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Survival of the Beautiful: Artists and Scientists Ponder the Aesthetics of Evolution

Saturday, February 25, 2012     10:00 am

About “Survival of the Beautiful”

Why did the peacock’s tail so trouble Charles Darwin?  Natural selection could not explain it, so he had to contrive a whole new theory of sexual selection, which posited that certain astonishingly beautiful traits became preferred even when not exactly useful, simply because they appealed to the opposite sex, and specifically so in each case.  And yet the parallels in what gets preferred at different levels of life suggest that nature may in fact favor certain kinds of patterns over others.  Visually, the symmetrical; colorwise, the contrasting and gaudy; displaywise, the gallant and extreme.  Soundwise, the strong contrast between low note and high, between fast rhythm and the long clear tone. For that matter, plenty of beauty in nature would seem to arise for reasons other than mere sexual selection: for example, the mysterious inscriptions on the backs of seashells, or the compounding geometric symmetries of microscopic diatoms, or the live patterns pulsating across the bodies of octopus and squid.

Humans see such things and find them astonishingly beautiful: are we wrong to experience Nature in such terms?  Far greater than our grandest edifices and epic tales, Nature itself nevertheless seems entirely without purposeful self-consciousness or self-awareness.  Meanwhile, though we ourselves are as nothing compared to it, we still seem possessed of a parallel need to create.  So: can we in fact create our way into better understanding of the role of beauty in the vast natural world?  David Rothenberg recently published a book on these themes, Survival of the Beautiful (Bloomsbury, 2011), and many of the protagonists he encountered on his quest will join him on stage at the Cantor Film Center to debate the question of whether nature’s beauty is actual, imaginary, useful, excessive, or perhaps even entirely beside the point.

Survival of the Beautiful
Saturday February 25, 2012
Cantor Film Center, 36 E. 8th Street, NYC
Free & Open to the Public (first-come, first-in)



10:45 am
DAVID ROTHENBERG and JARON LANIER offer a musical and conceptual introduction.

11:00 am
GAIL PATRICELLI on building a fembot bowerbird to study how male bowerbirds woo females through elaborate dancing and decorating rituals; drawing on her example, RICHARD PRUM explains why everyone misses the point of sexual selection except him.

12:00 pm
OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI responds to Prum’s claim by way of introducing
CHRISTINE ROESKE, a postdoc in his lab, who, veritably haunted
by the beauty of the nightingale’s song, nevertheless tries to subject it to scientific analysis.

12:45 pm
ANNA LINDEMANN, Prum alum turned performance artist, enacts her Theory of Flight.

(1:30 pm – 2:00 pm:  Break)


2:00 pm
PHILIP BALL shows how chemistry and physics might trump biology in their ability to account for formal natural beauty.  TYLER VOLK deploys his concept of metapatterns to explain how 3 realms and 13 steps (from quarks to culture) make us who we are.

3:00 pm
We know how Science is regularly said to influence Art, but SUZANNE ANKER 
explores the flow in the other direction.  DAVID SOLDIER and VITALY KOMAR revisit
their classic elephant art experiment, asking whether we can learn anything about art by
teaching animals to make it.

4:00 pm
Composer DAVID DUNN details his proposal to use music to
save the forests of the American West from destruction by pine bark beetles.
DAVID ABRAM on how synaesthesia (the blending of the senses) might help us
feel our way into the experience of another animal.

(5:00 – 5:30 pm:  Break)


5:30 pm
Digital artist SCOTT SNIBBE recounts how he helped morph
Björk’s love of science into the Biophilia app.

6:15 pm
BABA BRINKMAN, direct from off-Broadway, performs
a special version of The Rap Guide to Evolution.

7:00 pm
JARON LANIER explains why if squid only had childhoods,
they would rule the world.
LAURIE ANDERSON explains how animals can learn music and art,

(Times listed above are approximate at best.)


JARON LANIER is one of the pioneers in virtual reality. His book You Are Not a Gadget is an international bestseller and he was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time Magazine in 2010.

GAIL PATRICELLI is associate professor of evolution and ecology at the University of California Davis.  She specializes in the study of acoustic communication in birds, and she is the inventor of the fembot bowerbird.

RICHARD PRUM is professor of evolutionary biology at Yale, and a specialist on the evolution of feathers and the role of beauty in sexual selection.  He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2009.

OFER TCHERNICHOVSKI is associate professor of animal behavior at CUNY, where he studies songbird learning by recording every single sounds baby birds make when learning to sing.

CHRISTINA ROESKE is postdoctoral associate in biology at the CUNY laboratory for animal behaviour, where she is focusing on the structure of complex birdsongs.

ANNA LINDEMANN is visiting assistant professor of art at Colgate University.  She is a multimedia artist and composer whose works are based on evolutionary/developmental (Evo Devo) biology.

PHILIP BALL is a science writer and formerly an editor at Nature.  His many books includeNatures Patterns: Shape- Flow- BranchesThe Music Instinct; and Critical Mass.

TYLER VOLK is professor of biology and science director of environmental studies at NYU and author of Metapatterns, CO2 Rising, and other books.

is chair of the Fine Arts Department at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-author with Dorothy Nelkin of The Molecular Gaze: Art in the Genetic Age.  She recently built a bio-art lab at SVA, just opened for the spring 2012 semester.

DAVE SOLDIER is a composer who has collaborated with elephants, zebra finches, and, together with Komar and Melamid, written the best and worst songs in the world.  In his other life as David Sulzer he is professor of neuroscience at Columbia.

VITALY KOMAR, together with Alex Melamid, is known for trying to paint the best and worst paintings in the world, and for his work with with elephants in Thailand.  He was one of the first Russian-exile artists to receive a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

DAVID DUNN is a composer, sound artist, and theorist, who has lately discovered a new way to listen inside of trees that may radically change the way we manage the forest destruction wrought by the pine bark beetle.

DAVID ABRAM, cultural ecologist and philosopher, is the award-winning author ofBecoming Animal and The Spell of the Sensuous. Described as as “daring” and “truly original” by Science, his work has helped catalyze the burgeoning field of ecopsychology.

SCOTT SNIBBE is a media artist and researcher into interactivity.  His works are in the permanent collection of the Whitney and MOMA, and he has collaborated with James Cameron and Björk.

BABA BRINKMAN is a Canadian rap artist, writer, actor, and tree planter. He is best known for his award-winning shows The Rap Canterbury Tales and The Rap Guide to Evolution, which interpret the works of Chaucer and Darwin for a modern audience.

LAURIE ANDERSON is one of the most celebrated performance artists in the world.  She is the inventor of the tape-bow violin and sometimes alters her voice to a low baritone to perform as Fenway Bergamot.  She was awarded the Gish Prize in 2007.

ELISABETH WEISS is the owner and founder of DogRelationsNYC.  Her goal is to integrate our companion animals into our lives by involving them in specialized skills such as music making, art and other cross-species interactions.

DAVID ROTHENBERG is the author of Survival of the BeautifulThousand Mile SongWhy Birds Sing, and a recording artist with ECM Records.  He is professor of philosophy and music at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

This program has been made possible with support from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

For further information and press inquiries,
contact or 212.998.2101.

Saturday, February 25, 2012
10:00 am-9:00 pm
Event Category:
New York Institute for the Humanities


Cantor Film Center at NYU
36 East 8th Street, New York, 10003 United States
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