Evolution

Millions of words have been printed by and about Charles Darwin. There are hundreds of biographies, the dozens of books he wrote (including his own autobiography), as well as various pamphlets, essays, correspondence, diaries, manuscript notes, and other ephemera. Fascinating though the man and his work is, it must be hard to come up with anything ...

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David Rothenberg’s formal appellation at the New Jersey Institute of Technology is Professor of Philosophy and Music. He refers to himself as a ‘musician, composer, author and philosopher-naturalist’. Others have called him an ‘interspecies musician’. Rothenberg, a highly regarded jazz saxophonist and clarinettist, has published a range of books on science, technology, and music. But an ‘interspecies musician’? Much of Rothenberg’s fame stems from his improvised duets with ‘singing’ animals: whales (Whale Music, 2008), birds (Why Birds Sing, 2005) and even cicadas (see YouTube). With this background, Rothenberg is well credentialled to tackle a problem that lies at the heart of the apparent divide between science and the arts: what is beauty? Why do we find much birdsong beautiful? More critically, what do the birds themselves hear in these products of their evolutionary history? Can mere animals experience some kind of aesthetic sense, a sense of ‘beauty’?

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At the outset of Mothers and Others, Sarah Blaffer Hrdy poses a thought experiment. Each year 1.6 billion passengers fly around the world. We do so with remarkable ease. Just imagine, Hrdy asks, if our fellow human passengers suddenly morphed into another species of ape. We would be lucky to disembark with all ten fingers and toes still attached, or with any babies on board still alive. Bloody appendages would litter the aisles. It would be mayhem.

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