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Why are things beautiful?

December 2007 | by Stuart Burgess

Why are things beautiful?

Stuart Burgess, Professor of Design and Nature at Bristol University, considers the origin of beauty and design in nature.
 

It is amazing how a tiny dry seed, planted in mud and given the right conditions, can turn into a flower with beautiful colours, smells and textures. Of course, beauty is subjective, which is why we all have our own favourite flower. But there are also objective reasons why beauty is real and not just ‘in the mind’.

Beauty is produced by characteristics such as curves, colours, patterns, borders, symmetry, smoothness and variety. No one can deny that flowers have beauty.

Beauty does not appear by chance. The ornate carvings on classical columns require the creative effort of an intelligent designer. In the same way, the intricate beauty of natural objects like flowers requires design by an intelligent Creator.

Modern discoveries relating to the genetic code show that plants and animals contain a vast quantity of design instructions that specify every detail of the organism. Atheists claim that such genetic instructions appear by chance through genetic mutations. However, there is no credible naturalistic explanation as to why ‘beauty’ should just appear by accident.

The peacock’s tail

The tail feathers of the peacock provide one of the clearest evidences of intelligent design in nature. The only function of the peacock tail feathers is to give a beautiful visual display during courtship. Yet the structure of peacock feathers is a marvel of scientific precision and design.

The peacock feathers have wafer-thin layers of transparent keratin whose thickness is similar to wavelengths of coloured light. When white light strikes the feathers, an optical effect occurs called ‘thin-film interference’ which causes coloured light to reflect off the surface of the feather.

The reflected light has a deep lustre and changes with the angle of view. Amazingly, beautiful coloured patterns are formed by the co-ordination of thousands of different specks of colour on individual segments of the feather.

According to the theory of sexual selection, peacock feathers gradually developed by thousands of random genetic accidents. These accidents were supposedly preserved (‘selected’) in the breeding population because the females (peahens) also underwent thousands of genetic accidents that made them prefer the features that accidentally appeared in some peacocks and not others.

One obvious problem with this theory is that the accidental features of the peacock had to match the accidental preferences of the peahen. The reason this is a problem is that blind evolution, being a random process, cannot depend on a large number of coincidences. If it did, it would no longer be random.

Lustre and shape

But there is an even more fundamental problem with the theory of sexual selection – the theory cannot explain why the peacock feathers should be ‘beautiful’. If the colours were produced by pure genetic accidents we would expect the colours to be ordinary colours not ‘interference colours’ with a deep lustre. And if the patterns were produced by pure genetic accidents then we would expect them to be random patterns not beautifully shaped.

Some scientists have suggested that peahens associate beauty with health. So since peahens want healthy offspring they choose beautiful partners. But this theory assumes that peahens have some kind of instinctive understanding of genetics as well as aesthetics – a tall order for a pea-brained creature! There is, in fact, no evidence at all that peahens see a genetic relationship between their mate and their offspring.

The only logical explanation for the beauty of the peacock feather is that a Creator deliberately made it beautiful. There is also an obvious reason why the Creator would make the peacock display the feathers in the courtship ritual – not just to propagate the species but also for the enjoyment of mankind and the Creator himself.

Human beauty

Of course, there are countless other examples of beauty in nature. There are many other beautiful birds like the birds of paradise and hummingbirds, while the songs of even drably coloured birds are examples of musical beauty.

Tropical fish are another example of creatures with bright colouring and intricate patterns. Even insects display stunning beauty when viewed in detail.

But without doubt, the creature with the most comprehensive beauty is the human being. Man has an elegant upright stature, smooth skin, beautiful form and fine hair. The ability of man to speak, sing and express emotions adds to his beauty.

A smiling human face is surely the most beautiful sight in the whole of creation – no animal has the necessary facial muscles to match man’s range of facial expressions.

The origin of beauty

The Bible explains the origin of beauty. In Genesis 2:7 we read that God made trees that were pleasant to the sight. As well as making trees to produce fruit for mankind, God deliberately made trees beautiful to look at. In Job 26:13 we read that God ‘adorned the heavens’. As well as making the stars reveal times and seasons, God deliberately made the stars beautiful to behold.

In Matthew 6:29 we read that the flowers of the field are more beautiful than the royal robes of Solomon. As well as making the land good for producing food, God deliberately decorated it with beautiful plants.

Modern discoveries have shown that certain areas of the human brain are dedicated to the appreciation of beauty. There even appear to be areas that are dedicated to specific types of beauty like musical beauty. Such evidence implies that humans have been designed to appreciate and enjoy beauty. And the appreciation of beauty implies that humans are spiritual beings made in the image of God.

One of the most beautiful things a human can do is to praise God (Psalm 147:1). A butterfly looks most beautiful when it is performing the basic function of flying. In the same way, human beings are most beautiful when they perform their most basic function of praising their Maker.

There is a wonderful promise in the Bible for those who have repented of their sins and have come to know God through faith in Jesus Christ. The promise is that God will beautify his people with salvation (Psalm 149:4). As sinners rebelling against God we have no moral or spiritual beauty – even our best deeds are like ‘filthy rags’ in his sight (Isaiah 64:6). Yet whatever our past, God can turn that rebellious character into something very beautiful.