From James Shaw [6–10 February 1866]1
To Dr Darwin | with Mr Shaw’s Compls
The Appreciation of Beauty by Animals.
At a meeting of the Natural History & Antiquarian Society held in Dumfries on Tuesday 6th. Feb. 1866 Mr Shaw of Tynron read a paper on the above topic. Sir Wm. Jardine Bart of Applegirth in the Chair.2
Mr Shaw remarked the subject of beauty in animal and vegetable had, in an Essay by the Duke of Argyll, been called a theological one, not a natural-history one, and that his Grace had thrown it by way of a stumbling block in front of Dr Darwin’s theory.3 The writer had reason to believe that Dr Darwin was not likely to fall over this stumbling block but that he saw his way to at least a partial solution of the problem.
Mr Shaw then attempted to prove that in man from the most civilized to the most barbarous, from the infant to the man of grey hairs, tribute was paid to external loveliness, and that passion was so remarkable in the savage that a great modern thinker had suggested that ornament not comfort was at the origin of clothes.4 At considerable length he adduced striking instances of taste, love of cleanliness, pleasure in personal decoration, courtesy towards their own image in mirror or picture, pride and ostentation, in some of the most lively and loving birds.
He then showed that in certain cases some birds, as the Australian Bower Bird, the Magpie, the Cornish chough, the Raven, the Daw &c went beyond themselves and out of their own species in their appreciation of beauty and their attempts to conserve it—their tastes being, as was to be expected, more similar to those of savages and apes & children in the objects of their selection than to those of civilized men.5
Having quoted Mr Montagu’s observations concerning the manner in which singing birds attract towards them the females at the mating season by means of song, he repelled that naturalist’s conclusion that the ear alone guided the female to its choice, since Nature at the pairing season was at as much pains to please the eye as to delight the ear.6 He then asked if it was merely a coincidence or was it that beauty was attractive to the beautiful that humming-birds & butterflies were so often found hovering over flowers the rivals of themselves in gorgeousness.
Mr. Darwin thought these flowers might be decoys, by which their seed-sower was drawn to its task.7
Allusion was made to the intoxicating effect of light on insects, so like its effects on human babies and to the fact that it was among insects that the fire-flies are found. The fire-flies were attracted into the dwellings in St. Domingo by torches for the purpose of killing mosquitoes, and what more likely than that their own torches should be elements of sexual attraction & an animal having a little more gayety, a little more light, in its organization than its companions of the same species would thus draw more readily towards it a partner and by its beauty secure further perpetuity and extension of the charm. More than one observer has connected this living light with the attractions of sex.
The writer then remarked on the wonderful similarity of the construction of the eye and on the fact that although beauty in animal & vegetable was wide-spread—so in the kingdoms of animated nature was the seeing faculty, and doubtless other eyes, as well as human had preferences in the things that they saw.8
A conversation ensued.
Dr. Dickson9 thought that this paper went to undermine Dr. Darwin’s theory, as it exalted feebleness into a favoured condition by allowing beauty to be an element in the preservation of races or of individuals.
Dr. Grierson10 thought that beauty and health went together—the beauty of a peach-cheek depended on the health of its possessor.
Mr. Shaw thought that Dr. Dickson misconceived Dr. Darwin’s views if he was under the impression that they accounted only for the existence of the strongest. Take the illustration of the wolves, where adaptation, not strength was the favouring circumstance.11
The Chairman, Sir Wm. Jardine, said that more facts ought to be collected before forming such high conclusions.
In reply to a question Mr. Shaw said that it seemed to him that nature had placed its spangles and glowing colours just where they were most readily seen. Birds and some other beasts had got their crowns and their coronets, their breast-knots & shoulder-knots their trains and painted eyes and ornamented cheeks and ears like Kings and Queens. In cases where the animal ornaments were not patent at once powerful muscles were provided for erection and display.12
Memorandum of a meeting of the Natural History & Antiquarian Society held in Dumfries on Tuesday 6 February 1866.