasise the aspect of beauty in natural things, that in fact the beauty was not in the things but in the contemplating mind. Some other philosophers, such as Vaihinger,—the author of The Philosophy of the As If,—have maintained that the Beautiful is one of Man's self-preservative ‘fictions’—whistlings to keep his courage up. But this is an extreme of subjectivism, No doubt the æsthetic emotion implies a racially and individually attuned mind, but this is not thrilled except in the presence of compositions of lines and combinations of colours which have a particular quality. There are other compositions and combinations—usually of our own making—which fail to please us, which have not the quality. Except in reminiscence, we do not have the æsthetic joy unless the thing of beauty is there, and in regard to animate objects there is remarkable congruence of emotion on the part of the observers, after certain readily intelligible difficulties have been overcome. Moreover, as a domesticated animal or cultivated plant degenerates under artificial conditions, becoming obese, or coarse, or scraggy, as the case may be, there is a correlated slackening in our pleasure in it. There is an objective basis of ugliness correlated with our subjective repulsion.

And again, it cannot be a mental fiction, this æsthetic delight, for if there is any corner of experience where the unity of body and mind is more forcibly illustrated than elsewhere, it is in connection with the æsthetic emotion. It is a body-and-mind reaction. “If we try,” says Professor Bosanquet (1915), “to cut out the bodily side of our world, we shall find that we have reduced the mental side to a mere nothing.”

Speaking of “the aspects of beauty and sublimity which we recognise in Nature, and the finer spirit of sense revealed by the insight of the poet and the artist”, Professor Pringle-Pattison writes: “These things also are not subjective imaginings; they give us a deeper truth than ordinary vision, just as the more developed eye or ear carries us farther into Nature's refinements and beauties” (1917, p. 127). “Philosophy does not require us, then, to treat the beauty and sublimity of natural objects as subjective emotions in the bystander: we are entitled, on the principles I have been advocating, to treat them as qualities of the object just as much as the vaunted primary qualities”…(p. 129). “Things are as they reveal themselves in their fullness to the knowing mind” (p. 130).

It is highly probable that our likes and dislikes, our standards and criteria, have been to some extent wrought out in the course of ages of familiarity with Nature. It is highly probable that certain arrangements of lines and colours please us greatly because of racial and even pre-human associations, for we are strange medleys of organic memories. But no one can say that he knows much about this. There are some cases of apparent æsthetic delight among animals, e.g., that of the Bower-birds which decorate their honeymoon bower with brightly coloured objects, apparently productive of pleasant excitement. But we do not wish to make much of the rather problematical æsthetic predispositions inherited from pre-human ancestry, especially since whatever was thus entailed had to pass muster with Man himself, had to be assimilated or eliminated, approved or rejected by an evolving rational being. Allowing something for hereditary associations, we have to face the fact that man has a great pleasure in the lines and colours of, say, flowers and birds; and our point is that these are not ‘anyhow’ lines and colours, but have a positive quality.

It is worth noting (1) that many quite unfamiliar living creatures—such as deep-sea animals—are recognised at first glance as triumphantly beautiful; (2) that it is among the domesticated and the cultivated, in favour of which man should be prejudiced, that we find the best examples of the ugly; and (3) that for many people the most beautiful things—that is to say, the things which evoke the keenest æsthetic delight—are not natural objects, but queer creations which bear no resemblance to anything in the heavens above, or in the earth beneath, or even in the waters under the earth where strange beings abound. Yet the beautiful thing—a decoration, a piece of pottery, a tile—thrills us through and through, and we never tire of it.

Another objection is based on the capriciousness of taste. In his well-known Romanes Lecture on “Criticism and Beauty”, Mr. Arthur J. Balfour laid emphasis on the conspicuous absence of common agreement as to what is beautiful. There is no accepted body of æsthetic doctrine. Taste differs with race, age, and degree of culture. Greece had apparently in ancient days values very different from ours as to music, and in pictorial art what is one man's food is another man's poison. Even among the aristocracy of taste, what agreement is there among the various schools and critics? Mr. Balfour maintains that there is no standard of the beautiful to be found (a) by critical analysis, or (b) in the consensus of experts, or (c) in the general suffrage of pleased mankind. So he concludes that just as that is for every man most lovable which be most dearly loves, so that is for every man most beautiful which he most deeply admires.

