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The Creation of Beauty Through the Will and Biology of Life

Updated on November 8, 2010
Taken on a late fall hike in the Adirondacks.
Taken on a late fall hike in the Adirondacks. | Source

Had to publish it somewhere.

This is a paper I wrote for an Aesthetics class in college. As with most papers, after the countless hours of effort and thought put into their creation, they are read once, bestowed with a grade, and are then tossed into the nether regions of my computers hard drive never to be thought of again. I refuse to let this little gem of my personal philosophy suffer such a burial so I have decided to post it here for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy.


There are many theorists that delve into the realm of natural beauty and significant form, but perhaps the most prominent works on the subject have been written by the Greek philosopher Plotinus and the German Immanuel Kant. Their most influential works in this area are Enneads and Critique of Aesthetic Judgment respectively. I theorize that a summation of these two works suggests that living things create beauty through the formation of significant form. This form comes from an inner “will” held by all life that stands in opposition to the sublime, raw, power and furry of elemental nature. Furthermore, I argue that this inner will can be observed through the organizational driving force held within the genetic coding of every living organism known to humanity that has developed in opposition to this vast and unorganized entirety of existence. Through the process of evolution, the will of life and the furry of nature clash together, driving life to become more complex and thus more beautiful. Finally this will can be projected externally from the human body through our capacity for rationalization (which has been achieved through evolution) and is exemplified by our works of art.

Platinus argues in Enneads that “things in this world are beautiful by participating in form.”[1] The form of an object is the shape that its contents take, giving its outward appearance. It is from this significant form that all beauty that we see is derived. As Platinus goes on to say, “every shapeless thing which is naturally capable of receiving shape and form is ugly and outside the divine formative power.”1 Objects that do not participate in form are in other words “shapeless,” and are therefore seen as ugly. He later argues that “the soul when it is purified becomes form and formative power, altogether bodiless and intellectual and entirely belonging to the divine, whence beauty springs and all that is akin to it.”1 Platinus attributes the power to create form to the soul held within every living creature. The souls of the living are capable of creating beauty because they are a part of the divine “one” from which all things come. According to Platinus, the “soul makes beautiful the bodies which are spoken of as beautiful; for since it is a divine thing and a kind of part of beauty, it makes everything it grasps and masters beautiful, as far as they are capable of participation.” 1 From this we can see that the soul also creates the individual living being, and this being’s degree of beauty in form of its body is a likeness of how closely it reflects the one. Furthermore, from this point I argue that it is the will of life that comes from the soul of every individual living creature that drives it to create beauty, and the advancement of this will is reflected in the process of evolution.

Following the philosophy of Platinus, every living thing through its soul has the capacity to create beauty at the very least by forming its body. Subsequent to this point, it is clear that a hierarchy of organism form exists. Aristotle categorizes them with the “rational soul” of humans at the highest level because it is the most complex and has the capacity for reason, followed by the “animal soul” which retains sentence and the ability for locomotion, and finally the “vegetative soul” that like the others can draw in matter to create the form of its body.2 Platinus also clearly places humans at the highest level on the hierarchy of life, saying that “first the soul will come in its ascent to intellect and there will know the Forms, all beautiful, and will affirm that these, the Ideas, are beautiful; for all things are beautiful by these, by the products and essence of intellect,” and argues that human intellect allows us to recognize the beauty in our world, which is derived from form.1 Other mobile organisms are subsequent to humans because though they lack the capacity for reason, they still retain the ability to move allowing them to further impact the formless external world, creating more beauty. In support of this notion, we can think of the nest of a bird, the web of a spider, or the den of a beaver. All of these organisms are driven by the will to not only bring formation to their body, but also to these external structures through their capacity to move and manipulate their environment. Finally, at the lower end of the spectrum are plants, bacteria, fungi, and such organisms that simply work at only a capacity to take external nutrients from the formless existence and organize them into a beautiful form through their body structure.

Further attesting to this hierarchy I would like to discuss the existence of viruses. Within the scientific community there is a great debate whether viruses should be included as a life form or not because they lack some of the essential components of what scientists consider the requirements of cellular life to be. Conventional biology attributes the title of life to beings that are capable of maintaining some degree of homeostasis, have some form of organization that is composed of one or more cells, a metabolism that transforms potential chemical energy into a kinetic form that can be used for growth or homeostasis, the capacity to respond to environmental stimuli, the ability to grow, reproduce, and finally adapt overtime to the environment it inhabits.2 Viruses, however, exist outside the constraints of this definition because while they contain genetic material, replicate themselves, and evolve, they do not metabolize energy and cannot reproduce outside of a host cell.2 Thus within our own definition we may place the “virus soul” at an even lower level than the vegetative, existing more inorganically than organic. When we examine the beauty of a virus we can see that it contains only the bare essence of form and further it lacks the capacity to take matter from the formless world and organize it into beauty without the assistance of a host cell. Thus we can conclude that viruses are relatively ugly because they are extremely simple in their genetic and physical structure and contain only a deceptive or elementary beauty of form.

