Useless Beauty: A Canticle for the Cosmos

What do we make of a universe saturated with an extravagance of beauty?

Author: Scott Russell Sanders

Editor’s Note: Essayist Scott Russell Sanders left the project of defining beauty to the philosophers, but he considered its purpose in the universe and its importance to human life in this 2012 meditation on the exquisite that exists everywhere we look.

Courtesy of DKAR Images/Getty Images

In a niche above our hearth, alongside books and rocks and bird nests, my wife and I keep the shell of a chambered nautilus. My mother bought it for us at a flea market more than 30 years ago, thinking we might welcome a reminder of the ocean here in landlocked Indiana.

Like the shell of a lowly snail, and like our galaxy, it has a spiral shape. When the nautilus was in residence, it would have floated with the knobby core of the spiral uppermost and the curving tail pointed down. As large as a saucer and thinner than fine porcelain, our shell has been sliced down the middle in such a way as to produce two symmetrical halves, which we display side-by-side, one half showing the exterior and the other showing the interior.

On the outside, wavy stripes the color of butterscotch radiate from the center of the spiral, contrasting with an ivory background that is faintly grooved, as if from brush strokes in glossy paint. The lustrous interior reveals a sequence of chambers resembling crescent moons, 30 in all, which the nautilus fashioned as it grew, beginning with a cranny too small to see without a magnifying glass and increasing, step by step, to the size of a child’s grin.

It is a marvelous feat of construction — as if a baby fashioned its own cradle and then, having outgrown that first home, went on to make a crib, a bedroom, a hut, a cottage, a mansion, on and on, all life long.

Over the years, visitors have often admired the shell. Many ask if they might look at it more closely, and I am always happy to reach the two pieces down from their niche and lay them in curious hands. The visitors run their fingers over the tigerish stripes on the exterior, tilt the half-shell to catch the sheen of its pearly interior, examine the spiraling chambers. They marvel at how a deep-sea animal could produce such elegant patterns and captivating colors. Some visitors go further and ask a question that the nautilus shell has long posed for me — not how this beauty is produced but why. Why such beauty in a seashell? For that matter, why such beauty in a sunset, in a blossom or birdsong or butterfly wing, or anywhere at all?

Allow this innocent question into your mind, and it will be followed by a host of others that philosophers have pondered for ages: What is beauty? Is it an intrinsic feature of the world, like the mass of an apple, or is it an artifact of human perception, like the apple’s red color? If beauty is an aspect of reality, independent of our perceptions, how does it arise — purely by the operation of physical laws or by design? If by physical laws, how do they happen to generate a quality so pleasing to us? And if by design, then who or what is the designer? Whatever its nature and whatever its source, why does beauty appeal to us so deeply? Why do we crave it, savor it and seek it out, and why do we strive to create beauty with our hands and minds and voices?

Despite having devoted thousands of pages to these questions, philosophers disagree about the answers — as they tend to do about all the perennial puzzles, such as how we know what we know, how we should act, what the universe is made of and why there is a universe at all. As an amateur, I will leave the great enigma of beauty to the experts and merely reflect on one small piece of the puzzle, which I stumbled across while reading about the chambered nautilus.

According to scientists, the pattern on the outside of the shell, which we find so lovely, provides camouflage from predators and prey. The wavy butterscotch stripes, thick and dark on the portion of the shell that floats on top, gradually fade as the spiral opens, leaving the bottom portion clear. Seen from above, the stripes obscure the outlines of the shell and blend into the darkness of the deeps; seen from below, the unmarked ivory blends with light from the surface. That we find these markings gorgeous is a happy accident. What seems beautiful to us is beneficial to the nautilus, a legacy of evolution, helping its kind survive for some 500 million years.

But what about the shell’s interior — that mother-of-pearl luster, that exquisite series of crescent-shaped chambers — all invisible to predators? This beauty gave no benefit to the nautilus; indeed, it sealed its doom, for the only predator that knew of this hidden splendor was the two-legged kind which fished the shell from the sea and sliced it in half and introduced it to the marketplace of beautiful objects. Although of no use to the nautilus, this interior beauty has kept the fragile half-shells intact as they passed through innumerable hands, including my wife’s and mine and those of our many curious visitors.