Perhaps we may evade the force of this argument by remembering that Mr. Balfour was discussing art, while our theme is Nature, which makes a great difference. Moreover, while there is discrepancy of view among experts as regards the merits of subtle expressions of art, there is usually agreement in appreciating straightforward æsthetic excellence and in rejecting the ugly.

In maintaining the objectivity of beauty we recognise to the full the subjective side, namely the æsthetic emotion, which is complex, not simple. The emotion is the subjective side, and, as every one knows, very personal, varying with age, health, state of mind, past experiences, and so forth: hut certain qualities of form, colour, and movement in the objects of contemplation are objective and do not in any way depend on us. Against this position it does not seem particularly cogent to urge that the uneducated may see no beauty in a grass; that the sick man may find his old favourites intrusive and repugnant; that an analysis of our delight in the beautiful reveals subtle associations and self-projections. For it must be remembered that all sensory alertness demands discipline; that there is, so to speak, easy beauty and difficult beauty—the latter often mistaken by the careless for ugliness; that health in subject and in animate object is the normal state with which we have primarily to reckon; and that a pleasedness directly induced by certain qualities of things may be enhanced and overwhelmed by secondary factors due much more to the world within than to the world without.

§ 5. Concrete Objections.

But there is another series of objections, perhaps to the scientific mind more interesting. These consist in bringing forward evidence that the realm of organisms is spotted with ugliness. To meet these objections let us briefly explain the saving-clauses attached to our thesis.

(1) There are some creatures which the average man cannot contemplate without prejudice. He does not admire the jellyfish, beyond doubt a decorative masterpiece, because he was once stung; he cannot abide the handsome newt because of its clammy skin; he does not appreciate the snake's beauty because of the Garden of Eden. There is no use trying to get a fair verdict from a packed jury. In testing our thesis we must exclude cases where our impressions are more or less excusably warped by some unpleasant association—by something which is often at least quite extrinsic to the creature. It is difficult, even for a naturalist, to judge impartially of the artistic merits of parasites, though in some cases, like dodder and mistletoe, the beauty is too strong for our prejudice. In support of the view that Nature is spotted with ugliness, Prof. James Ward refers to creatures like the spinose lizard which has been called Moloch horridus. But his examples are Unfortunate. They are animals in regard to which a prejudiced association might readily arise; but they are delightful quaint creatures over which the artist is enthusiastic.

The other saving-clauses are slightly different. To get a clear issue we must exclude domesticated animals such as prize pigs, and cultivated plants such as the buxom cabbage, which are non-viable in a state of nature, and bear too obviously the marks of man's fingers. We may exclude also unfinished or embryonic stages, which are often, as a matter of fact, hidden away very carefully in Nature. We may exclude also all captive creatures which are distorted or crippled by parasites or by disease, and all the monsters of the teratological show which Nature would not have tolerated for a moment. These are ugly, and we shall see, later on, that there are several objective reasons for their being repulsive to us. Our thesis refers to wholesome wild nature.

Another saving-clause is significant. If we are to appraise rightly we must see the creature in its native haunts,—m the environment to which it is adapted, which is in a sense its external heritage, which it has in some cases sought out. The hippopotamus at the Zoo may fail to excite æsthetic emotion, but that this is our misfortune and not Behemoth's fault is evident from the book of Job. We have to see him as the author of that poem saw him, with his ruddy hide in the shade of the lotuses, in the covert of the reeds and fens. “His strength is in his loins, his force in the sinews of his belly, the muscles of his thighs are knit together, his bones are pipes of brass, his limbs are like bars of iron, he is the chief of the ways of God.” And we, purblind, call the hippopotamus an ugly creature!

This is a subtle subject which we venture to discuss—the pervasiveness of a certain quality in living things and in the inorganic domain as well that makes life to the relatively unfettered a continuous delight. So we must be pardoned if we treat it gently, rather than with stern analysis. The science of æsthetics has not gone far yet, and we are not desirous of doing much more than pleading that our synoptic view of Nature must include a frank recognition of the fact of beauty.

§ 6. Factors in Æsthetic Delight.

What is implied in our æsthetic emotion when we watch beautiful animals—the Shetland ponies racing in the field, the kingfisher darting up the stream like an arrow made of a piece of rainbow, the mayflies rising in a living cloud from a quiet stretch of the river, or the sea-anemones nestling like flowers in the niches of the shore-pool? What is implied in our thrill at finding in a corner of the rocks, near the waterfall a stately Royal Fern—

“Plant lovelier in its own recess

Than Grecian naiad seen at earliest dawn

Tending her font, or Lady of the lake

Sole sitting by the shores of old romance.”

