Natural ugliness

            Natural ugliness is almost never discussed in depth although by right environmental aestheticians should find it of absorbing interest. 1 They should seek to ascertain what sorts of ugliness there are in nature, how much of it there is, whether there is any redeeming aesthetic advantage in its presence in the world, for instance whether it contributes to the sublimity of nature; what natural circumstances account for the typical kinds of natural ugliness; and whether its prevalence should temper our aesthetic regard for nature as a whole. An unbiased observer might well wonder at the spectacle of so many thinkers underplaying the pervasiveness of natural ugliness while feeling no compunction whatever in detailing the subtlest sorts of ugliness in human culture? 2

            My interest is not strictly confined to the ugly, but extends to all forms of serious aesthetic deficiency. It covers anything that is well removed from aesthetically excellence. Exactly how far removed doesn't matter, for my discussion will not turn on fine shades of aesthetic value but on grosser defects.

             My purpose is in part to scale down the claims of positive aesthetics or nature worship. But also, and more importantly, I wish to push forward the project of aesthetically appreciating the natural environment and, ultimately, the biosphere and the universe as a whole – on a more realistic basis than is achievable by any piecemeal, capricious, self-interested selectivity. To aspire to this is not to denigrate less realistic responses to the world, for they (many of them) have their raison d'être. Rather the motive is to understand what aesthetic value there is (really is), in nature, to see nature whole and not in part only – so far as possible. 3 This affiliates me with order appreciation – real not fictive order and therefore in crucial part science-based order appreciation, with an emphasis on the depth of science required. For that is essential to the right assessment of both functional and decorative (or formal) beauty/unbeauty at all levels in nature. I do not for a moment think that this includes all the beauty related to or derived from nature, but only that it is the beauty that belongs to nature itself, as opposed to what is, in one degree or another, nature as we imagine it to be, or as opposed to a beauty of the viewer's experience or state of mind as opposed to that of the ostensible object of aesthetic regard, which is to say nature itself.

            To ease the way into what at present is hostile territory it may help to note that in ordinary life people readily tolerate lots of ugliness. We know how to domesticate or sanitize ugly things, to make something good that involves them, at times even to love them, without in the least denying the basic fact that they are ugly (though the word grates on our ears). To acknowledge ugliness in nature when it clearly exists is merely to acknowledge an evident fact, which any decent theory of natural beauty must do. And yet the dominant tendency in current aesthetics of nature is to neglect it. If Ronald Hepburn was justified in 1966 in complaining about the neglect of natural beauty in academic aesthetics. I think one is justified today in complaining about the neglect of natural ugliness over the past four decades.

            The major categories of things seriously less-than-beautiful among biota are ugly creatures, ugly functionalities and defects in the quality of biotic life. In the non-biotic realm the major category is the cataclysmic devastation wrought by internal or external violence. Since functional beauty has been in the foreground recently my first concern will be with decorative beauty, beauty of appearance, and within that category most of the time will be devoted to creatures and behaviors. But the lessons to be drawn have widespread application throughout nature and even to nature as a whole, Nature with an uppercase N .

1. Ugly natural creatures

I begin with creatures that are conspicuous for being ugly-looking, of which the examples hardest to deny include flatfish, bats, and spotted hyenas. Within this variety I choose as an undisputed paradigm the admirably palatable plaice (slides). It sports a face no one can admire for its looks, one almost painful to dwell upon although it is shared by flatfish in general (an order that includes some 400 species, among them haddock, sole, flounder, turbot and our plaice). Its twisted visage is standard for the species and the order in general, called flatfish because the Greeks saw them as swimming on their sides. Typically they lie on the sea bottom well disguised by their coloration and ambush their prey. Why do they have such an ugly configuration? Recently studies of their fossil ancestors have placed them solidly within a classic evolutionary track.

            The scenario is familiar to evolutionary biologists. An ecological niche exists that sustains only a given mode of life, and that niche ends up getting filled by an ugly adaptation of some previously good-looking life form. In the instant case the particular forms selected (step by step over eons) had progressively more asymmetrical head, eyes and mouth, as shown in the slides. Functionally the adaptation works well enough and perhaps is even outstandingly successful, which in my book would give it a substantial degree of functional beauty. Yet what I will call the decorative aspect of the creature, its appearance, is abominable. Through Photoshop I provide a mild improvement, a lessening of the asymmetry. That doesn't turn the plaice into a beauty. For that a complete redesign is needed. But the severity of the ugliness is lightened.

            Intuitively the world at large would be more beautiful if (other things remaining the same) the flatfish of the world had been able to adapt by way of a symmetrical structure for head, eyes and mouth in the fashion of what we think of as a more normal fish prototype – in this case perhaps more like skates. This would have required a different evolutionary track. Somehow a line of flattened but symmetrical fish would have gotten started by a gradual process of flattening the body rather than working from the already flat side. The symmetrical option would have avoided twisting the head around. It is easy to imagine the accomplished fact, since skates provide a model of the overall configuration. But the construction problem in the case of bony fish is formidable and perhaps impossible. The actual course taken was for the ancestor of flatfish to adopt a predation tactic of lying on their side on the bottom, which set up the situation for natural selection to do the rest. In 2008 the fossil record was found to confirm the standard evolutionary account of the development. Two transitional forms were identified, one of them the Amphistium shown on the slide.

The evolutionary story is also reflected in the fact that flatfish neonates are symmetrical and the skewing of the facial features occurs as they develop into juveniles. So ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in the classic way. The story also includes a reasonable hypothesis of how the transitional forms managed to survive even without the advantage of the full configuration. 4

            While flatfish are an extreme example, compromises of this sort are typical of natural selection, for by its very nature selection produces a workable solution by the most direct means available. It does not regularly produce the most elegant one imaginable. Not by any means. The literature on this point is decisive. 5 In the slide series several other examples of unbeautiful bodily forms that are functionally beneficial are shown. 6

2. Other categories of natural ugliness

A second category of natural ugliness concerns behavior rather than appearance, namely ugly rivalries among creatures, e.g., runaway predation and struggles for dominance and for breeding rights. These can lead to various forms of misery and loss of beauty such as

(a) extinction of populations, varieties and species. Even if the invasive species is attractive (as purple loosestrife can be) the death of native plants is most certainly not.

