I listened to a Seminar About Long-Term Thinking by Peter Warshall entitled Enchanted by the Sun: The CoEvolution of Light, Life, and Color on Earth, and it had a surprisingly profound effect on me.
Through the eyes of this learned and well-spoken naturalist, I came to my first intelligible explanation of what beauty is. Though at first I recoiled, afraid that a definition would poison my experience of beauty, I sat with it for a while, and I realized that this explanation had the opposite effect. I appreciated beauty more. It was more beautiful thanks to even a partial understanding.
This is my attempt to explain it, both to myself and to anyone who reads it.
Beauty is what drives us to our destiny. It's a reaction to a perception that seems to go back much farther in time than we humans might expect. We react with the experience of beauty to the sights — the arrangements of light — that connote sex and death.
That may seem obvious (indeed, all of this may seem obvious), but as Warshall tells it, this is actually encoded at a much lower level than poetry. We're attracted to both sex and death, just as we fear both. It is primal to fear. But it is even more primal to want.
Color and life co-evolved on this planet. Color began to matter to life long enough ago that the Earth spun faster and the days were shorter, and the slowdown over billions of years provided the solar accompaniment to the evolution of our eyes.
Some colors began to matter more than others. Red, black, white. Life forms evolved using these colors to signal the most important messages: love and danger, sex and death. Red means beautiful as well as poisonous. In our complicated relationships as life forms, sometimes it's even advantageous for us to intertwine the two.
Why is death beautiful? Because death is necessary to make room for more life? Because it is exhausting to live after a while? My preferred explanation is that death is beautiful because all life shares it and is destined for it.
Why is sex beautiful? Well, duh.
But the reasons don't matter. The colors we find beautiful co-evolved with the eyes and brains that find them beautiful, and in nature, they signal sex and death. Life itself is the evidence.
The most beautiful part of Warshall's talk concerned sunset and sunrise. Twice every day, the world is bathed in red. Once it goes from black into red, and then it is day. Then it goes from red into black, and then it is night.
This has happened with such dependable rhythm throughout the eons that life has grown used to this exposure. We have these two daily periods in which, as Warshall says, "all life comes to a standstill," and we're allowed to see beauty without feeling fear. Life stops at sunrise to contemplate love and death. It stops again at sunset. And then it dreams.