Among the things in nature we find beautiful, many, like the outer pattern on a nautilus shell, are the result of natural selection, adaptations that improve the chances of survival for an organism or a species. Think of the peacock’s tail, attractive to mates. Think of the monarch butterfly’s cautionary orange-and-gold, or the Day-Glo colors on rainforest frogs, warning of the poisons they carry. Think of the zebra’s stripes, confusing to predators, or the scent of roses, alluring to pollinators. Consider the chameleon’s shifting colors, the buck’s imposing antlers, the song of the canyon wren, the beaks of hummingbirds exactly fitted to sources of nectar, the white crowns of clover seductive to bees, the courtship dance of sandhill cranes or the daredevil flights of woodcocks, the flicker of fireflies, the cries of spring peepers, the fiddling of crickets — all can be explained as resulting from natural selection.

You could discover as many examples as there are living species, for if you carefully observe anything alive you will find something biologically useful that is also beautiful.

In addition to that useful beauty, however, you will discover something more, an extravagance of design, an opulence of materials — like the pearly interior of the nautilus shell — that serves no evident purpose other than to make the natural world inexhaustibly interesting. If you study flowers, for instance, you will find quite a few that seem fancier than they need to be. Look at fuchsia, with its blossom of purple pantaloons overtopped by a pink tiara. Look at bleeding heart, with its plump valentine blossoms dangling from the stem like charms on a bracelet. Look at iris, with its streaked petals flung out in all directions, like the blurred arms of a whirling dervish. Or look at wild columbine, which might be a scarlet moon lander, with five spurs thrust skyward like spiky antennae, five pointed sepals spread out like wings, a white interior for a firing chamber, and yellow threads of stamens shooting downwards like the tracery of rockets. If color, odor and beckoning shape are the key signals to pollinators, why all the flair and filigree?

The same lovely extravagance shows up everywhere you look or listen in the living world, from the dazzling patterns of microscopic diatoms to the sea-filling arias of humpback whales. The wings of butterflies known as painted ladies resemble the stained glass on Tiffany lampshades, a fanciful collage of swirls and curlicues and eye-shaped spots. There are beetles covered in polka-dots, beetles as shiny and colorful as new cars in a showroom, beetles bearing scrawls on their backs as jazzy as urban graffiti. There are fish gaudier than clowns, salamanders flashier than neon signs, medusas like alien spacecraft, birds as flamboyant as Victorian Easter hats. Look anywhere you like — at monkeys or mushrooms, cacti or dragonflies, fritillaries or ferns, leafhoppers or leaves — and you will discover designs more various than any vocabulary we might use to describe them.

Even if this seeming excess of beauty could be accounted for as biologically useful, what of the glories in the nonliving world? What of sunsets and sunrises? What of the northern lights? What of the moon, our fellow traveler, with its captivating phases? What of the stars, those faithful Muses? What of the sea, with its troughs and swells, its rhythmic drumming on the shore, its vast expanses for the eye to roam? What of canyons and crevasses, waterfalls and glaciers, the play of current in rivers, the restless ballet of clouds?

There’s useless beauty everywhere, even among seemingly stolid rocks. Here in the limestone country of southern Indiana, for example, our creek beds are littered with brownish lumps of mineral sediment called geodes. Ranging from the size of peas to the size of basketballs, they are dull on the outside, with little to catch the eye, but if you find one that has been cracked open, or if you split it yourself with a hammer, inside you will find translucent crystals of quartz, or bands of purple amethyst, orange agate, pale blue chalcedony, or sultry red jasper, colors and forms as resplendent as anything a jeweler could offer.

Our remote ancestors paid heed to such earthly and heavenly glories, painted them on the walls of caves, wove them into religions and rugs, etched them into stories and stones. In the past few centuries, however, our ingenious technology has revealed beauties from realms our early ancestors knew nothing of. Telescopes, microscopes, cameras mounted in satellites or in deep-sea submersibles, receivers capable of reading the whole spectrum of light and sound, and a slew of other devices have greatly extended the range of our senses. If you graduated from childhood without having looked through a microscope at the menagerie of beasts in a drop of pond water, or through a telescope at craters on the moon, you were deprived.

