A humble hypothesis

The air was heavy with moisture and the pastures were replete with evidence of the overnight activities of our resident spiders. I grabbed the camera and raced the rising sun and drying conditions. In a post that’s nearly two years old I presented a similar image of a spider’s web and wrote about the formation of dew. I said … it has only been quite recently that scientists in Beijing in have begun to understand why dew forms so readily on spider’s silk when, for example, it will not form on a human hair. It seems that spider’s silk is not as smooth as it would appear and knots of nanofibrils are situated along its fibers. Moisture condenses around these knots and collects as droplets which sparkle brightly in the morning sun. I wonder, does it spoil the beauty of a glistening dew drop to know why it forms and how dew can transform an obliging spider’s web into a beautiful string of pearls? No, I do not think so. I believe that when we come to understand some of nature’s mystery this can only add to its beauty. Oftentimes I find myself thinking about nature and trying to imagine why we, as animals, perceive the beauty of nature as we do. Not the physical why, with answers which concern electromagnetic radiation, the retina, and signal transduction to the brain but rather, that other why; the why which explains our ability to cognate nature’s beauty. For, in what way can the ability to perceive beauty be seen as adaptive, in a Darwinian sense no less? A complex question which deserves an equally complex answer to be sure. To develop a reasonable working hypothesis let us recognize that, in large part, we live our lives in pursuit of certain needs and desires. Food, shelter, reproduction, and pleasure are examples of these. We also know that our nervous systems are wired to respond to color, shape, symmetry, and texture such that we are capable of experiencing pleasure from certain modalities of these visual inputs. Such pleasures may be similar to those experienced by eating to satiation, being warm when it is cold, or dry when it is wet. Does not our ability to cognate beauty as pleasurable make us more amenable? More agreeable? And, generally nicer to be around? As social creatures then perhaps it is here that the significance of our ability to perceive beauty may be found?


14 thoughts on “A humble hypothesis

  1. I wonder how stone-age cavemen experienced nature. Did they feel the same kind of awe? I suppose there should be socialogical research done for tribes living in such a way today? I have read a book about ancient tribes last year and how they compare to modern communities – by Jared Diamond – but I cannot recall if he covered this. To a human being living in a modern civilization nature is always somethings that is in stark contrast to the world he or she deals with on a daily basis. So awe felt by the office worker taking time off etc. is probably very different from what an ancient hunter felt for whom nature was not connected with “spare time” but with dangers and a feeling of critical dependencies – as you will starve if you interact with nature in the right way.

    • An interesting thought – to try and gauge how folks belonging to isolated tribes might view nature. Certainly as the source of ‘everything.’ Certainly they have an appreciation for beautiful things – think of the ceremonial adornments and clothing and jewelry. But, I wonder if they have a similar sense of awe when viewing nature … or as you point out it is simply a view of danger versus a utilitarian view of the critical dependencies you allude to. Such heavy thoughts for a dark and rainy morning here in central Pennsylvania! I delight in the rain however … for the hay crop is in the barn and dry! D

  2. Once I spent some time delving into what’s often known as Aesthetic Darwinism, the effort to explain how beauty can offer competitive advantages. I noticed that there’s quite a backlash from “some” who argue that this is just a form of reductionism and that as such it’s something we should not seek. As for me, I really don’t see the problem. Beauty will always have that same wonderful effect on me and if, along the way, I spot some clues that help explain maybe why it’s so then so much the better. Spiders are so cool …

  3. Hmmm. My brother-in-law believes that a human’s ability to perceive beauty in nature separates us from nature and makes us uniquely different from other species. Utter hogwash, to my mind. Isn’t beauty just visual sensory pleasure? We do not have a similar word for the pleasures of smell, taste, and touch, but, as you said, we have similar sensory satisfaction.

    Doesn’t the ability to recognize color, texture, and pattern have all sorts of important adaptive functions? Perhaps what we perceive as beauty is designed to get us to pay attention. Vivid sunsets and dew on spiderwebs tell us something about the weather. Green fields and farmland, which to me are soothing and beautiful, tell us that water is available. Male birds are colorful to attract the attention of a mate, but we perceive them as beautiful.

    Just a thought. And your spiderweb photo really is beautiful!

    • Absolutely olddogsnewtruck … we are in agreement, both with regard to the position regarding your brother-in-law’s statement and to that regarding the adaptive value of our perception of beauty. You have added significantly … I took the social approach while you took one which considers the more immediate adaptive value of such cognitive ability, nicely done. Weather forecasting and the ability to know something about water availability would certainly be traits that would be fodder for selection. Your valediction, ‘Just a thought,’ underplays the thoughtfulness of your consideration. Thanks for contributing … and for the thumbs up on the image. D

  4. For me at least, knowing why something occurs has no affect on my appreciation of the beauty I am able to experience and, like you, it enhances the pleasure. OTOH, I do not need to know anything to feel that innate beauty that we are so privileged to experience. I guess, just like whether other organisms can think, there may be debate about whether those same other organisms can experience beauty. I agree that the ability to perceive beauty can help us relate to others in a more positive way. That said, some truly awful human beings in history have been “sensitive” souls. Ha! I always thought dew didn’t form on my hair because it needed a shampoo. 😉

    • BTW, nice job with the web and dew drops. I like the monochromatic gradation of the background which allows all our attention to be concentrated on the drops.

      • I liked that aspect very much as well. Truth-be-told, however, that gradation happened totally by chance … and was due to the fortuitous aspect of the shot, relative to the ground in the background. Bottomline … it was dumb luck. D

        • I am willing to bet that if a survey were done among all nature photographers, a very large percent of their unique shots would be attributed to luck which, as we all know, favors the prepared.

  5. This is AMAZING. Yesterday I was picking out light fixtures for our renovation, and in my husband’s mind the crystal chandelier styles are out of the question. I wonder if he would feel the same way about them after reading your post and seeing this photo? The technical information might take away that stigma of femininity!

    • You’ve hit upon an important and fascinating topic, the (supposedly) traditional roles, attitudes, and behaviors of men and women … much too complex an issue to discuss here. Fascinating nonetheless. Thanks much for your expression of appreciation of the photo … it is for just such expressions that I keep going out with the camera. Have a great day; I hope you are experiencing some of the blue sky and sunshine that we’ve (finally) got down here today. D

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