In the first place, our enjoyment has a sensory or physiological factor. What we see sets up agreeable rhythmic processes in our eyes, and agreeable rhythmic messages—waves of chemical reaction if you will—pass to our brain, and the good news—the pleasedness—is echoed throughout the body,—in the pulse, for instance, and the beating of the heart. Wordsworth was a better physiologist than he knew when he said, “my heart leaps up when I behold a rainbow in the sky”, or again, “And then my heart with pleasure fills, and dances with the daffodils”. As with music, so with beautiful sights external rhythms are often echoed in internal rhythms, and rhythms are pleasant. It is easy enough to burlesque the idea of the physiological factor in æsthetic delight, but the sensory thrill is always there, and in simple cases, where perception is not wide awake, it may be predominant. We cannot enter into the difficult question of the precise relation of the bodily resonance to the æsthetic emotion, in connection with which three views have been held. They are thus stated by Sherrington:—(a) that emotion is first aroused and that its nervous correlate excites bodily resonance; (b) that the stimulus excites the mind and the nervous centres for visceral resonance concurrently; and (c) that the stimulus acts on centres ruling the viscera, and that the visceral sensations, laden with affective quality, induce the emotion. We adhere to Sherrington's conclusion, that the visceral resonance is secondary to the cerebral excitement and the associated emotion, that it reinforces rather than initiates the joy.

The second factor in our æsthetic delight is perceptual. The ‘form’ (in the widest sense) of what we contemplate is significant for us and satisfies our feeling. Beauty increases with significance of form, with the degree in which meaning is suffused into material, or with the degree in which the way is opened to us to give imaginative interpretation. The æsthetic attitude, Professor Bosanquet says, “is an attitude in which we imaginatively contemplate an object, being able in that way to live in it as an embodiment of our feeling”. We actively respond to what we enjoy looking at, projecting ourselves into it, reading ourselves or something else into it, in an æsthetic illusion, which has something in common with make-believe forms of play, just as these in turn are linked on to art. It is because of the importance of this factor that many have been led to the idea, which seems to us mistaken, that the quality of beauty is altogether subjective.

If the beautiful form which moves us is truly excellent, it becomes more significant in all its details, in proportion to the intensity of our æsthetic contemplation. The form lends itself to more and more meaning. The imagination receives a succession of liberating stimuli, one after the other, according to the depth of the beauty of the object; and the fact which seems to us to be outstanding is that the lines and patterns and colours of living creatures go to make up a ‘form’ which almost never disappoints.

In its highest reaches the imaginative perception rises into the poet's vision, of which Blake speaks:—

“And before my way

A frowning thistle implores my stay.

What to others a trifle appears

Fills me full of smiles or tears;

For double the vision my eyes do see,

And a double vision is always with me,

With my inward eye, ‘tis an old man grey,

With my outward a thistle across my way.”

While venturing to lay some emphasis on the objectivity of beauty and on the physiological as well as psychological side of the æsthetic emotion, we recognise that the higher factors may come to mean much more than the primary ones. As Professor Bosanquet says, “Man is not civilised, æsthetically, till he has learned to value the semblance above the reality. It is indeed, as we shall see, in one sense the higher reality.”

A third factor in our æsthetic delight is conceptual. Experts maintain that nothing which does not appear can count in the æsthetic impression, but it seems to us impossible to shut off the effect of associations and the influence of concepts on percepts. There is, for instance, the influence of the concept of adaptiveness which is always in the background of the naturalist's mind, as is, indeed, true of most of us. That thoughtful physiologist, Sir John Burdon Sanderson, was firmly persuaded that an appreciation of adaptiveness bulks very largely in our æsthetic enjoyment of animal form and structure. Canon Hannay speaks of the delight of watching the flight of birds:—“Above the rocks hovered the gulls with outstretched wings. Sometimes they slid down the wind till they almost touched the sea. Then with slow strong beatings of their wings they rose high again, slanted seaward against the breeze, swept in wide circles, lazily indifferent as it seemed to destination, but bent on satisfying themselves with exquisite smooth motion.” As we watch this everyday sight we have purely æsthetic admiration of the grace of the creatures and of the music of their movements. There is sensory pleasure and there is imaginative sympathy. But the delight is subtly heightened by an appreciation of the fitness of the birds to this mastery of the air,—an appreciation that steals into the mind rather as an aroma than as a cold-blooded scientific reflection.

