Abstract

Abstract:

The idea of excess is almost always negative. This sense, articulated at the beginning and end of the nineteenth century by Thomas Malthus and T. H. Huxley respectively, was re-enforced by Darwin’s theory of natural selection. In Darwin’s theory of mate choice in sexual selection, however, excess leads both to speciation and to the spectacularly beautiful. It becomes an aesthetic virtue and a condition of the development of art. A natural process, excess works in defiance of mere utility, entailing the production of the beautiful beyond what would be necessary for mere procreation. Darwin’s theory is oddly consistent with aesthetic theories like those of John Ruskin and William Morris, who were essentially hostile to Darwinian science. It points toward an aesthetic with ethical implications, implying how essential excess is both in nature and in art in order to get beyond mere utility and enrich human life with the beautiful, which in turn allows for change, transformation, and wisdom.

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