“Great art is born when Apollonian form and Dionysian ecstasy are held in balance, when our dreams of order and abandon come together. One tendency uninformed by the other can bring forth only coldness or chaos…
Once upon a time, there were no flowers – two hundred million years ago, to be only slightly more precise. There were plants then, of course, ferns and mosses, conifers and cycads, but these plants didn’t form true flowers or fruit. Some of them reproduced asexually, cloning themselves by various means … Such a conservative approach to reproduction made for a biologically simpler world, since it generated relatively little novelty or variation. Life on the whole was more local and inbred.
The world before flowers was sleepier than ours because, lacking fruit and large seeds, it couldn’t support many warm-blooded creatures. Reptiles ruled, and life slowed to a crawl whenever it got cold; little happened at night. It was a plainer-looking world, too, greener than it is now, absent all colors and patterns (not to mention scents) that flowers and fruits would bring into it. Beauty did not exists yet. That is, the way things looked had nothing to do with desire.
Flowers changed everything. The angiosperms, as botanists call the plants that form flowers and then encased seeds, appeared during the Cretaceous period, and they spread over the earth with stunning rapidity. Now … a plant could enlist the help of an animal by striking a grand co-evolutionary compact: nutrition in exchange for transportation. With the advent of the flower, whole new levels of complexity come into the world, more interdependence, more information, more communication, more experimentation.
The evolution of plants proceeded according to a new motive force: attraction between different species. Now natural selection favored blooms that could rivet the attention of pollinators, fruits that appealed to foragers. The desires of other creatures became paramount in the evolution of plants, for the simple reason, that plants that succedded at gratifying those desires wound up with more offspring. Beauty had emegred as a survival strategy.
The new rules speeded the rate of evolutionary change. Bigger, brighter, sweeter, more fragrant: all these qualities were quickly rewarded under the new regime. But so was specialization … it became an advantage to look and smell as distinctive as possible, the better to command the undivided attention of a single, dedicated pollinator …
With flowers came fruit and seeds, and these too, remade life on Earth. By producing sugars and proteins to entice animals to disperse their seed, the angiosperms multiplied the world’s supply of food energy, making possible the rise of large warm blooded mammals. Without flowers, the reptiles, which had gotten along fine in a leafy, fruitless world, would probably still rile. Without flowers, we would not be.
So the flowers begot us, their greatest admirers. In time human desire entered into the natural history of the flower, and the flower did what it has always done: made itself still more beautiful in the eyes of this animal, folding into its very being even the most improbable of our notions and tropes. Now came roses that resembled aroused nymphs, tulip petals in the shape of daggers, peonies bearing the scent of women. We in turn did our part, multiplying the flowers beyond reason, moving their seeds around the planet, writing books to spread their fame and ensure their happiness. For the flower it was the same old story, another grand co-evolutionary deal on the whole, though not nearly as good as the earlier bargain with the bees.
And what about us? How we did we make out? We did very well by the flower. There were, of course, the pleasures to the senses, the sustenance of their fruit and seeds, and the vast store of new metaphor. But we gazed even farther into the blossom of a flower and found something more: the crucible of beauty … There the achievement of order against all odds and its blithe abandonment. There, the perfection of art and the blind flux of nature.There, somehow, both transcedence and necessity. Could it be it – right there, in a flower – the meaning of life?”
Birth of Beauty?
Published: January 30, 2013n