By the objectivity of the beauty of Animate Nature we mean that there is in the ‘form’ of plants and animals a positive quality which excites the æsthetic emotion. Speaking of tragic poetry, Mr. Bertrand Russell says: “it becomes possible at last so to transform and refashion the unconscious universe, so to transmute it in the crucible of imagination, that a new image of shining gold replaces the old idol of clay. In all the multiform facts of the world—in the visual shapes of trees and mountains and clouds, in the events of the life of man, even in the omnipotence of Death—the insight of creative idealism can find the reflection of a beauty which its own thoughts first, made.” This is splendidly said, and that man's mind should be able to assert “its subtle mastery over the thoughtless forces of Nature” is something to ponder over, but our concern is with simpler things than the triumph of imaginative idealisation. We are pleading for the reality of a beauty which man's thoughts did not first make.

§ 7. Aspects of Beauty in Animate Nature.

Another question arises: Of what elements does the beauty of plants and animals consist? The general answer must be: In combinations and arrangements of lines and colours, and, in the case of animals, in movements as well.

It has been known for centuries that certain forms are much more pleasing than others. This has been borne out by experiments with children and other unsophisticated persons. Thus an ellipse with its axes in the proportion 5:3 has been recorded as very pleasing since 300 B.C.; it is the golden or divine section; it leads on to the mystic pentagram. But why it is more pleasing than other ellipses, or than a rectangle, who can tell us? The eye registers certain forms with pleasure; there are lines that flow and shapes that sing. The approximate logarithmic spirals, so common throughout organic nature, for instance in horns and cones, in shells and buds, are peculiarly pleasing.

Perhaps this depends in part on racial education. For racially we were brought up in the country, and grew up more appreciative of rounded surfaces than of sharp corners. When we get beyond the domain of the inorganic, Nature is on the whole a world of curves. We were brought up on curves. Perhaps certain dominant associations of very early origin linked curves and pleasure together. Even our photographic plate—our retina—is a beautiful curved surface, and this may have something to do with our dislike of the angular.

Among organisms we like best those with flowing lines, which repeat one another rhythmically; which conspire, as Lessing said, to one effect; which are readily summed up; which compose. We are apt to be less pleased with asymmetrical animals (like snails), top-heavy animals (like horn-bills), disproportionately lanky animals (like ostriches), not that any of these are to be artistically apologised for. We are least inclined to admire creatures whose architectural plan is difficult to grasp, which are distracting conundrums, or those which are too prolonged and monotonous in their repetition (like millipedes), or those which startle our perceptual conventionalities (like the Indian Ocean fish which has a window right through it). But our point is simply that with a few exceptions (which are too difficult for us) the lines of living creatures are such that they give us æsthetic pleasure. This is as true of the microscopic shells of Foraminifera and Radiolarians—which are joys for ever—as of the lines of the crane and of the cedar of Lebanon. It is as true of the carefully hidden down-feathers of the eagle as of the tail of the peacock. It is as true of the internal architecture of a sea-urchin's spine as of the external moulding of a tiger. It is as true of the minute chiselling of many a moth's egg-shell as of the sweeping lines of an Iguanodon. Is there no significance in the omnipresence of these pleasing lines?

The second element in organic beauty is colour, which so often emphasises and enhances the value of form. It seems that all wild animals and plants, living an independent and healthy life and in their natural surroundings, are beautiful in colour, that is to say, æsthetically pleasing. The combinations in parrots, humming-birds, birds of Paradise, coral-reef fishes, butterflies, orchids, and the like are often daring, but they are never wrong. That is to say, when we look at natural schemes of colour we are always pleased, which means, to begin with, that the chemical processes set up in our retina are harmonious. It may be remarked that some skin-diseases involve vivid colours, and that they displease us,—partly perhaps because associations make us feel them uglier than they are, but partly because they are ugly, being expressions of disharmonious vital processes, non-viable failures which Nature scarce troubles to look at, but casts at once as rubbish to the void. The coloration of a scallop shell, of a peacock's feather, of a poppy's petal, and so forth, depends on the orderly chemical processes of a healthy life, and it is perhaps for this reason primarily that they never fail to set up pleasant changes in the human eye.

