Elyse Durham: When It Seems the Whole World Suffers, Animals Are Still Offering Praise

Image: Robin Kamp / 500px / Getty

There’s no shortage of ugliness in our world. A quick scan of today’s environmental headlines reveals any number of horrors: burnt-out Californian forests, flooded Midwestern plains. It’s hard to pause to appreciate the wildflowers in bloom when dead whales wash ashore with plastic-engorged stomachs on beaches all over the world.

Perhaps it helps to know that when we fail to see the beauty around us, other creatures don’t. Some scientists now believe that animals appreciate beauty for its own sake.

Usually, the first (and most common) purpose ascribed to beauty is its functionality. Beauty can alert us to healthfulness or the presence of fertility, a useful and vital role in producing healthy offspring. In this scientific view, beauty serves no other purpose than as a genetic signpost.

But another potential exists. Some scientists recently proposed that beauty in the natural world might sometimes exist just for aesthetic purposes. In his book The Evolution of Beauty, ornithologist Richard Prum suggests that some animals may appreciate beauty outside of any reproductive purposes and may choose mates based on an aesthetic sense alone, a phenomenon known as sexual selection. He cites the laborious process a male bowerbird undertakes when building his bower, or nest. “The bower serves no physical purpose other than as a location where courtship takes place,” he says, indicating that this artistic demonstration is meant solely for the female bowerbird’s aesthetic enjoyment.

Jeff Schloss, a professor of biology at Westmont College, said in an interview that Prum’s theories have further inflamed an “ongoing debate” in the scientific world. Schloss, who studies the evolution of altruism, feels Prum is “onto something,” though he finds Prum’s theory a bit too dismissive of other options. He noted that recent studies of human attractiveness do support some of Prum’s theory. For instance, facial symmetry, a cross-cultural standard of beauty long thought to be an indicator of health, has been recently questioned as an indicator of genetic fitness.

It seems, then, that animals and humans alike have the capacity to appreciate beauty for beauty’s sake. Can beauty be about more than just natural selection? Scripture provides ample evidence of creation as a source of pleasure. Psalm 96 describes the earth—and its creatures—as having an awareness of God’s majesty and praising him in kind: “Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad, let the sea resound, and all that is in it; let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them” (vv. 11–12).

Madeleine L’Engle remarked that when looking for inspiration on the nature of God, she often turned to scientists, calling them “contemporary mystics.” But what is it like to be one of those scientists, seeing this beauty up close and personal?

Schloss remembers sensing God in the night sky even before becoming a person of faith. “I just thought, ‘This is so beautiful. There’s something there that I don’t yet have and I don’t yet see.’ And I think that was Jesus,” he says. “I wanted to be grateful, but I didn’t have anybody to be grateful to.” Schloss says that, as a scientist, he sees resounding evidence of God’s wisdom and guidance in the natural world. “God hasn’t just arbitrarily designed creatures and imposed rules on them,” he says. “I think he’s designed us specifically to flourish when yielding to the good, and he’s given instruction on what the good is, for our flourishing. And boy, that’s a good creation!”

Scripture tells us that God is good and cares for his creatures. Psalm 104 depicts God tending to and providing for all his creatures, big and small, from birds and badgers to lions and the cedars of Lebanon. In Matthew 6, Christ also reminds us that even “the grass of the field” is clothed by God’s tender hand. Romans 1:20 says that the created world leaves us “without excuse,” and that it illustrates God’s character in full, vivid color.

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Source: Christianity Today