Woog's World / The art of seeing beauty among the beasts
Published 7:21 am, Wednesday, November 23, 2011
You and I look at a peacock's tail and see beauty. Charles Darwin saw a challenge to his theory of evolution. Why, he wondered, would something so beautiful -- and non-functional -- evolve?
David Rothenberg looks at a peacock's tail, and sees his life's work.
He's now a professor of philosophy and music -- how many people can claim those two titles? -- at the New Jersey Institute of Technology. He's written several books, including "Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution," published earlier this month. He is a jazz musician, with a specialty in animal sounds as music.
But before achieving all that, Rothenberg was a student in Westport schools.
He attended Coleytown Elementary and Junior High. At Staples, where he was a member of the Class of 1980, he played in the jazz band and orchestra. Many of his friends were musicians and mathematicians.
After Harvard University, Rothenberg wandered around Europe. He worked for an English environmental magazine, went to Norway -- "I was interested in mountains," he says -- and began thinking about nature in a new way. He saw opportunities to connect music with the lives of birds and whales.
"A lot of human history involves trying to make sense of the world around us," he notes. "Art is a reflection on the human experience. But over the last few hundred years, art and science have diverged." That separation, he says, helped create many of the problems of the 20th century.
"When I played music with birds, I learned ways of thinking that scientists never could," Rothenberg says. Much of "Survival of the Beautiful" explores how the study of art helps influence the way science is done.
The book's title turns Darwins' "survival of the fittest" theory on its head. In fact, Rothenberg says, in many ways evolution is about "survival of the beautiful."
"Darwin had a hard time understanding why a peacock carried around a big tail," Rothenberg explains. "If evolution is survival of the fittest, why don't all birds look like sparrows -- tiny and efficient?"
The answer, Rothenberg says, lies in sexual selection. Females -- peahens -- were attracted to the gaudy display.
"That idea was not well received in Victorian times," he adds wryly. For the next century or so, the idea of beauty -- representing good mating qualities -- received scant attention.
But, Rothenberg asks, "Why do birds sing? Biology books say it's to attract mates and defend their territory." That does not explain, he says, the great variety and beauty in bird songs. He has spent the past two decades studying the beauty in nature, including colors and music. He wants to know, for example, why different species of butterflies have a variety of lovely patterns on their wings.
"It's a way of looking at nature by asking questions that haven't been asked," he says.
Rothenberg believes that growing up in Westport helped forge his interest in asking those questions. He spent plenty of time outdoors. The land that is now the Newman/Poses nature preserve was not far from his Bayberry Lane home. He was also influenced by a youth program at the Nature Center (now Earthplace).
At 16, Rothenberg wrote a hiking guide to Fairfield County trails.
He created music at the Unitarian Church -- and not always during church hours. He wangled a set of keys, and would go in late at night to take advantage of what he calls "that great space."
He developed his rock music chops playing in a band with, among others, Stapleite Mark Hermann, now a well-known producer.
Growing up in Westport, Rothenberg also discovered the music of Paul Winter, a Redding-based musician/composer who pioneered "the greater symphony of the earth," a genre that included the "voices" of wolves, whales, eagles and many other "wilderness musicians.
"Like every kid, I complained about Westport," Rothenberg continues. "But I learned a lot there. Teachers were open. We were free to do what we wanted, wander around, ask questions and think seriously about things."
Earlier this month, Rothenberg gave an author's talk at the Westport Public Library. The McManus Room was packed -- "and they were not all my mother's friends," he points out.
Audience members asked good questions. "The artists are interested in all this. They see the connections," Rothenberg says. "The scientists say I'm making too much of it." There is still, he observes, a gulf between art and science.
David Rothenberg is already at work on his next book. It's about insects, and the music they make.
It will be published when the next 17-year cicadas come out.