The third component of the beautiful in animals is movement. Just as we enjoy watching a waterfall, a fountain, the waves, or even the dance of motes in the sunlit air, so we are delighted with the jellyfishes throbbing in the tide, the flotilla of sepias all keeping time as they swim, the flying-fishes rising before the prow of the steamer like locusts before us as we walk in the meadow, the porpoises gambolling in the waves, the jerboas with their startling jumps, the flight of bat and bird and butterfly, and the way of the serpent on the rock. Let us watch the last. As Sir Richard Owen said, the snake can “outclimb the monkey, outswim the fish, outleap the zebra, outwrestle the athlete, and crush the tiger”. The accurate zoologist cannot accept every word of Ruskin's famous description of the way of the serpent, but he will admit that it gets at the fact of beauty. “That rivulet of smooth silver—how docs it flow, think you? It literally rows on the earth with every scale for an oar; it bites the dust with the ridges of its body. Watch it when it moves slowly—a wave, but without wind! a current, but with no fall! all the body moving at the same instant, yet some of it to one side, some to another, or some forward and the rest of the coil backwards, but all with the same calm will and equal way—no contraction, no extension; one sound-less, causeless, march of sequent rings, and spectral procession of spotted dust, with dissolution in its fangs and dislocation in its coils. Startle it—the winding stream will become a twisted arrow; the wave of poisoned life will lash through the grass like a cast lance.”

Spoil an animal—say by fattening—and the beauty of its movements vanishes,—we have the waddling duck and the wobbling pig. But the general fact unquestionably is that the movements of wild animals are eurhythmic. We like them primarily because they set up a pleasant internal mimicry of eurhythmic movements within ourselves. We admire the fitness of the structure to the movements; an accompanying song may increase the thrill; we add the imaginative touch; the lark is at heaven's gate and we with it.

§ 8. Biological Significance of Beauty to the Beautiful Organisms themselves.

The question now rises whether the combinations and arrangements of lines and colours in organisms—which mean so much to us—mean anything physiologically in their possessors. Is there any deep reason behind them? (a) In some cases the answer is easy, for the arrangements are obviously useful—in giving stability of architecture, in reducing friction, and in economising materials. Thus one of the most exquisite structures in the world is the flinty skeleton of Venus' Flower Basket (Euplectella); and the experts say that the architecture of this is very perfectly adapted to stand such strains as are put on it as it rises like a fairy palace from the floor of the deep sea. A spirally coiled tendril is a pleasing object, and we know that it is directly useful in its formation by drawing the climbing plant closer to its support and afterwards by forming a spring which yields to the wind but does not break. The green pigment of a leaf is well known to be the most useful non-living substance in the world, but though the greenness is somehow wrapped up with its chemical composition it might conceivably have worked just as well had it not been green. On the other hand, colour is often of direct external utility in giving the animal a garment of invisibility, or in giving the flower an advertisement which attracts useful insect visitors.

(b) Secondly there are arrangements of lines and colours which are not of direct use to their possessors, but have none the leas a physiological significance, being expressions of rhythmic growth and orderly chemical processes. The pleasing parallel lines on many shells express periods of growths like the concentric rings inside the stem of a tree or the spine of a sea-urchin. The beautiful cross-bars on a hawk's feather are the expression of diurnal variations in the blood-pressure at the time when the feather was amaking. The subtlety of coloration is often due to its rhythmic distribution—its waxing and waning, its paling and flushing—so that it represents very literally the ripple-marks of growth.

(c) But, thirdly, in many cases, we cannot suggest for the beauty any utility whatsoever, either direct or indirect. Just as it is the way of water in certain circumstances to crystallise into very beautiful and very varied snow-crystals, so it is the way of individualised living matter to form the exquisitely beautiful shells of Foraminifera and Radiolarians. It may be that these relatively simple animals illustrate something that may be called organic crystallisation, though we shall afterwards find reason to suspect that this is not all; our present point is that their beauty is not useful. Just as it is the way of particles of water in the atmosphere to form a rainbow when the sun shines through, a beautiful thing that has no meaning at all except to us, so the “beauty for ashes” that transfigures the leaves of the forest in their dying has, so far as we know, no significance whatsoever to the plant. The withering leaves might as well be ugly, but they are not. Whence again rises the question, Is there any meaning in this pervasiveness of the beautiful?