(b) lives fraught with anxiety, conflict, and frustration. Tinbergen's kittiwakes and many others live under constant stress. 7 Indeed this is the fate of most creatures except for the ones at the top of the food chain. We imagine wild creatures content but that is because we do not observe them closely. Scientific naturalists tell a different story.

(c) self-reinforcing tendencies toward collective suicide: human beings' penchant for self-interest to the inevitable long-term detriment of future generations.

            A third category, again of functionality rather than appearance, is that of ugly inefficiencies – the unbeauty of stupidity, cluelessness, and incapability. Tinburgen's herring gulls looking randomly, cluelessly for eider duck nests, finding a few by chance only, are representative of this defect. (Tinbergen 1968, 260) Nature is full of inefficient behaviors that are retained because there is insufficient selection pressure to refine them. Of course impressive efficiencies emerge when the payoff is substantial and timely, as is the punishment for failure. Witness Tinbergen's jays refining their recognition of twig caterpillars ( Ennomos alinaria ). Here the selection pressure is substantial for prey and predator alike. (Tinbergen 1968, 126ff.) At some point the refinement deserves to be called (functionally) beautiful. The lesson for serious aestheticians is to peel their eyes for genuine merits and demerits and not be satisfied with cherry-picking or confabulating. Reality-based order appreciation cannot accept less than this. Accordingly it cannot accept limits on the depth of scientific knowledge that is relevant to the aesthetic value of the phenomenon in question.

            A fourth category of natural unbeauty is the limited quality of life for many animals, especially in respect of their use of leisure time. For instance animal play is typically limited to the short period of youth when social and hunting skills are developing. Mature adults may play with the young but they rarely play with each other. Until one comes to the higher mammals or interaction of domesticated animals with humans, one finds at most a very modest exercise of the play instinct that is clearly present somewhere in their nature. The consequence is that much of animal life is dull. 8 What romancers see as liberation from the restless pursuit of ephemeral diversion is more realistically regarded as limited horizons, the soulful tranquility is vacuity.

            The fifth category of natural ugliness is abiotic. Here the chief exhibits are the destructive cataclysms (Permian extinction), scorched and frozen planets, meteorites impacting the earth, volcanic days-into-nights, glaciers scouring the land, etc. 9  The extremity of these separates marks their impact as ugly (disastrously unbeautiful) as opposed to ones that are only challenging. Interesting aesthetic what-if questions arise here just as ethical counterparts do in that field: if it could be shown that without that havoc the human level of complexity would not have been attained for millions more years, would that showing have aesthetically justified it?

3: Objections considered and answered

            Objection 1. In all of these cases there are plenty of beauties of some kind. In hideous-looking creatures there is often functional beauty. Even in the midst of much inefficiency there are other aspects of high functionality as well as beautiful appearance. In aggressive behavior there are beautiful maneuvers, poses, and beautiful resourcefulness. Once one takes the whole into account may there not be ample grounds for saying that nature is by and large beautiful? You merely pick out the limitations of nature whereas those who reverence it focus on the glories. Surely the latter is both more constructive and deeper than your negativity. This is especially the case with your concern about good-lookingness. 10

            My answer.   I entirely agree that overall beauty involves beauties of parts, aspects, behaviors, properties and relations. Beauty is endlessly various. Everything natural or cultural taken in its totality is a complex fabric of many strands with varying aesthetic merits and faults. So there is beauty of some kind and some degree to be found in everything, and whatever exists is worthy of due acknowledgement. But this positive gloss can be deeply misleading. There is aesthetic good in Hitler, Stalin and Hannibal Lector yet overall they are monsters. I am contending only for fair attention to be given to all grades and species of aesthetic value and disvalue. As to beautiful appearance being superficial, I agree that it is so when the appearance diverges widely from the fact. This is not the case with the examples cited, since the appearance correctly reflects the actual structure.

            Objection 2: You overlook t he possibility that forms of ugliness have positive aesthetic qualities because of their ugliness. The flatfish's twisted face, for example, can be properly seen as possessing a commendable vigor, such as no symmetrical face can equal. Its beautiful vigor can at least largely neutralize the effect of its distorted countenance.

            My answer .   I will assume we can set aside any notion of the twisted countenance reflecting actual striving. The claim about vigor can be taken seriously only if it refers to the sort of superficial expressiveness represented by the basset hound's melancholy look. Thus taken the relevant question is, does the flatfish visage really have the look of vigor? The moment we test it against other suggestions, pathos, churlishness, etc., the look of vigor dissipates. And in any case such expressiveness as can be confirmed is doubtfully exact enough and intense enough to be counted beautifully expressive or to compensate for the ugliness of its structure.

            But I am happy to let the proponents formulate their answer to the question, what is so beautiful about this particular ugliness? That would reveal the specific aesthetic impression that drives their conviction that the face is, after all, ugly in a beautiful way? When this is done the claim can be evaluated on its merits. Perhaps in discussion good candidates will be proposed. 11

            Objection 3.   Many have claimed that things are made more beautiful by contrast with the unbeautiful. May not the ugliness of the flatfish serve to highlight the beauty of the tuna or trout (choose your piscine beauty)? Anecdotal commentary provides evidence that unrelieved beauty is ultimately dull. Thus the biotic world is possibly more beautiful overall for having unbeautiful things in it.