More powerful instruments reveal even more astonishing designs. The compound eye of an ordinary house fly, viewed through a scanning electron microscope, might be mistaken for the head of a sunflower or a geodesic dome; at higher magnification, the facets of that eye look like hexagonal pastries crowded onto a baking sheet. Undersea rovers have photographed luminous creatures more exotic and majestic than anything conjured up by the makers of science fiction films. The Hubble Space Telescope has brought us mesmerizing close-ups of our sister planets and of our own precious globe; peering into distances that stagger the imagination, it has also brought us images of quasars, supernovae, black holes and other spectacular phenomena that were unknown even to astronomers a century ago.

Moreover, thanks to computers, databanks and the World Wide Web, you can summon up such revelations in your home, school or library, or through a gadget that will fit into your palm. You can listen to whalesong, watch meteor showers, trace the motions of amoebas, study a lattice of carbon atoms or glimpse exploding stars. If you have access to this technology, you can behold riches that were hidden from every previous generation.

Everywhere we look, from the dirt under our feet to the edge of the expanding cosmos, and on every scale from atoms to galaxies, the universe appears to be saturated with beauty. What are we to make of this?

If you believe that so much stunning design can only be the work of a cosmic Designer, then the Designer must be inordinately fond of beauty (as the British biologist J.B.S. Haldane is said to have remarked about God’s regard for beetles). It would seem to follow, for anyone who holds such a belief, that this beauty is sacred to the Designer and is therefore deserving of our care. We can’t protect the glittering stars or flaming sunset or cycling moon, but we can protect the streams that salmon need for spawning, the high plains where sage grouse dance, the ancient forests required by spotted owls, the Arctic calving grounds of caribou. We can defend the last groves of redwoods from loggers, the creeks and mountaintops of Appalachia from miners, the ocean floor from trawlers, the atmosphere from polluters.

On the other hand, if you believe these ubiquitous beauties can be accounted for entirely by the operation of material processes, you may nonetheless treasure them. Indeed, you may treasure them all the more, as gifts we have no reason to expect from an indifferent universe. You may feel an obligation to protect whatever falls within your reach, not because it is divinely created, not because you can eat it or wear it or display it above your hearth, but because you love the beautiful thing itself — a creature, a species, a place. Even if you happen not to marvel at salmon or wolves, even if you’ve never seen an unplowed prairie or unlogged forest, you might still favor the protection of these and other natural beauties out of a respect for the people who do know and love them.

Or you might take yet a third view of these matters, a view that will long since have occurred to the philosophers in my imagined audience. You might argue that what I call beauty is not a feature of the universe at all, sacred or secular, but only a quality of experience, a certain inner weather, like sorrow or joy. Even on this view, if “beauty” is merely a label for a feeling, that inner state is so enthralling, so invigorating, so nourishing, you might wish to protect whatever source outside of consciousness gives rise to it, for your own sake and for the sake of others who could enjoy the same experience. If it thrills you to hear owls call from a deep woods, you want the woods and owls to survive, and you want your own children or children yet unborn to have a chance of feeling the same thrill.

Whatever our philosophical or scientific or religious views, a close attention to beauty in the natural world ought to inspire in us an ethic of ecological care. It ought to make us live lightly. It ought to make us ardent supporters of laws aimed at protecting air, water, soil, endangered species and wilderness. Ought to — but frequently doesn’t.

Those who regard “beauty” as only the name of a pleasurable feeling might find all the stimulation they desire in movies or music or mathematics, without recourse to nature. Those who regard the universe as a machine that has been grinding away for billions of years, without purpose or direction, might regard natural beauty as having no intrinsic value, but only as a commodity to be used up or discarded to suit our appetites. Those who believe in a beauty-loving Creator often claim, based on a literal reading of the Bible, that the universe is a few thousand years old, and that everything in it, on Earth and beyond, was created for humans to exploit.