The main part of the answer which we would suggest is simple. Keeping to those combinations and arrangements of lines and colours which are the expression of development, growth, and activity, what strikes us as characteristic is their harmony. The expert in these matters is of course the artist, the producer of the beautiful and of more than beauty, and his verdict almost without exception is that every one of these wild creatures is an artistic unity. The simple reason for this is that the lines and the colours, in their arrangements and combinations, are the expression of unified viable individualities which have stood the test of time. Perhaps this is in agreement with Signer Croce's definition of beauty as “successful expression”. In the age-long struggle for existence the unharmonious, the ‘impossible’, have been always weeded out before they took firm root and multiplied. The monster is a contradiction in terms. Meredith put it all in a nutshell when he said “Ugly is only half way to a thing”. Nature pronounces her verdict on ugliness by eliminating it. Beauty is Nature' stamp of approval on harmonious viable individuality, and just as, objectively, the ugly is only halfway to a thing, a too incomplete expression, so is it subjectively. As Professor Bosanquet puts it (1915), the imagination is “at once excited in a particular direction and thwarted in it”.

But there is another side to it. In the course of hundreds of thousands of years our senses have become attuned to the natural. We have unconscious or conscious standards of line and colour, of sound and movement. Just as a discord may break a precious glass vessel by setting up contradictory vibrations, so there are colour-schemes that almost literally jar, and muddy colours that are as painful as noises. The big result remains, that the combinations of lines and colours in natural individualities are such that they evoke in us an activity—a disinterested contemplative activity—which, as we have said, is almost the best of us. This is a noteworthy correspondence.

§ 9. Beauty of Animal Artifice.

When we pass from incorporated or incarnate beauty to that of artifice, we experience a delight in which there seems to he a deeper note than any that we have yet sounded. When we study the nests of birds, the webs of spiders, the architecture of the termitary, the combs of bees, the work of tube-building worms, the arenaceous encasements of some Foraminifera, we recognise skill in the use of materials, or selection of fit and congruent materials, or a triumphing over material difficulties, or an expression of individuality at a level almost reaching to art. Then in a new way deep calls to deep, we have a sympathetic joy in the creature's mastery of its materials, in its circumvention or solution of technical difficulties. We enjoy a vicarious victory of mind over matter. Let us consider once more the arenaceous Forminifera, organless, tissueless creatures, with little visible complexity. When a Technitella makes for itself an encasement of minute Echinoderm plates, when another species makes a two-layered warp and woof of sponge spicules, when a Reophax makes a chain-armour of mica platelets cemented at their margin with chitin, when a Marsipella twists its borrowed sponge spicules in a spiral—probably anticipating the prehistoric genius who invented string, we venture to think that in such moments of endeavour and adventure in dealing with inorganic materials, artistic consciousness finds its first glimmering expression. We have argued that organisms are psycho-physical individualities, and perhaps we are nearer the truth in saying that Technitella thompsoni says to Itself, in a quiet way of its own, “Anch' io sono pittore”—“I also am an artist”, than in supposing that its beautiful architecture is describable in terms of surface-tension. Perhaps an intermediate view is truer still.

The artist knows of the emotion that rewards formative achievement, and we have ventured the suggestion that part of the ordinary man's enjoyment in a beautiful work of animal artifice (or, secondarily, in a beautiful organism itself) is a sympathetic sharing in the triumphant mastery of materials. The same general idea we have found in more developed expression in a lecture by Dr. P. Chalmers Mitchell entitled “Science and Life”. From this we would quote a few sentences. Speaking not of Nature but of art, he says: “I do not doubt but that the creative artist is a supreme example of the exuberant will of conscious life to absorb, comprehend, transform the universe into itself, and that the emotion he conveys to us is an all-powerful stimulus. The form that he has created is significant, not because it is a vision of abstract relations, or of reality, or of truth, but because it has laid hold of more of the external world, recast it in categories of human mind and the human senses” (p. 18). “Æsthetic emotion is the responsive thrill to creation realised, and life, seeing the image of its own power, knows that it is beautiful” (p. 21).

§ 10. Evolution of Æsthetic Emotion.

In his Gifford Lectures (1915) Mr. Balfour has spoken of the absence of any pedigree for æsthetic emotions, and has suggested that all that evolutionists can do is to regard them as chance by-products. Æsthetic emotions have opened to Man at his best something conveying not knowledge, but an intuition that was greater than knowledge. How can this be if the æsthetic emotions are but the refined outcome of primeval distributions of matter and energy? We have tried in our consideration of the organism to take the edge off such arguments. There are few active evolutionists of the present day who are committed to such materialism. From the physical abstractions ‘matter’ and ‘energy’ it is impossible to account for emotion, yet emotion may have evolved in psycho-physical beings such as it seems quite legitimate to postulate as the first organisms.