            My answer. Folk aesthetics likes the idea that ugliness is needed for the sake of contrast. But that idea is flawed. If one takes into account that the beauty of wholes requires variety of beautiful features the temptation to think that unrelieved beauty would be dull immediately lessens. Another prop is removed by distinguishing between beauty and the appreciation of beauty. If a world without serious unbeauty in it would be boring or otherwise hard to appreciate, the most plausible conclusion to draw is that the appreciators are dullards, not that the world is not more beautiful overall. To this a dogged opponent might reply that a chief beauty-maker in any world is the keen and intense appreciation of such other beauties as the world contains (and perhaps even the beauty of that appreciation, ad infinitum). So if we need some things to be ugly in order to obtain that appreciation, the result might be that on balance a measure of ugliness (perhaps a strategically placed measure) increases the overall beauty.

            Here as elsewhere we need to look for particular functions of ugliness that have aesthetic validity and that might apply to nature. One such is the role of discords in music resolving into concords. The pattern is that of a descent into (one kind of) ugliness and a rise from that into beauty on a wholly formal or decorative level. Music certainly gains power and depth from such patterns strategically deployed. Without them most forms of music would be less beautiful overall. Typically the music reaches for the tonic and falls just short of it (or coming toward it veers slightly off course) and then from that perch moves into concord. This is so reminiscent of patterns in the kinesthetic life of biota (fruit bats homing in on a target) and indeed in learning and exercising of skills of all sorts that it is no mystery why the musical pattern is satisfyingly expressive (and expressive of something in itself beautiful). Satisfaction is delayed to build up desire. A sense of painful effort is succeeded by gratified relaxation. The answer to this line of reasoning is that nothing comparable to the musical example redeems the ugliness of flatfish or the serious defectiveness of the other examples mentioned. 12

            Objection 4.   You seem to endorse an empirical method of “head-counting aesthetic qualities” in order to see how many positive and negative properties an object or kind has.   But this is a hopeless way to proceed. A better option is a criterion such as the revised scientific cognitivist one proposed in Parsons 2002. This draws on the normalcy of the structure and form of the organism relative to the category that is optimally beauty-making for things of that kind. In the present case the category will be that of flatfish. Now the plaice may be ugly among fish at large but it is not at all bad looking among flatfish (benthic bony fish). So the common revulsion from the plaice is the product of a category error, as it would be to judge cubism by the canons of naturalistic representation. Seen in the right category the plaice is not bad looking any more than a cubist painting is bad looking because it would be barbarous if it belonged in the category of naturalism.

            My answer. The first answer to this is that the overall beauty of anything (cubism included) is a resultant of its constituent beauties and unbeauties. What else could it conceivably be? Beyond this, examples like flatfish are counterexamples to the criterion proposed, since their twisted visages being standard for the order does not remove the sting of their appearance for scientifically savvy and aesthetically sober observers. Standing high among flatfish appearance-wise does not mitigate the aesthetic defectiveness of their appearance. 13, 14 Of course a beauty judgment may be couched specifically in terms of a category or comparison class. Among flatfish, one may say, the plaice is not bad, meaning its appearance stands high enough in that class. But proponents of this line (Parsons, e.g.) give no reason why the wider judgment is not equally justified, and it is hard to see what could motivate rejecting such a judgment other than a settled determination to find more of nature beautiful than would be otherwise possible. That motivation undercuts any pretension to a fair evaluation of the object as a whole – and perhaps also any claim to disinterestedness.

            An extreme form of the category-relative view is that one who fully grasps the functionality of the organism won't see the organism as ugly. The grotesque face of many bats (sucker-footed specimen shown here) will be seen not as hideous but as exquisitely formed for optimal echolocation. (Dawkins 1986, 24; Parsons, 2004, 53).

  This conflates beauty with experience of beauty, functional beauty with formal, and the beauty of an aspect (the functional) with overall beauty. Besides, phenomenologically it's false. 15

4. The payoff of realistic order appreciation

The outcome of these cursory reflections about natural ugliness has an upside and a downside. The upside concerns what is really beautiful about nature as a whole. It is not that nature is replete with beauties to the near exclusion of ugliness. No, both beauty and ugliness (or unbeauty) are pervasive. Yet accepting that mixed judgment leaves room for a highly positive reflection: What is most beautiful about nature is how much beauty has emerged from such unpromising resources. To begin with entirely abiotic elements and have a world of biota develop from them is nature's main claim to aesthetic value. This entirely nullifies the problem of evil. There is no wonder whatever in the universe being aesthetically so imperfect. The wonder is that it has turned out so stupendously well given that everything had to come from the big bang plus natural causality. Hepburn (1966/2004, 48) has it right when he says that a naturalistic view has just as much access to wonderment as the theocentric one.

On a naturalistic view [nature] can beget no less wonderment at this uncontrived adaptation [than the “artistry” of God]

This naturalistic wonder has the great advantage of being well-founded. I think we can go farther than Hepburn does. The biotic world's coming from abiotic beginnings due to the creative effort (magic, essentially) of an omniscient, omnipotent deity would be no wonder at all.

            Naturalized wonderment applies as well to humanity as to the rest of nature and to all species of beauty, not just beauty of appearance. In this respect Schopenhauer was dead wrong. It is not appalling that humans are so aggressive, so self-injuring, so lethal to other life forms and ultimately suicidal. Considered coolly and objectively, it is amazing that they are advanced enough to be all those ugly things – as well as intermittently kind, intelligent, imaginative and courageous as well as handsome and functionally good. Natural philosophy in this respect has nothing to excuse, though of course there is plenty to wish were better than it is.

            Even the fact that the universe, or our stage of its full story, will extend for only a finite time likewise needs no justification. Even a much shorter span of time between the big bang and the ultimate endgame would not need to be excused. The beauties that transpire within that span more than suffice.

            At the same time there is the downside, which flows from the truly staggering magnitude of the knowledge needed to grasp the working of almost anything in the world. For example, if one complains about the world as a naturalist, one implies that the world could be better. Otherwise the complaint lacks substance, is merely an effusion without cognitive content. But it is by no means easy to document this condition. To do so would be to say something about what elements and laws would have had to be built into the natural system to generate a preferred outcome. It was easier in the old theocentric days.   Hume could imagine a beneficent deity stepping in strategically to minimize suffering from natural disasters and such. In a naturalistic view of the universe this is not possible. Only a super-scientific mind, one beyond all possibility at present, could produce a coherent description of what and how an improvement could be wrought. The result is that, from a naturalistic perspective, one cannot confidently say that the world could have been better than it is. To me this is an astonishing conclusion: this world, shot though with imperfections, may be, for all we know, the best and most beautiful of all (really) possible worlds!