From the viewpoint of humanity, viruses appear as nothing more than a plaque hijacking our cells, making us sick, and even bringing about our death in some cases. However it is important not to dismiss viruses as evil entities, for we do not consider the extent of formless existence to be evil, but a necessary condition allowing for life to exist. Similarly viruses cannot be considered such because they act as a counter-balance to the life giving form, destroying what is beautiful and acting to return matter to the inorganic existence, which in turn allows more life to come about. Examining the characteristics of viruses we can see that all other known life forms are subject to their infection and thus they likely developed a great deal of time ago.3 Emerging research on just how these entities came into existence may even suggest that they could have supplemented new functions into standard life forms through viral infection.3 When contemplating the beauty derived from significant form, we must also consider the inorganic element and the continuum of lower souls that have influenced “higher” life so greatly through the process of evolution.

Momentarily leaving the biological topic of evolution, I would like to introduce the work of Immanuel Kant. In addition to his support of significant form as the source of beauty, Kant also introduces to us his theory of the sublime. Similar to the pleasure derived from viewing an object that is perceived as beautiful, we can also receive pleasure from viewing the sublime.4 Unlike beauty however, the sublime does not come from form, but is a feeling that stems from viewing the limitlessness of nature.4 While beauty is concerned with quality, the sublime is concerned with quantity.4 Similarly, the viewing of beauty is free from rational thought, but the sublime is evoked by a combination of emotion and thought, and unlike the emotion resulting from beauty, the sublime induces negative feelings.4 Kant characterizes the sublime as involving a mental “movement” that incites one to use his imagination.4 What our imagination conjures in essence is a fear for the might of limitless nature and our relative vulnerability in life. Yet in a sense we also experience a feeling of joy from viewing the might of nature because against its furry we have survived.4 A sublime scene helps us to realize our own power and the resistance held within us, and encourages us, that we have the courage to measure up against the might of nature.4 Kant states “in the immeasurableness of nature and the incompetence of our faculty for adopting a standard proportionate to the aesthetic estimation of the magnitude of its realm, we found our own limitation.”4 In short elemental nature is sublime because it challenges us and insights a feeling of insignificance.4

From an aesthetic standpoint this argument is quite compelling, yet it also holds a great deal of biological insight. The utmost essence of evolution is life’s adaptation to environmental conditions over time. While one portion of this process stems from a species’ interactions with other life forms, all life stands against elemental nature and the basic driving force of life is resistance against the limitless, thus in essence sublimity is evolution. To first understand evolution we must also understand that each and every living organism is self organized and directed through the genetic coding contained within its DNA.5 This genetic coding in turn is governed and controlled by what are known as the Hardy-Weinberg Equilibrium factors, that when absent no genetic change occurs (i.e. evolution does not occur), but when any of these factors are present evolution takes place. There are five factors, the first two of which are governed strictly by chance and include genetic drift (the random perpetuation of some genes over others) and mutation (the incorrect replication of genetic material resulting in an alteration to the code). These first two factors can simply be attributed to entropy and function outside of environmental influence (at the fundamental level at least). However, the remaining three factors, gene flow (the movement of genes between populations through migration), non-random mating (selection criteria for a mate going beyond the random chance of encounter), and most importantly natural selection (certain genes being perpetuated more frequently because they increase the ability of an individual to survive and reproduce), are the direct result of environmental influence acting upon individuals. A hostile environment can mold an organism into a more suitable form that can better exist within that environment and through this process, can restrict or mediate migration and create mate selection criteria based on the fitness of individuals. Considering the factors involved in evolution, it is clear that our opposition to elemental nature (which can be felt through the viewing of the sublime) results in our will (which is physically manifested in our genetic coding) being molded to survive within its environment. As a result of this molding process, our will has driven life forward ever advancing and morphing into it new forms, each becoming increasingly more complex and beautiful as a result.

In his paper Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution , Theodosius Dobzhansky argues just that point in that only by understanding the influence evolution has on life can we understand biological processes and systems.6 He further contends, as I have in this paper, that the borderline between organic and inorganic is blurred by the existence of viruses that the extant diversity of life has resulted through the process of evolution.6 Despite the discrepancies between viruses and cellular life that I have discussed earlier, they all rely on DNA and its transcribed form, RNA, to direct their biological function.6 The coding of DNA and RNA only use four genetic “letters” that through different arrangements and not the invention of new “letters”, life has evolved to fill the countless niches available on earth.6 Similarly the translation of the genetic coding of DNA is universal in its creation of the specific amino acids that facilitate the action dictated by the code.6

Such similarities suggest that the spark of life that sets it apart from the inanimate has only occurred once and that all known forms of life stem from this one event.6 From this biological deduction, we can now see that Platinus’ theory that all life is a reflection of “the one” also has considerable scientific support. Furthermore, Aristotle’s hierarchy of souls reflects the advancement of life as it further complicates through evolution, advancing upwards on the ladder. At the top of this hierarchy sit human beings with the ability to reason and through reason can rationalize the beauty they see in life’s significant form. As a result of this capacity, humans can intentionally act to create this significant form through art. Exemplifying this point, we can look at the work of the artist Andy Goldsworthy whose artworks largely fit within bounds of the aesthetic explanations that I have discussed in this paper.