Æsthetic emotion is a very subtle feeling, and is possibly peculiar to mankind, yet it is not inconceivable that its raw materials—up to the level perhaps of a pleased awareness of specific arrangements of certain lines and colours as distinguished from others—may be detected far below the human plane of being. Bower-birds are not, of course, among man's ancestors, but it is interesting to know how the males decorate their sometimes elaborate courting bowers with brightly coloured pods and flowers and shells. We must remember that low down in the kingdom of the unicellulars, as we have seen, animals select material to work with and handle it without hands dexterously, and it does not seem farfetched to suppose that the creature has a dim pleasure in its work. We find similar artificers at various levels in the animal hierarchy, and the thrill accompanying successful formative endeavour will probably strengthen and deepen with the degree of general differentiation and integration. From enjoyment of one's own achievement it is possible to pass to an appreciation of that of others, and in the fact that some birds will appropriate characteristic phrases of song from others we have a hint of admiration. It is too soon to close the door on inquiry into the evolution of æsthetic emotion.

We have to remember also that from time to time value has been given to the beautiful by linking it to love. Shapes, patterns, colours, lights, fragrance, movements, perhaps originating for constitutional reasons, as decorative exuberances arise even in complete darkness, come to be seized upon by selection and brought into the service of preferential mating. To this difficult subject we shall return in Chapter XIV. We simply refer to it now because it suggests one of the ways in which interest in the beautiful might have been cultivated historically in pre-human days.

Another point worthy perhaps of consideration is that æsthetic emotion is its own evolutionary reward, since the feeling has a quite noteworthy unifying value in the development of personality, and in its communicability has been, especially in music, an important socialising factor. This idea has been elaborated in the work of Guyau—that enthusiastic evolutionist philosopher—who recognised the importance of the Beautiful and of Art in adding social sympathy to social synergy. A common admiration and delight helps to produce a community of feeling and sentiment.

To speak of the evolutionary value of being pleased with beautiful things does not involve the heresy of suggesting that we like beautiful things because of an ulterior reward. The delight is its own reward. But there is no real difficulty here, for an activity, like play, which is exercised for its own sake, may none the less have survival value. Beyond and deeper than this utilitarian interpretation, however, there is the idea—difficult, we confess, to state—that just as a beautiful organic ornament seems often of no use to its possessor, but is an expression of a harmonious life, so man's joyous drawing towards the beautiful, when we trace it back far enough, may be an expression of the same, or of a harmony further back still.

§ 11. The Significance of the Pervasive Beauty of Animate Nature.

The recognition of the pervasiveness of beauty in the realm of organisms is important First, because its enjoyment may mean much to man—part of the salt of life. And though its enjoyment may not be brought nearer by any cold-blooded assertions on the subject, man is susceptible to indirect education in reference to the beautiful as well as in relation to the true and the good. Various influences which may be typified by Gilbert White, Wordsworth, Ruskin, Whitman, and Meredith have done much to increase appreciation. Second, to those who agree with our position that the scientific view of the realm of organisms is not exhaustive, it will not seem far-fetched that we are inclined to dwell on the fact of beauty, regarding æsthetic emotion as another right-of-way path towards reality. It is thus that the beautiful has been thought of by many philosophers, such as Schiller and Schelling, “not as a casual and fanciful attribute of certain things or mental states, but as an independent revelation of the essence of reality of the truly real” (Merz, 1914, p. 25). Their suggestion is that the beautiful in Nature may be a key to her deeper significance. As Lotze put it, “It was of high value to look upon beauty, not as a stranger in the world, not as a casual aspect afforded by some phenomena under accidental conditions, but as the fortunate revelation of that principle which permeates all reality with its living activity” (quoted by Merz, 1914, p. 25). Third, in reference to the triad of human ideals—the True, the Beautiful, and the Good—is there not significance in the correspondence that obtains between these and what we find in nature? To the ideal of the true there corresponds, perhaps, the rational orderliness and harmonious consistency of Nature, but rather, we should say, the reward of those organisms which face the facts effectively with the clear-headedness of vigorous health. To the ideal of the good there corresponds the extraordinary subordination of self to species which is so characteristic of organisms. To the ideal of the beautiful there corresponds the richness of the realm of organisms where ugliness is banned.


In an endeavour to indicate what contribution Natural Science has to make to our general view of the world, it is impossible to pass over the pervasiveness of beauty in the realm of organisms. Scientific investigation has disclosed it in the microscopically minute, in internal structure, in the well-concealed—everywhere.