In short natural unbeauty is a huge topic. It abounds in interest for the curious aesthetician – the one who wants to understand nature and is not content with fictionalizing the world or tasting its most accessible and uplifting appearances. While there is no reason to disparage fictionalizing or immersing oneself in such appearances, we must not confuse those aesthetic projects, valuable as they may be, with assessing nature on its aesthetic merits.



1. One of the countless objections to what is said above concerns the cosmic implications of my claims. If you are right, it might go, any biotic order whatever that emerged from abiotic sources would have a great deal of beauty. Is this credible?


Yes, it is, if by biotic order you mean a reasonably sustainable one. We take a biotic-capable causal order so much for granted that we fail altogether to appreciate how much has to go into it, what amazing complexities it must develop, in order to produce a biome of any kind. In Man and Superman Shaw had Lucifer sneer that all man's weapons could have been produced by a hungry dog if it had wanted power instead of a bone. But Lucifer was wrong. Weaponry as it was in Shaw's day is no mean feat; however bestial its uses may be. So is any relatively stable biome if created from abiotic beginnings by natural processes. We know that our biome is really possible, and from that it presumably follows that many gradations of less impressive ones are also really possible. For instance, a cosmic intrusion might have destroyed all life on the earth instead of only 90% of it in the Permian extinction. How much better (more beautiful) than ours in general properties a really possible biome might have been by this time in its career is, in contrast, utterly unknown.

            A radically ugly biome would be a churning mélange of incipient organisms forming and failing. Perhaps like the primordial soup continuing forever.

2. The view that there are sorts of ugliness with positive overall aesthetic value may take subtle forms. The Japanese aesthetic of imperfection and insufficiency, as expounded in Saito 1997, is one such. I do not mean to brush this aside. It deserves painstaking consideration which takes account of the fact that this ‘aesthetic' seems to cover a number of orientations, some of which are faulty and others non-aesthetic. (1) Some of the values seem not to concern the ugly but only quite mild cases of unbeauty, such as worn surfaces, which may have a pleasing patina or weathered surfaces in which the grain gains saliency. We need more enlightenment as to what exactly is deemed beautiful about the worn plate and the cracked tea cup, what would count as an exceptionally beautiful example, and so forth. (2) At some places Saito's account suggests that the judgment exercised in the aesthetic is skewed: it “overcompensates” for naïve and courtly luxury and ostentation. This appears to imply that it is invalid. (3) In some cases non-aesthetic considerations seem mixed with aesthetic ones. Political expedience is said to influence the endorsement of the values; endorsing the aesthetic becomes an insincere “gesture toward social egalitarianism.” (381) At another point she characterizes the aesthetic as a movement among cultural elite nostalgic for lost status and wealth. This amounts to a cryptic form of sour grapes. (4) A philosophical or spiritual version of the aesthetic is ascribed to Zen Buddhists who seek the Buddha nature “which makes no discriminations between various objects and activities.” (381f) Taken literally this won't wash as an aesthetic point of view since that necessarily distinguishes between better and worse. Rather it amounts to a principled suppression of the aesthetic point of view.

            These and a number of other elements in Saito's account give grounds for doubting the whole qualifies as a straightforwardly aesthetic elevation of the unbeautiful over the beautiful. Its purer forms seem rather to be refined sorts of aesthetic self-denial for the sake of spiritual beauty in oneself. Perhaps the prudent ruler if candid would claim that the element of hypocrisy in his celebration of the unbeautiful is aimed at producing a beautifully even-tempered civil society. In neither case is the orientation consistently and sincerely aesthetic.

3. It may appear from my contrasting the beauty of nature from the beauty of observers' experiences that I assume that beauty is an intrinsic property of things totally independent of a sentient creature's response. This is not so. I believe that aesthetic value in general is response-dependent in a highly idealized way, roughly along ideal observer lines. It is a delicate matter to say whether this sort of response-dependency is an intrinsic property of things. I believe it is intrinsic enough, so to speak, to be consistent with Moore 's well-known claim that a world which is forever bereft of aesthetic observers may yet be replete with beauties (and uglinesses). It certainly covers beauties which our sensory and intellectual faculties are not competent to perceive or appreciate. But it also allows for all sorts of illusory and delusory experiences to be beautiful (or otherwise). I like to call this a “realistically ideal” observer theory.

4. The problem of beauty in cases of decay and disease deserves close study. I believe the apparatus developed by Guy Sircello helps get us off on the right foot (Sircello 1975). The rotting carcass is not beautifully rotten or beautifully decayed – or beautiful-looking. But it is beautifully suitable to maggot nutrition and the maggots that are flourishing from consuming it are beautifully healthy, robust, active, and so forth (as are the piranhas churning in a froth of demolition of a steer's body). A properly non-anthropocentric basis of functional beauty must give full weight to the good in other species' lives. At the same time (here I add to Sircello's principles in ways he might not approve) one of our most common foci of appreciation, the look of things, is accessible only to creatures with the appropriate sensory competence and its beauty-making properties of qualitative degree are accessible only to creatures with the appropriate cross-modal imaginative capabilities. So it will not do to posit appreciation of beautiful looks to maggots, which lack the appropriate aesthetic competence. An essential lesson of such reflections as these is that serious study of beauty and ugliness is dauntingly complicated. A first step has to be to see our spontaneous, unreflective impulses in a much larger context without falling into a trivializing subjectivism.


Marc Bekoff   and Colin Allen 1997. “Intentional Communication and Social Play: How and Why Animals Negotiate and Agree to Play,” in Marc Bekoff and John A.Byers (eds.), Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative, and Ecological Perspectives . Cambridge and New York : Cambridge University Press.