Our collective behavior suggests that the dominant view, at least in America, is that nothing in nature has value except insofar as it is useful to humans — and useful today, not in some future generation. What good is a wilderness if we can’t drill it for oil or mine it for minerals? What good is an ancient forest if it doesn’t yield board-feet of lumber? Why protect wild salmon if we can grow fish in concrete vats laced with chemicals? Why worry about any nonhuman creature if it stands in the way of our plans? This is not a minority view. These utilitarian sentiments resound from legislatures, boardrooms and editorial pages; they permeate economics textbooks and the buy-it-now babble of advertisements; they guide shoppers looking for the cheapest deal.

Measured by its consequences, the utilitarian ethic has proven to be disastrous. A child born in America today enters a world chockfull of human comforts and contrivances but sorely depleted of natural wealth — topsoil lost, rivers dammed, air and water poisoned, wetlands drained, roadsides and oceans littered with trash, resources squandered, species extinguished. We are trading forested mountaintops for cut-rate electricity. We are swapping the sound of meadowlarks and the sight of prairie coneflowers for casinos and parking lots. We are sacrificing rainforests for hamburgers, coral reefs for island cruises, glaciers for SUVs. With every upward tick of the GDP, the richness and resilience of the greater-than-human world declines.

Of course, that same child born in America today may never know what has been lost. She may take the diminished world as the way things must be, if we are to enjoy what Madison Avenue and Wall Street call progress and prosperity. With each passing year, Americans on average spend more and more of their time inside human constructions — buildings and vehicles; symbolic zones made out of numbers, musical notes or, like this essay, out of words; and inside the trance of TV, video games and the burgeoning empire of cyberspace. Cut off from direct contact with natural beauty, people make do with crude substitutes — plastic flowers, air freshener, Muzak — with artistic imitations — films, photographs and recordings — or with tokens — flowers in vases, flowing water in fountains, nautilus shells above the hearth. If those counterfeits and borrowings are all we know of nature, then natural beauty is in jeopardy, for we will not protect what we do not know.

A final look at the interior of our nautilus shell suggests a possible way out of this impasse, a way of reconciling the world we’ve made with the greater world that made us. By compressing nitrogen into those inner chambers, the nautilus can regulate its buoyancy, ranging in its seemingly fragile hull from the shallows of tropical seas to depths of 2,000 feet, nearly 10 times as deep as a scuba diver could safely go.

More intriguing, the pattern of crescent-shaped chambers illustrates a mathematical rule, first described by Descartes, called a logarithmic spiral. The formula can be written out in a string of symbols shorter than the title of this essay. The same pattern appears widely in nature — in the bands of hurricane winds, the spiral arms of galaxies, the array of seeds in sunflowers, the heads of certain broccolis, a hawk’s curving approach to its prey, even in some wave-scoured beaches.

This congruence between nature and numbers does not lead me to conclude, with Pythagoras, that the universe is mathematics writ large, but rather the opposite — that mathematics is the universe writ small. Indeed, this consonance between the patterns we make and the patterns we find in nature reinforces my sense that not only mathematics but also music, poetry, painting, photography, storytelling, dance — all forms of art and symbolic language — are manifestations, through human beings, of the cosmic penchant for creating beauty. The universe out of which we have evolved is inscribed in our intelligence and imagination.

This does not make us gods, nor does it justify our dominion over Earth, but it does confirm that we belong here, in spite of what otherworldly religions claim. The creative genius of nature runs right through us, as it runs through the chambered nautilus.

I will let the philosophers define what beauty is. But I think I understand some of what beauty does. It calls us out of ourselves. It feeds our senses. It provides standards for art and science, for language and literature. It inspires affection and gratitude. How then should we live, in a world overflowing with such bounty? Rejoice in it, care for it, and strive to add our own mite of beauty, with whatever power and talent we possess.

Scott Russell Sanders lives in Bloomington, Indiana, where he has written 20 books of fiction and nonfiction, including A Private History of Awe and A Conservationist Manifesto. The best of his essays from the past 30 years, plus nine new essays, are collected in Earth Works, published earlier this year by Indiana University Press. He was recently elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.