We mean by the beautiful that which excites in us the distinctive kind of emotion called æsthetic, the characteristic qualities of which, such as duration without satiety, communicability, and detachedness from utility, have been much discussed by experts. What concerns us in this study is the interesting fact that all natural, free-living, fully-formed, healthy living creatures, which we can contemplate without prejudice, are in their appropriate surroundings artistic harmonies—a joy to behold.

This thesis may be objected to on various grounds—that beauty is wholly in our minds, that our likes and dislikes are wholly due to individual and racial nurture, that there is no agreement as to what is beautiful; but it seems possible to meet these objections. Another series of objections, however, consists of evidence that the realm of organisms is spotted with ugliness; and to meet these it is necessary to emphasise the saving-clauses of our thesis, that it does not apply to the domesticated and cultivated, the diseased or crippled, the unfinished, the parasitic, and the freakish. Moreover, the artistic harmony is often obscure till the creature is seen in its native haunts—a fact of special importance when these are of its own choosing.

In our æsthetic emotion there is a physiological factor of sensory thrill. Pleasant eurhythmic processes are set up within us,—a bodily resonance. But it is a thoroughly mind-and-body or organismal feeling. There is a psychological factor or perceptual response. We project ourselves into the object whose ‘form’ (in the widest sense) is significant for us and embodies our feeling. We cannot, except abstractly, separate off ‘mere sensation’ or ‘pure perception’—it is the whole organism's concern—and it seems very difficult to dissociate from our æsthetic delight the influence of certain concepts. Thus the physiologist, Sir John Burdon Sanderson, maintained that an appreciation of adaptiveness bulks largely in our æsthetic enjoyment of animal form and structure. Similarly, symbolism may contribute its inextricable influence; or we may discern the touch of the Divine Artist.

The elements that make up the impression we call visual beauty are arrangements and combinations of lines and colours, and a pre-condition of the beautiful is some quality of satisfactoriness in this pattern. In the case of animals, and somewhat apart, pleasing movements may be added to the presentation. But the big fact is that the stamp or halo of beauty is on every free individuality, and if the straight lines and the curves, the patterns, the colours, and the apportionment of the colours be expressions of normal vital processes, and so with rhythmic movements, it becomes easier to understand why they should appeal in a pleasant way to wholesome sensoria with the requisite freedom of response.

The question inevitably arises whether these combinations of lines and colours—which mean so much to us—mean anything to their possessors.

(a) There is no doubt that the ‘beauty’ has in some cases direct utility to the organism. For beauty of pattern often spells stable architecture, beauty of line is often the expression of strength and agility, and beauty of colouring often means a life-saving garment of invisibility. And there are other uses.

(b) In many cases the ‘beauty’ has vital significance though it cannot be called in itself useful. Thus a pleasing succession of concentric lines may represent the ripple-marks of orderly rhythmic growth.

(c) In many cases, however, the beautiful seems to be accessory, without utility either direct or indirect. The lines and colours are harmonious, probably because they are the expressions of unified viable individualities which have stood the test of time. The monster is a contradiction in terms and is forthwith eliminated. “Ugly is only half way to a thing.”

Passing from incarnate beauty to that of animal artificers—in encasement and web, in bower and nest—we recognise precise selection of material, effective use of it, and, it may be, a circumventing or mastery of technical difficulties. There is in varying degrees an external expression of the individuality, the creature creative.

The difficulty of scientifically accounting for man's ‘sense of beauty’ is doubtless great, as Mr. Balfour has emphasised; but this kind of inquiry is young. (1) The raw materials of æsthetic emotion may have been associated with successful formative endeavour. (2) It is well known that interest in the visually and audibly beautiful has been from time to time closely linked to ‘love’. (3) Joyous feeling has a notable unifying influence on the development both of personality and of society. And there are other considerations.

Perhaps deepest of all in our æsthetic emotion is a sympathetic sharing in every triumph of ‘life’ over ‘matter’, in every abiding expression and extension of individuality. Thus Animate Nature is to many minds much more significant than Scenery and Precious Stones,—commanding as their beauty is. In any case, there is for man great value in the beauty of the world without. There may be theoretical exaggeration in Goethe's saying: “Sympathy and enjoyment in what we see is in fact the only reality”—and it is very satisfying in itself, as reality should be; but there is no risk of practical exaggeration, for the consistent discernment and enjoyment of the beautiful cannot be attained on any easier terms than consistent discernment and enjoyment of the True and the Good.