Marc Bekoff 2001. “Social Play Behavior: Cooperation, Fairness, Trust, and the Evolution of Morality,” Journal of Consciousness Studies 8, 2, pp. 81-90

Gordon M. Burghardt   (2005) The Genesis of Animal Play. Cambridge , Mass. : MIT Press.

Canadian Shark Research Lab, Bedford Institute for Oceanographic and Marine Fish Species at Risk Section, Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Center, “Skates and Rays of Atlantic Canada,”

Allen Carlson 1984. “Nature and Positive Aesthetics, ” Environmental ethics 6, pp. 5-34. Reprinted as Ch. 6 of Carlson 2000.

____________ 1993. “Appeciating A rt and A ppreciating N ature,” in S. Kemal and I Gaskell, eds., Landscape, N atural B eauty, and the A rts. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press .

____________ 2000. Aesthetics and the E nvironment. London and New York : Routledge:

Allen Carlson and Arnold Berleant, eds. 2004. The A esthetics of N atural E nvironments. Toronto : Broadview Press

Sean B. Carroll 2005. Endless F orms M ost B eautiful: T he N ew S cience of Ev o D evo. New York : W.W. Norton.

Stephen Davies 2006. “Aesthetic Judgements, Artworks and Functional Beauty,” Philosophical Quarterly 56, 223, pp. 224-241.

____________ 2009? “Functional Beauty Examined: Essay Review of Glenn Parsons and Allen Carlson's Functional Beauty Canadian Journal of Philosophy 2009 ?

Richard Dawkins 1986. The Blind Watchmaker. New York : W. W. Norton.

Robert Fudge 2001. “Imagination and the Science-Based Aesthetic Appreciation of Unscenic nature,” JAAC 59, 3 (Summer 2001) 275-285.

Ronald Hepburn 1966. “Contemporary Aesthetics and the Neglect of Natural Beauty,” in Carlson and Berleant 2004.

Jason S. Link, Karen Boiles, and Cheryl G. Milliken 2002. “The Feeding Ecology of Flatfish in the Northwest Atlantic,” in Journal of Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Science 30, 1-17.

Ruth Lorand 1994. “Beauty and Its Opposites,” in JAAC 52, 4 (Fall 1994), 399-406.

J.S. Mill 1873/1969. “Nature,” in Three Essays on Religion . New York ,  Greenwood Press.

Ronald Moore 2004. “Appreciating Natural Beauty as Natural,” in Carlson and Berleant 2004.

Glenn Parsons 2002. “Nature appreciation, science, and positive aesthetics,” The British J ournal of A esthetics 42 :   279-295.

_____________ 2004. “Moderate F ormalism as a T heory of the A esthetic, ” Journal of A esthetic E ducation 38 .

_____________2004. “Natural Functions and the Aesthetic Appreciation of Inorganic Nature,” British Journal of Aesthetics 44, 1: 44-56.

Glenn Parsons and Allen Carlson 2004. “New F ormalism and the A esthetic A ppreciation of N ature, ” Journal of A esthetics and A rt C riticism 62.4 : 363-376.

___________________________2008. Functional Beauty. Oxford : Clarendon Press.

Holmes Rolston III 1988. Environmental Ethics: Duties to and Values in the Natural World. Philadelphia : Temple University Press.

_______________   199 5 . “Does A esthetic A ppreciation of N ature N eed to be S cience B ased? ” The British J ournal of A esthetics 35 : 374-38 .

_______________ 2004. “The Aesthetic Experience of Forests,” in Carlson and Berleant 2004.

Yuriko Saito 1997. “The Japanese Aesthetics of Imperfection and Insufficiency,” JAAC 55, 4 (Fall 1997) 377-385.

__________ 1998. “Appreciating N ature on its O wn T erms, ” Environmental ethics 20: 135-149 .

__________ 1998. “The Aesthetics of Unscenic Nature, JAAC 56 (1998), 101-111.

Jenna Thompson 1995. “Aesthetics and the V alue of N ature.” Environmental E thics 17 : 2 91-305.

Niko Tinburgen 1958/1968. Curious Naturalists . New York : American Museum of Natural History/Doubleday.

_____________ 1953/1961. The Herring Gull's World. London , 1953; revised ed., 1961, New York : Basic Books.

Guy Sircello 1975. A New Theory of Beauty. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Eliott Sober 1986. “Philosophical Problems for Environmentalism,” in B. Norton, ed., The Preservation of Species: The Value of Biological Diversity. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Reprinted in Elliot 1995.

George C. Williams 1997. T he Pony Fish's Glow . New York : Basic Books.

Nick Zangwill 2001. The Metaphysics of Beauty. Ithaca and London : Cornell University Press.


Additional reflections

1. Among the many possible objections to one of the ugly species I mention is this: if what you say about the spotted hyena's sloping body is right, then you must also find the giraffe's sloping back unbeautiful. Yet giraffes are the object of sincere aesthetic admiration. How can you reconcile this difference?

            Giraffes are an interesting case, no doubt about it. They are certainly far from optimally configured. In the first place there is that outsized neck. Given that, what back and hind quarters are possible? I cannot speak with assurance about the functionality of raising the hind quarters and straightening the back, but the standing conformation rating is certainly improved. A full test must be the look of the animal in the normal giraffe routine of movement and rest.

            Be that as it may, the most beautiful-looking quadrupeds have fore quarters and hind quarters the same height. This includes zebras, antelopes and of course horses. Furthermore, the fore shoulders of the giraffe bulge out in an unsightly way, compared with almost all quadrupedal browsers. This is a direct result of the tall neck (so tall it cannot be easily carried forward). It is true that a giraffe has a strangely appealing appearance when running because the long upright neck produces a unique ‘drifting' effect: the rhythm of its legwork is conveyed to the neck resulting in gentle rhythmic serpentine motions. But much of the giraffe's repertoire is awkward. Consider for example what they must do to drink, even if they move as gracefully as possible into and out of that awkward posture. See: Also on the credit side is the speed a running giraffe can attain over a short distance, up to 55 kmps (33 mph). (See the same Arkive site.) And they can defend themselves and their young against lions by a ferocious kick.

