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daydreams, the more so as certain journeys—some professional, others personal—have
taken me more deeply into nature.
Archival photographs of a dark-skinned, long-haired man with a headband, cheeks
streaked with white paint, holding a rifle and crouched in an arid landscape, evoke no
more than mild curiosity for those unaware of western North American history. People
steeped in the region's lore, however, attach special, sometimes starkly contrasting sig-
nificance to images of Geronimo and his Apache warriors. Nature's like that, too, in-
sofar as we imbue places and organisms with positive or negative meanings depend-
ing on context. The folk taxonomies of indigenous peoples, for example, organize plants
and animals as food, medicine, enemies, and spiritual totems, 8 whereas biological clas-
sifications emphasize descent with modification. Until recently, though, we lacked an
evolutionary take on the question of why humans might find some organisms espe-
cially appealing. Put more generally, must something be useful or beautiful to matter?
Should Darwin have appreciated that South American pitviper anyway, despite having
perceived it as ugly?
People admire birds with dazzling hues, even their stuffed skins in museum cases,
whereas less gaudy creatures achieve aesthetic impact through the likes of physical
prowess and harmonious habitat relationships—a cheetah chasing an antelope, all
blurred spots and flashing hooves on the African savanna, or, for that matter, a Patago-
nian lancehead's gravel-matching browns and tans, the better with which to ambush
lizards and mice. There are indeed cross-cultural trends in how bright color patterns
make scarlet kingsnakes and other species especially attractive, 9 and we readily fall for
round-headed, warm and furry bears, especially when, as with pandas, their eyes look
large and childlike. 10 There must be still more to appreciating nature, though, because
some of us like tuatara, coelacanths, and other homely creatures.
At this point we need what humanists call “terms of criticism,” and in this regard a
1997 essay by U.S. Forest Service ecologist Ross Kiester lit the way. 11 He noted, first,
that although aesthetics are often mentioned as justifying conservation, how and why
we appreciate nature has received little attention. Nonetheless, as Ross pointed out,
aesthetic properties are durable, enhance enjoyment, and can influence decisions about
conservation. Then he explained how Immanuel Kant's 1790 Critique of Judgment dis-
tinguished between beauty, as a property of individual objects, and the sublime, which
transcends them, such that, by providing context for individual organisms, beautiful or
not, we might fashion a biologicallysublime aesthetics. Kant further described a dynam-
icallysublime based on power in nature, as with volcanic eruptions, and a mathematic-
allysublime, based on sheer numbers. Ross worried that recent controversies about the
role of evolution in taxonomy might detract from the aesthetics of biodiversity, whereas
I believe that homology and descent with modification—biological heritage and adapt-
ive change—have central roles to play in fostering a love of nature.
Kant's distinction made sense in terms of how, as a teacher, I'd used natural history
to change attitudes toward venomous snakes, and shortly after reading Ross's essay
about applying the German philosopher's dichotomy to biodiversity, encounters with
a different sort of dangerous predator bolstered my conviction that he was on to
something. In April of 2000, I'm in Everglades National Park, where a few dozen miles
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