It has been said, again and again, that ‘beauty lies in the eye of the beholder’. Because our perception and response to beauty is somewhat unique to individual observation and appreciation, it can be tricky to articulate why we perceive something (or someone) as beautiful and something else as ordinary. Although beauty itself cannot be measured the characteristics that make something beautiful are very real. We can perceive them from all our senses. For instance, our eyes recognize patterns, bright colors, curves, blending or a combination of these attributes. The debate surrounding beauty is not if it exists but why it exists. At the time of creation Genesis 2:9 says, “And out of the ground the LORD God made every tree grow that is pleasant to the sight and good for food,” [emphasis added]. The beauty that covers our world is, in my view, irrefutable evidence of a Creator and Scripture tells us He designed it intentionally.
While it is true some beauty is inherent and exists as a by-product of mechanical design (i.e. the curved cable structure of a suspension bridge is both efficient and beautiful) sometimes beauty is intentionally added. Stuart Burgess, the Professor of Engineering Design at the University of Bristol, puts it this way, “added beauty is a type of beauty which has the sole purpose of providing a beautiful display.”[i] Consider the added beauty in peafowl; the peacock’s elaborate fanned tail display to attract a peahen is undeniably dazzling. The roughly 200 exquisitely colored feathers include both “eye” and “T” shapes that create a bewitching display mesmerizing the peahen.[ii] In the eye feathers there are several features that when put together make it a one-and-only among birds; the bright colors with an intricate eye pattern, the stem that begins to narrow below the eye pattern and disappears into it, the brown coating near the eye pattern on an otherwise white stem and finally the loose barbs below the eye pattern.[iii] Then the T feathers placement creates a border to the fan formation completing the look. During the display known as “train rattling,” the peacock shakes his tail feathers for more than twenty-five minutes at a time causing the iridescent eyespots to remain nearly stationary against an energetic background.[iv]; [v] Because of the overwhelming beauty in this display, that appears excessive to what is necessary for survival, we can identify the beauty of the peacock tail as “added beauty”.
Such a magnificent tail and courting display presents the onlooker with a puzzle; why does something function and look beautiful? What is the explanation for added beauty in nature? Consider that beauty for the sake of beauty doesn’t add any function or strength. For example, a vase of blown glass containing a variety of colors and patterns is far more beautiful to look at than a plain or even an ugly cylinder but both serve the same purpose of holding flowers. Artists and Architects often adorn their designs just for the sake of creating something that is more beautiful. Beauty is a product of intelligence and design, yet natural selection has no thought of its own. In nature, if an animal possesses beautiful plumage or vibrant colors it will stand apart from its environment, an obvious target for predators. The color distribution in animals worldwide suggests predator-prey relationship has affected natural selection and the vast majority of creatures require camouflage to aid their survival restricting patterns and coloration in fur, feathers, and scales. In truth, there is observational evidence that beautiful features in nature are being slowly lost over time.[vi]
Charles Darwin himself seemed to struggle with beauty in relation to his own theory: he wrote, “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me feel sick!”[vii] Darwin proposed in his work, The Descent of Man[viii] the generally accepted theory of sexual selection. It is a cornerstone of Darwinian evolution and considered to be a mode of natural selection in which the sexes acquire distinct traits among the members of one sex, either due to one sex choosing specific features in the other or because during the competition for mates among the same sex, only the animals with those traits succeed. Darwin purported that sexual selection played a major role in evolution and in the case of the peafowl, the tail evolved over time because the peahen selected only beautiful peacocks for mating.[ix]
Yet there are some significant problems with sexual selection. Some include why an animal (in this case peahen) prefers beautiful features, how the cycle of sexual selection could begin in the first place and the irreducible complexity in the structure of the feather as well as the eye pattern. Dr. Jerry Bergman of Northwest State College puts it this way, “A major problem with the sexual selection hypothesis is that natural selection would actually select against sexual selection. The more choosy persons are about their mates, the less likely they are to mate and, thus, are less likely to pass on this trait to their offspring.” Many evolutionary scientists feel that Darwin’s sexual selection theory requires much revision making it an unlikely explanation for beauty found in nature.[x];[xi]
Alternatively, Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He [God] has made everything beautiful in its time.” And Job 26:13 proclaims, “By His Spirit, He adorned the heavens.” It makes sense from a biblical worldview that we would see beauty in creation as well as evidence of beautiful features being lost over time. After all, when the originally “very good” (Gen. 1:31) creation fell and sin entered the world animals turned on one another becoming carnivorous, pushing natural selection to select for more camouflaged coats and plumage. Interestingly, in dense rain forests that provide much-needed cover for survival, there are many birds of paradise that have unique and colorful feathers. It is possible that because of flight and the ability to hide from predators in a sheltered environment the pre-fall beauty of these birds was preserved. Which is great news for us today because although the world would have been far more beautiful before the fall of mankind we still can see beauty in every corner of the earth and that includes ourselves! Psalm 139:14, “I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well.”
Rachel McDonald | February 10, 2018 – 12:16 PM EST
[i] Stuart Burgess, Hallmarks of Design (Leominster: Day One Publications 2015), 73
[ii] Catchpoole, David. “Peacock ‘Eyes’ That Hypnotize.” Creation. January-March 2018: 56. Print.
[iii] Stuart Burgess, Hallmarks of Design (Leominster: Day One Publications 2015), 80
[iv] Catchpoole, David. “Peacock ‘Eyes’ That Hypnotize.” Creation. January-March 2018: 56. Print.
[v] Ouellette, Jennifer. (2016, April 27). The Physics of Peacock Tail Feathers Is Even More Dazzling Than We Realized. Retrieved from https://gizmodo.com
[vi] Stuart Burgess, Hallmarks of Design (Leominster: Day One Publications 2015), 95
[vii] Quoted in Darwin, F., (ed.), The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, vol ii (London: John Murray, 1887), p.296
[viii] Darwin C., The Descent of Man (London: John Murray, 1871), p. 412.
[ix] Burgess, Stuart. “The Beauty of the Peacock Tail and the Problems with the Theory of Sexual Selection.” Journal of Creation. August 2001: 94-102. Print.
[x] Roughgarden, J., Oishi, M. and Akcay, E., Reproductive social behavior: cooperative games to replace sexual selection, Science 311(5763): 965–969, 2006.
[xi] Jerry, Bergman. “Problems in sexual selection theory and neo-Darwinism” Journal of Creation. April 2004: 112-119. Print.