            In coloration the genus also has a mixed score. Some (the Maasai giraffe) have outstandingly unsightly markings, while the more iconic Somali norm is reticulated in a comparatively attractive way. But giraffe coloration is much better looking than that of the spotted hyena.

2. Given the multiple parts, aspects, and respects in which a thing may be or have some beauty, we should be prepared for the paradox of ugly properties generating, or even being a necessary condition of certain beauties. Examples of such relationships are familiar in moral contexts where immorality is a necessary condition of some adversive virtues: courage, fortitude, and self control. If, as I believe, virtues when eminent are beautiful, some such cases are examples of unbeauty being a necessary condition of beauty. In like manner severe environmental rivalries or challenges stimulate functionally beautiful solutions. Can we say the same for formal beauty? Is formal ugliness in one respect ever the source of formal beauty in another respect? Arguably so. The ugly flatfish configuration enables a certain gracefulness of side swimming which I think is beyond the capacity of symmetrical bony fish. Many such relations exist in artifacts where an ugly looking structure optimizes beauty of movement. There are also lesser relations between ugliness and beauty as in Sircello's ‘flowers of evil' where a garish color combination may be composed of colors that are individually beautiful. Much work needs to be done on the relations between beauty and ugliness or unbeauty.

3. I admit that viewers have difficulty fairly judging mixed cases of beauty and ugliness. The untutored viewer tends to dismiss an organism that has any conspicuous ugliness and to enthuse over any organism that has a notable beauty. It's troublesome for most people to deal with mixtures of merits and demerits. Also judgments of aesthetic value are easily conflated with matters of affection, of diplomacy, and the like. These psychological complexities are neither surprising nor theoretically disruptive. Fairness to the subject requires that we transcend them.

            Some think there are deep reasons why it is improper to judge natural things by aesthetic standards. Irreverent? Unprincipled? Beyond our competence? I set this view aside pending clarification of the alleged reasons.

4. There are real difficulties in judging formal beauty of organisms as dicscriminatingly as we do that of artifacts. These have to do with our aesthetic competence. We very often find ourselves stumped when we try to say what changes would make an organism more beautiful. Even the best looking frog has a rather unlovely form. One would think that it should be easy to give directions to a designer tasked with redesigning the creature to raise it in our estimation. But it is not at all clear that we can do this. This is one reason critics say we have no business judging, and in this respect we are apt to join with the critics. If any specimens or varieties of the type are good-looking, then we can judge the others relative to the benchmark that it provides. But when we'd have to redesign it to make it good looking then we are very apt to feel stumped. Why? I suspect it's because we don't know what the functional constraints are. We don't know enough about how the organism works to tell how it could be modified retaining its functionality. Suppose it is a frog. Frogs are not outstandingly beautiful formally. What would a really beautiful frog be like? Has Disney found out? Similarly for a really beautiful aardvark or kangaroo. For one thing we don't know what the limits are for an organism to remain within its species. The task of making a frog more beautiful carries the tacit stipulation: a more beautiful frog. So it won't do to change the frog into a prince. But if we can't say what would improve its appearance, what sort of idea can we have of what aesthetic merit it has?

            The poison-dart frog is fairly sleek by frog standards, as opposed to bulbous, and best of all, brilliantly colored. But its shape is far from lovely or handsome or superior in any other way. So if we are at all discriminating, we find it far below par compared with designed artifacts. We may still enjoy its appearance for its oddity but not for its beauty. And we are very uncertain what would make these creatures look better without ruining their functionality.

            In enjoying a poison dart frog aesthetically we typically are struck by some genuine formal excellence and forgive the rest. The shape of the body may be at most pretty good for the order. The repertoire of movement is likely to be a mixed bag, the jumping good and the walking poor. Comparing the blue specimen with the other tree frogs and even the common bullfrog produces the result that the color and texture of some are clearly more beautiful than those of others. None are great beauties overall, but some may be as beautiful as normally functional frogs can be.

            Frogs' bowleggedness is not a beautiful feature and their long legs fold up in an unlovely way, as is evident from the slides. But it's not at all obvious how these traits could be improved without harming functionality. Many species of frog have an unlovely combination of sagginess and boniness. The bones in the blue poison dart frog's body make unsightly humps in its profile. A smoother profile would require some sort of padding. But would that be possible without functional disadvantage? Who knows? These criticisms of the frog's form are quite different from those of the distortions in flatfish. Bowleggedness is not a distortion but only an unlovely configuration. Advocates of positive nature aesthetics might claim that no aesthetic disparagement of this configuration has comparable warrant. I concede that this view deserves careful consideration.

            To this may be added that asymmetry offends aesthetically because normally it is functionally bad whereas bowleggedness and the other features cited here are not. Asymmetry in respect of the frog's bowleggedness would be for one of a pair of legs to be longer than the other, or straight while the other was flexed, which is not in view in the disparagement of bowleggedness.

            We need a term to express the difference between undoubted distortions and lesser or more contestable aesthetic faults.

            We might also need to incorporate into our aesthetic calculus an excusing condition: if a configuration is as formally beautiful as the functionality permits, it is not to be regarded as unlovely. But against this possibility it can also be urged that all we need is a proper accounting of the overall beauty. For when the functional advantage is factored in and the comparative mildness of the formal unloveliness correctly assessed, the score will reflect the total situation.

            The functional efficacy of the mildly unlovely feature is also very apt to produce formally beautiful movements. In the case of frogs the main merit would be in the quality of their jumps. But is this affected by the bowleggedness of their forefeet? I don't know.

