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The Peacock Principle: Beauty, God, and Darwinism

By: Benjamin Wiker
National Catholic Register
August 20, 2006


Note: The following article appeared in the August 20-26, 2006 print edition of the National Catholic Register.

When John Paul II stated that evolution was “more than a hypothesis,” he wisely steered clear of stating exactly how much more. That is, while affirming some aspects of evolutionary theory as having been verified, he did not issue evolutionary theorists a blank check from the Vatican. In particular, he made clear that a purely materialistic account, especially in regard to human beings, must be regarded as woefully insufficient.

His wisdom is especially evident if we examine the claims of an upstart school of thought, aesthetic Darwinism. Aesthetic Darwinism asserts that all human art and literature can be explained in terms of Darwin’s principle of natural selection, or more exactly, sexual selection.

In the words of proponent Denis Dutton, aesthetic Darwinism is part of a larger attempt by evolutionists “to understand the psychological and cultural life of human beings in terms of their genetic inheritance as an evolved species. … Evolutionary psychology extends the findings of Darwinian theory to the working of the human psyche. In particular, it treats our mental capacities, inclinations and desires as adaptations developed in the last two million years – since the Pleistocene era.”

The problem with art and literature – and indeed, all expression of the human mind, from drama to mathematics and science itself – is that mere survival of the fittest doesn’t explain them very well.

For example, we can imagine that a cheetah running 61 mph has a slight advantage in catching a gazelle over another cheetah who only clocks 60 mph, but what if we found a cheetah that ran 6,000 mph? Why would it have so much excess speed?

Well, the same problem arises for evolutionary theory in regard to the human mind. We can see how having slightly stronger reasoning capacities in hunting a deer might be explained by natural selection. A man might need them for survival. But why do human beings have minds that can design and solve complex, entirely abstract mathematic equations? This ability has no survival benefit at all. Why the genius of Shakespeare? Why Mozart? Why Einstein?

Darwin had an answer. He admitted (as do our contemporary evolutionists) that mere survival of the fittest was insufficient to explain certain extraordinary traits, even in the animal world. So he offered a theoretical loophole, so to speak. Whatever cannot be explained by natural selection (mere survival of the fittest), can be explained by sexual selection. His famous example was the peacock’s tail.

As Dutton explains, the peacock’s tail is so gaudy and impractical it actually seems to act against the survival of the splendid bird. “This huge display, far from enhancing survival in the wild, makes peacocks more prone to predation. The tails are heavy, requiting much energy to grow and to drag around.” So, why have it?

Darwin’s and Dutton’s answer: The extravagant tail is more attractive to peahens, and so … the gaudier the tail, the more likely the peacock is to mate. “This seems to be nature’s point; simply being able to manage with a tail like that functions as an advertisement to peahens: ‘Look at what a strong, healthy, fit peacock I am.’ For discriminating peahens, the tail is a fitness indicator, and they will choose to mate with peacocks who display the grandest tails.”

Aesthetic evolutionist Geoffrey Miller draws the connection to human beings: “Humor, story-telling, gossip, art, music, self-consciousness, ornate language, imaginative ideologies, religion, morality” all can be explained quite simply. Each made our evolutionary ancestors more attractive.

The “peacock principle” explains everything from cave painting, to Mozart’s Requiem Mass and even the Mass itself. All that is distinctively human, all that displays a godlike genius such as the paintings of Michelangelo, the Sistine Chapel itself, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the novels of Jane Austin and Leo Tolstoy, Bach’s “Jesus Joy of Man’s Desiring.” One and all are reducible to sexual selection.

Sound a bit far-fetched? Let’s return to John Paul II. While many have heard of his now famous statement that evolution is “more than a hypothesis,” few have read all that he said. In the paragraph immediately following his “more than a hypothesis” statement, John Paul states, “A theory’s validity depends on whether it can be verified; it is constantly tested against the facts; wherever it can no longer explain the latter, it shows its limitations and unsuitability. It must then be rethought.”

Do the claims of aesthetic Darwinism hold up? Can they be tested? If so, how, and against what standard?

Let’s begin with the standard provided by the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In a glorious section entitled “Truth, Beauty, and Sacred Art” the Catechism maintains that “Truth is beautiful in itself” (No. 2500). It is “the rational expression of knowledge of created and uncreated reality,” and “is necessary to man, who is endowed with intellect.”

Note the clash? While our rational capacity certainly does help us survive, and while some may be attracted to the brainy, our capacity to know is good in itself, a fundamental, defining characteristic of human nature made in the image of God. And, therefore, what we really find attractive has nothing to do with survival or sexuality at all. We find truth itself to be beautiful.

Further, the natural beauty in the world that we likewise find so attractive is the result of our essential natural religious reverence and awe. It is the foundation of our love of sunsets and our desire to engage in science itself.

“Even before revealing himself to man in the words of truth, God reveals himself to him through the universal language of creation, the work of his Word, of his wisdom; the order and harmony of the cosmos – which both the child and the scientist discover – “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator,” “for the author of beauty created them.”

And what about art?

Art is “a distinctively human form of expression; beyond the search for the necessities of life which is common to all living creatures, art is a freely given superabundance of the human being’s inner riches. … To the extent that it is inspired by truth and love of beings, art bears a certain likeness to God’s activity in what he has created” (No. 2501).

Well, how does that fit with the “peacock principle” of aesthetic Darwinism? Obviously, it comes at human art from the opposite end. Rather than reducing our artistic impulses, the Catechism asks us to take them to be exactly what they appear to be – works of creative genius, sure signs of a godlike capacity to reach far above mere survival, far above mere sexual attraction, and scour the heights and depths of our being, searching out the splendor of beauty and truth.

But even aside from the Catechism, except for those who are completely blinded by a reductionist ideology, we know that works of human genius cannot be reduced to echoes of sexual attraction. Who could read Hamlet, experience its rich depth, its breathless revelations of the human soul, and think it was merely the result of Shakespeare’s sexual strutting? Who could mistake Handel’s “Messiah” for a mating call?

Only someone driven by a kind of mania to explain all that is great by all that is small. Darwinism is just part of a larger movement of reductionism that included Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud and a host of other materialist luminaries that have been trying to convince us over the last century and a half that we are mere animals, and that all that is most noble in human nature, all that reaches for eternity, all that speaks of our being made in the image of God, all that draws us to God is mere pretense on our part.

But as John Paul II said – and I repeat – “A theory’s validity depends on whether it can be verified; it is constantly tested against the facts; wherever it can no longer explain the latter, it shows its limitations and unsuitability. It must then be rethought.”

Benjamin Wiker is a senior fellow with the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute. His latest book is A Meaningful World: How the Arts and Sciences Reveal the Genius of Nature.



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