Constantine was right.
There is no "Order," "Chaos."
About twenty pages into this, I started frowning. It was getting a little woo-woo for me; introductions in trade non-fiction tend to be a little fast & loose, since they are hooks, not abstracts, but things were looking grim...until I turned to the author biography in the back & found out that Rothenberg is a philosopher musician, not a biologist. Oh, well then, I'll just have to adjust my approach! That made things sit a little bit easier, & allowed me to think of this as a book I have arguments with, rather than a book I didn't like. I think David Rothenberg would understand-- he talks about his initial anger & ruminations on Wilson's Consilience, which I think stems from a similar place (195). It all got better after the first chapter, but the first step is a doozy. I'm a bit of an armchair anthropologist, so it gets my hackles up when people come into it with ideology. It happens a lot, & usually it is dressed up as abandoning ideology, though it isn't. Rothenberg takes that tactic-- he criticizes people for undervaluing sexual selection, which is a fine thesis...but he brings along a rider, a notion that sexual selection is guided by...well, aesthetics. He lays down some complaints against Dawkins & Dennet, & he puts some teeth behind it, but then undercuts it by offering speculation in exchange (98). That being said, he draws interesting parallels, though some are a farther stretch than others. Comparing the bowers of bowerbirds to human artists like Patrick Dougherty & fundamentally arguing that they are art (19, 24, 25)? Good, solid stuff there-- & I like Dougherty a lot, it seems like I should be able to find his art at Storm King, maybe. The comparisons between whale songs & nightingales on the other hand, are a little more spurious-- "if you digitally alter the speed...& digitally alter the tone...then they sound alike!" isn't a moving argument (29). Two layers of audio manipulation are a pretty heavy curtain I think.
("Ruaille Buaillle" by Patrick Dougherty; satin bowerbird & bower.)
Notably, Rothenberg buys into the "performing males & choosy females" of popular evolutionary biology, which is not nearly as elegant or uncomplicated as it is put forward, as Sarah Blaffer Hrdy discusses in The Woman That Never Evolved (5, 30, 64). Power & passivity, choice & sophistication are all tied up in there, in the bias of the times-- both historical & contemporary. Rothenberg notes the bias of age, & of critics, but he hasn't questioned the biases of gender, which I think it really needed in any discussion of sexual selection (9, 28). It matters, & it informs how you look at data; take for example later in the book, during the discussion of cuttlefish. There is a discussion of sexual dimorphism in sex displays, & the male display is treated as multi-tiered-- "males keep away, females stay near"-- while the female's is reduced to just "court me" (156). The anthropomorphism is necessary shorthand, but you can see how the male's is assume to have layers of meaning while the females is portrayed as short & concise-- & I'd be willing to bet that says more about the marine biologists than about the cuttlefish. We see Rothenberg calling for "better questions," & I think he's on the right track-- he just needs to extend that skepticism to a lot of the conventional wisdom of evolutionary biology (69-70). I should mention that Dennet & Dawkins were the sorts of authors I was reading back in my Ivory Tower days, but I have no great fondness for them as unassailable monoliths; assail away! Though, crumbs, has it really been a dozen years since Survival of the Prettiest came out? That was my first thought, when I saw this book, to be honest-- a confrontation with mortality!
Once Rothenberg moves on to discuss Prum, Danto & Duchamp, things start looking up (74). I do confess to being a little confused by Rothenberg's insistence that Prum accurately predicted what colour a dinosaur was (63, 97, 213). See, that is the sort of thing that bugs the undergrad scientist in me, since it is the hallmark of dangerous science journalism. The New York Times had it better, with a headline of "Evidence Builds on Color of Dinosaurs." Right! Yes, Prum's work is awesome, but we are far from being able to say it is accurate, on account of not having any dinosaurs to look at & compare it to. Maybe I'm being a nitpicker, but it was something that kept coming up & I kept noticing it. Still-- discussions of arbitrariness, of art in context, of "Dickens wrote this book so he could attract hotter chicks & have more fitness," that is where the book really finds its footing (74, 98). Of beauty as the evolutionary trait that isn't judged by fitness, but in some other creature's brain (85). It isn't art as brain study, as Semir Zeki puts it, but art as mind study (245). Is it the transmission of memes instead of genes (12)? The underlying & unspoken math & physics of the universe made manifest in biology, the first two layers of Taylor's Artificial Ape playing out in the third (22-24, 30, 94)? Is Jackson Pollock hacking your brain by using fractals & do you think peacocks are pretty because of Turing patterns (55, 93, 125-127, 260)? Are the geometric patterns in prehistoric caves related to the visions of Hildegard of Bingen, & are those related to Ernst Haeckel's scientific illustrations of radiolarians (236, 237)?
("Needle Tower" by Kenneth Snelson; razzledazzle camoflague.)
Mentioning Haeckel made me think of another subject David Rothenberg covers well: art in science, & science in art. The old saw about medical illustration-- it isn't very realistic but it is paradoxically more accurate (169). Of course, the problem of author bias creeps in again...making it always a tug of war back & forth. I always personally prefer to think of anatomical illustrations as visual descriptions more than accurate depictions. Chemistry, math & physics don't squeak by without art leaving its stamp, either-- think of Feynman diagrams or Buckminster Fuller being inspired by Kenneth Snelson's work (174, 181). & then in fashion-- think about camouflage for a second, & how crazy it is to copy animals for the purposes of war, & then for those patterns to become commonplace streetwear (148). Diana Eng's electronic sex display dresses are just an extension of that logic (165). But in discussing art & science in abstract-- he even mentions The Glass Bead Game & the Hyperion Cantos beloved Tielhard-- he's gotten away from the nitty-gritty of the sexual selection angle, away from the evolution discussion, which is I guess what frees the more concrete part of my brain to relax & enjoy the philosophy (178, 269). You can think analytically about philosophy, including the philosophy of science, but when you engage your abstract criticism with reality, I expect more rigor. Finally, I'm not really sure how Rothenberg twisted the story around to discussing deconstructed performance art, but I'm glad he did (203). Oh, I shouldn't be coy-- he wrote it as part of a thought experiment on art based on context & relationship, on audience & creator & work, to fundamentally question whether the bowerbird or the painting elephant are participating in art (219-230). It is a fair question, & again it is where the book excels, though I should admit that I have a great deal of personal connection with the subject. Situational, non-winning games made for an intimate involved audience sure sounds like it my roleplaying campaign, doesn't it (209)? Not to mention that my tenure as an actor in the Lion Pinball Players is basically the definition of Rothenbergs "[experience]...loved by all who are part of them" (217). Or my fondness for Sleep No More. Is "good" art the sort that engages in a dialogue (204)? If so, I guess Survival of the Beautiful passes the test, because here we are.