            Arguably symmetry is an aesthetic virtue in organisms largely because of its functional effect. R/L symmetry is functionally highly advantageous and asymmetry is normally seriously disadvantageous. Threats come from both sides and the organism's response needs to be equally efficacious. Rocks may be beautifully asymmetrical only because they are not self-moving in response to benefits and harms. Of course organisms are not symmetrical fore and aft. They must not be since they are directionally orientated beings.

5. Symmetric benthic feeders among bony fish exist, toadfish for example. They are not so versatile as flatfish, however. Flatfish also take prey pelagically, i.e., higher in the water column. Toadfish stick more to the bottom, and to shoal areas where there is more grass and debris in which to hide. They burrow into the bottom rather than merely settling on it barely covered if at all, as flatfish tend to do. The form of toadfish is much more rounded. The skeleton has not gone flat. I haven't found anything about how they evolved, especially how they became so ugly (if indeed their ancestors were any less so). Some of their unsightliness can be chalked up to camouflage, e.g., “the fleshy flaps of irregular outline on the tip of its upper jaw and along the edge of under the lower jaw, on the cheeks and over each eye.” ( But that functional asset doesn't remove its ugly-lookingness any more than the flatfish's functionality does its.

6. A proper account of natural beauty and unbeauty is bound to be so complicated that the average aesthetician will not likely find much to like about it. Nature doesn't make it easy for us to take its aesthetic measure. And yet if we ignore the complications we skate on the surface merely. Realism about our prospects forbids us to be optimistic about getting to the bottom of things. But we can conduct feasible small-scale projects and frame tentative hypotheses about the overall picture.

7. Sublimity. Cosmic cataclysms may be overwhelming but they aren't sublime unless they are beautiful and beautiful in the right way and to a sufficient degree. There is much need of analysis here. “Longinus” is a better guide than Burke or Kant (when read simplistically). The key to the sublime is not the frightening or incomprehensible but the transcendently, majestically and encompassingly beautiful. That which only prompts a Kantian sense of moral inviolability is not sublime – even Kant says as much, since he avows that what is truly sublime is the noumenal self and its capacities (free will), not the horrific or overwhelming phenomena that give us intimations of the noumenal. Perhaps an experience of moral elevation is a beautiful experience – it need not be morally beautiful in order to be beautiful in that way. Perhaps moral self-sacrifice for a worthy cause is morally beautiful – that will mean that it is eminently moral (as in the case of inspired supererogation). Is it sublime? I'm not sure.

            But whatever the answer to this question nothing is proved about cosmic cataclysms. Of course cataclysms will have some beauty in them, sometimes quite a lot. Certain of their aspects will be beautiful. But their impact on biomes is typically appalling from an aesthetic point of view, as is sometimes the unlovely detritus they leave in their wake.

8. A major question exists about alternatives to beauty. Very often the things that draw us to nature are fascinations that are doubtfully aesthetic. So when one asks whether the world would be more beautiful if it had only beautiful things in it, one is apt to think the answer may be no because something important to us would be missing. The world would be bland, or at least deficient in interest. And certainly one of the hallmarks of beauty, its attractiveness for continued contemplation, seems to be shared by some forms of ugliness or at least serious deficiency of beauty. This deserves the most painstaking investigation. I think that things that are not beautiful can be fascinating. What is needed is a classification of sorts of interest. On the one hand I recommend expanding the scope of beauty to cover certain intellectual excellences. On the other hand I resist expanding it to include all sources of fascination, even of reasonable fascination. How can a defensible carving out of the properly “aesthetic” field be carried through and justified? That's the problem.

            I believe in beginning with examples. Thus I have cited geophysical calamities as fascinating but not beautiful – both they and their products, e.g., Saturn's moon Hyperion, which I take to be seriously unbeautiful in form. Yet it is of absorbing interest. Here it is common to say the interest is scientific. But some of the interest prompted by the NASA photos is aesthetic as well. With a raking light on its surface irregularities, which also disguises its awkward form, its pockmarks are visually fascinating. I think this is aesthetically good-looking but I don't find a good descriptor for the quality. The sharpness of definition of the craters is part of its attractiveness, as well as the density of the craters over the surface and the steep slopes of the large ‘amphitheater' on that side. Such mixtures of aesthetic pleasure and scientific curiosity are common in our dealing with natural things.

            Let's look at the scientific side. What goes into scientific interest? Partly it's the stimulation given by the not-yet-explained. A special case is the sense that on closer inspection the explanation may be found. The fascinating thing contains the clue. Thus there is the promise of comprehension, which is necessarily the promise of a form of beauty (in my book). An explanation is necessarily coherent, and coherence is a form of beauty. When eminent coherence is extremely beautiful, a beauty comprised of many constituent beauties since many matters are brought into a coherent overall relation. And the coherent explanation spawns beautiful states of mind. So scientific interest is in significant part an interest in finding beauty down the pike, even though the distance yet to travel is large. Granted, a person's curiosity may be more or less trifling because untethered to enough knowledge. But the underlying impulse is there. Some vague notion of potential comprehension is entertained whenever a person is scientifically fascinated.

            Alternatively a person may be fascinated by the imaginative potential of Hyperion as a site of space adventures. Then one looks for inspiration from narratives pitting humans against whatever harms, dangers, and delights the adventurer may experience. Here one aims at a suitable narrative for such a setting. One aims at finding a narrative for which the setting will be felicitous.

9. The “logic” of beauty needs extensive elaboration in order to make clear what is and is not beautiful or ugly in or about an organism. Strenuous effort is needed to surmount the deadening localization of beauty as a property of the object simpliciter or en bloc. Especially the subjective-objective contrast needs development without compromising the reality of beauty in both domains, the object and the subject who experience the object. What is central here are the relations: even the most subjective experience is an experience of the object, but not necessarily of the object as it is (except insofar as it has the disposition to cause this sort of person this sort of experience). There is a quagmire of complication in this terrain, but it must be set in order if we are even to understand beauty and unbeauty.

