Survival of the Beautiful journeys through a dizzying constellation of subject matter in search of the beauty that lies at the heart of nature. It is an equal meld of philosophy, science writing, ecological narrative, aesthetic guide, and spiritual tome. Rothenberg touches on many different topics but the core theme is that art and beauty are indispensable to allow us to fully understand the world.
At first, as in a slow-moving but finely-crafted film, we read about so many topics in such quick succession that we wonder "where is this all going?". Then, gently and surely, Rothenberg begins to bridge the gaps between his tales of nature inspiring military camouflage theory, the role of art in the discovery of protein structures, bizarre bird sculptures that serve no purpose except to impress, the mathematics of evolution and Jackson Pollock, and modern experiments in situational art where children get adults to think deep thoughts. What seemed like chaos at first eventually coalesces into a landscape of ideas that reveal Beauty as the glue that binds all of our different perspectives of the universe.
By the second half of the book I found myself hungrily taking notes and coming up with all sorts of questions sparked in quick succession. I wondered things like "What is art? Why do we create art? Why does nature bother to create so much beauty that, sometimes, serves no adaptive or sexual purpose? How do science and art differ in the way they perceive the world? And why should we care?"
One possible reason to care is inherent in Steve Jobs' phenomenal success at melding art and technology. Jobs is a perfect example of how deeply the human being craves aesthetic satiety, a dimension of life that a purely technological approach cannot comprise.
Rothenberg provides insightful answers to many of these questions, giving not just his opinions but also talking with several world-renowned scientists on some very tricky topics. Yet he leaves space for the reader to walk away contentedly dissatisfied with the ambiguity inherent in our limited understanding of nature, and eager to burrow deeper into the rabbit hole for more answers and new questions.
Essentially, Rothenberg argues that we can no longer ignore the aesthetic dimensions of our brains, our preferences, our decision-making processes, and our relationship to nature if we are to progress further in our science and in our culture. But most of all he asks us to look again and see what wondrous discoveries we may have missed.
An in-depth review and interview with the author can be found at http://lordofbrooding.com/2012/01/02/survival-of-the-beautiful-an-interview-with-david-rothenberg-on-art-science-and-evolution/