Goldsworthy is a sculptor/photographer that works with the features and objects at each work site, usually in a natural setting, to make his works of art. A common theme in many of his works is the construction of an egg shaped form typically made of stones. This form usually stands in contrast with a powerful backdrop of a natural scene. When viewing this scene, one has no interest in this form as it is nothing more than shape, yet it appears beautiful to the viewer. To give shape to the shapeless is to beautify something and through his capacity for reason, Goldsworthy intentionally makes beauty through this process. Perhaps what makes Goldsworthy’s art so beautiful is its simplicity that gives it a precise and striking form. It is free from many of the charms that could destroy the pure judgment of what matters most, the form itself. What truly encompasses all of the elements of aesthetic pleasure in the images he creates is his inclusion of what Kant would term “the sublime” in the backdrops of many of his works. In the documentary Rivers and Tides , which explores his work, one particular egg formation is created on a beach with the ocean posterior to it.7 The raw power and innumerable quantity contained within inorganic nature is represented here by the ocean with its constant waves lapping upon the nearby shore, yet the significant form held within life is also present in the egg construction that is placed in the foreground. The limitlessness of the ocean gives us pleasure in viewing it because we contemplate how mighty nature really is and how against this great power we stand opposed, defiant in our survival, yet the egg form gives us pleasure because its significant form appears beautiful to us. Perhaps one of the most inspiring traits of Goldsworthy’s art is that it is often not stagnant, a still frame of existence, but a dynamic part of the environment. It is as if Goldsworthy tries to extend his soul onto these inanimate objects and give them the power of beautification that he holds. This particular work is no exception, as the ocean’s tide continues to rise and eventually overtakes the piece obscuring it from our view, bringing the sublime to real-time existence.

While the theory of evolution is considered by many creationists to be opposed to religious dogma, this is a superficial examination of the process. If we consider that the evolutionary process itself is derived from the intrinsic nature of life to expand its organizational potential and beautify, we perhaps can also infer that it is a means for expanding the presence of “the one” and is in fact the process of creation itself. On this subject Dobzhansky argues:

Does the evolutionary doctrine clash with religious faith? It does not. It is a blunder to mistake the Holy Scriptures for elementary textbooks of astronomy, geology, biology, and anthropology. Only if symbols are construed to mean what they are not intended to mean can there arise imaginary, insoluble conflicts. As pointed out above, the blunder leads to blasphemy: the Creator is accused of systematic deceitfulness.6

As such an understanding of the evolutionary process is a basic understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. Similar to the remarks of Dobzhansky, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin states “evolution is a light which illuminates all facts, a trajectory which all lines of thought must follow this is what evolution is.” 6 We must take care not to set science, philospophy, and religion in opposition to each other because ultimately all three are in pursuit of the same goal, a better understanding of our existence. Only through an integration of these disciplines can the pursuit of true knowledge be achieved.


Cooper, D. E. (Ed.). 2005. Aesthetics: The Classic Readings. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Dobzhansky, T. 1973. Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution . The American Biology Teacher, 35:125-129.

Forterre, P. 2006. The origin of viruses and their possible roles in major evolutionary transitions . Virus Research 117:5–16.

Goldsworthy, A. 2004. Rivers and Tides [Motion picture]. Mediopolis Films.

Groom, M., Meffe, G., and C. Carroll. 2006. Principles of Conservation Biology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc.

Life. (2010, April 27). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia . Retrieved 19:35, May 6, 2010, from

[1] “Enneads”, Platinus. Cooper, D. E. (Ed.). (2005). Aesthetics: The Classic Readings. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Page 56-54

2 Life. (2010, April 27). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia . Retrieved 19:35, May 6, 2010, from

3 Forterre, P. 2006. The origin of viruses and their possible roles in major evolutionary transitions . Virus Research. Vol. 15. Pages 5–16.

4 “Critique of aesthetic judgement”, Kant. Cooper, D. E. (Ed.). (2005). Aesthetics: The Classic Readings. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing. Pages 96-122.

5 Groom, M., Meffe, G., and C. Carroll. 2006. Principles of Conservation Biology. Sunderland, MA: Sinauer Associates, Inc. Page 113.

6 Dobzhansky, T. 1973. Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution . The American Biology Teacher, 35:125-129. Pages 1-4.

7 Goldsworthy, A. 2004. Rivers and Tides [Motion picture]. Mediopolis Films.


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