1. Ruth Lorand (1994) objects to the paucity of attention given to ugliness but her interest is entirely in the domain of the arts and artifacts. Glenn Parsons and Allen Carlson (2005) are conspicuous for devoting seven pages to natural ugliness but equate it with apparent dysfunctionality. As will soon be evident I do not think that interpretation fits the cases discussed herein. The most extended treatment of natural ugliness known to me is an essay by Yuriko Saito (Saito 1998). Her subject is aesthetic appreciation rather than natural beauty but there is much in her text that intersects in one way or another with my argument in this paper.

2. In the main environmental aestheticians seem to assume that the object of aesthetic reflection on natural ugliness is to discover that it doesn't really exist or is superficial and therefore can be marginalized. Where a part of an object is unlovely, if we look deeper we will see that the organism is beautiful overall. Normally critical thinkers seem bent on beating back the tides of negativity that might otherwise overwhelm our regard for nature. Surely we must try to be more impartial and realistic.

3. Hepburn 1966/2004, 50 emphasizes the “expansion” of our view of a natural scene, as in his frequently cited reflection that the “wild, glad emptiness” of the sand-mud flat morphs into “disturbing weirdness” when one realizes that it's sea bottom when the tide is in. I can't see why the latter should be weird or disturbing, since many observable marks testify to the fact that the mud flats are an uncovered seafloor. It looks just the way an uncovered estuarine seafloor looks! But the general idea of expansion has great merit. Hepburn suggests the expansion via the addition of thoughts is best terminated when the recognition doesn't alter the way the immediate object looks. I dissent from that limitation treated as an absolute but freely acknowledge that surplus thoughts may not suit the orientation taken by a particular person at a particular time.  

4. Skates developed on a different track, being cartilaginous rather than bony. Some compete with smaller flatfish so their niches overlap but probably are not entirely identical. Skates entirely lack the flatfish asymmetry but their bodily form, in my opinion, does not rise to the level of the beautiful.

5. A particularly aggressive commentator on this point is George C. Williams (Williams 1997)

6. Notably slope-backed quadrupeds, spotted wild dogs, hyenas, giraffes; and colorations that are decoratively unlovely, spotted wild dogs, certain giraffes. Note that in all such cases normal specimens of these species have manifold beauties of other sorts. A beauty profile of any species is a highly detailed affair.

7. Tinbergen 1968, 212f. Note that I do not include here the mere prevalence of deformities and deaths among populations which are flourishing, because I think no metaphysically possible system of nature could avoid that.   The example of a rotting elk carcass swarming with maggots (Rolston III 1988; Saito 1998, Fudge 2001) is instructive to study. It cannot properly be held a mark against natural beauty that the sight of maggots at a feast may not please most observers. (But how do people think maggots feasting on rotting flesh ought to look?) As to the feast itself, is there anything dysfunctional in decay given that the animal is dead? Rightly considered decay is functionally unexceptionable. Decaying flesh may or may not be formally good-looking. The elk carcass is likely to be visually messy and in that way unbeautiful. My view on such cases agrees with that of Parsons and Carlson (2005, 130ff.) in dismissing what is sensuously pleasing as an all-purpose criterion of the beautiful, but it requires a more complex view of the relevant functionalities and non-functionalities than their remarks endorse (or than Saito's, for that matter).   See endnote 5 for further discussion of these topics.

8. There are occasional exceptions to the norm. One of the best is displayed at: . How exceptional this behavior is is not at all evident. Of course humans also typically waste many of their excess resources but humanity collectively maintains a huge and brilliant repertoire of surplus resource use in recreation and cultural pursuits.

9. Much human-caused chemical and geological degradation belongs here. J.S. Mill's peroration on the destructions wrought by nature in Mill 1873, paragraph 20, is the classic statement on this subject, though he mainly focuses on the effects on humans.

10. Sometimes it is assumed concern for good-lookingness is a form of pictorialism, as if one is artifactualizing natural things and doing it in a pictorial mode. I am only interested in forms of interest in good-lookingness which do not fit these stereotypes.

11. In art a famous example of ugliness contributing to beauty is Donatello's sculpture of the aged Mary Magdalene. Here the beauty lies in the handling of details and in the quality of the penitential rhetoric. The latter is both eloquent and forceful. It could not be that if it represented the protagonist as beautiful-looking, since she is supposed purified by the ravages of time and the rigors of asceticism. But this is no more applicable to natural organisms than is the musical pattern mentioned below.

12. Is the emergence of beautiful creatures from unlovely life forms, as in the case of butterflies, an example? Is the beauty of the whole life cycle enhanced by the ugliness of the larval forms? I fail to see any reason to think so. And birth defects are entirely untouched by any ameliorating considerations.

13. The same is true of cubist paintings, incidentally. If Picasso's Portrait of Kahnweiler is as beautiful overall as Raphael's Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione then the beauties of the two must be comparable. Of course they do not contain the same beauties, and such beauties as they have will to some extent depend on the artistic projects they fulfill. But to judge them simply in terms of those projects ignores the fact that some projects aim at more beauty than others do.

14. Parsons' example of the Venus flytrap is by no means comparable to the flatfish, since the flytrap's appearance is marred by no conspicuous ugliness. The opprobrium against which Parsons is defending the plant is simply a vulgar stereotype of what a plant “ought” to be (viz., non-carnivorous). Aesthetic distaste for the appearance of the plaice is far from a vulgar stereotype.

15. Dawkin's statement is far from a rousing affirmation of what we do or can see: “Their faces are often distorted into gargoyle shapes that appear hideous to us until we see them for what they are, exquisitely fashioned instruments for beaming ultrasound in desired directions.” (24) To my mind this amounts to appreciating in detail the forms' functional efficacy, which requires a detailed understanding s that only a trained scientist has. It says nothing about whether the enduring grotesqueness of the form is also perceptible. A finer grained analysis of the perceptual situation is called for, since the local details of the bat's face, especially that of the leaf-shaped nose common in such cases, may be formally attractive. It is the whole ensemble that is grotesque.