Home / Comment / In brief

The trouble with beauty

The trouble with beauty

Charlotte Sleigh on the misleading concept of beauty in nature. 18/01/2023

I could not bring myself to watch the recent BBC series A Perfect Planet (2021).  The title was just too ironic: like millions of others, I was painfully aware that our planet is very far from perfect.  It is, in fact, in a state of climate breakdown and a human–made mass extinction.  Historically, wildlife programmes have been criticised for narrowing the lens of narrative to focus on the beautiful and the perfect.  They often select close–ups of lion cubs while cropping out the strip mines and shanty towns that lie only tens or hundreds of metres away.  Some commentators have dubbed this guilt–free consumption of unreal beauty ‘eco–pornography’.  

Whether A Perfect Planet was going to focus on the once–upon–a–time natural balance, or whether it was going to highlight its destruction, I wasn’t at that time in an emotional or spiritual state of readiness to deal with it.

The images that accompany many publications on philosophy, theology and science are often cropped too, selected to show the perfect fractals of a sunflower or the majestic gleam of underwater realms.  It is easy to think about beauty as making a bridge between science and religion when we look at such images, but what about images of burnt forests or sea–bird stomachs choked with plastic detritus?

In recent years, David Attenborough has begun to integrate ugly reality into his documentary–making.  Frozen Planet II (2022) has put a spotlight on the changing ecosystems of formerly icy zones as they begin to warm.  We see heart–breaking and ugly images: walruses that were comically appealing in small numbers become hideous and disgusting when overcrowded.

Is there a beauty in nature that has been abraded and polluted?  Or do such images have no place in a science that is rooted in perfection?  If science is powered by beauty, what happens when the beauty is gone?

The question matters, because scientists who are motivated by beauty may turn away from topics that entail an encounter with ugliness – and not just ugliness, but an ugliness that cannot be reversed.  The carbon dioxide that we have already put into the atmosphere will be there for centuries, even if we stopped burning fossil fuels right now.  The plastics that sink to the seabed will be there for millions of years.

Scientists need to be psychologically or spiritually equipped to work in the world of troubled beauty.  As it is, research shows that they experience intense mental suffering as they attempt to reconcile traditional western ideas of perfection with the dirty reality.

Where do these ideas of beauty as perfection come from?

In the Old Testament, beauty is something attached to virginal femininity.  As in the old–fashioned nature programmes, it is portrayed as a pristine state.  The prophets use it as a metaphor for God’s chosen people, his bride.  But there is a sting in the tail of this description.  The bride’s beauty will be destroyed, warn the prophets.  It will be taken away by the conquest of alien forces.  ‘Instead of perfume there will be a stench […] instead of well–arranged hair, baldness […] instead of beauty, shame’ (Isaiah 3:24).  The metaphor depends for its success upon the belief that a woman who has been abused is no longer beautiful: a troubling assumption, to say the least.  

Conventional Christian theology perpetuates the myth of all–or–nothing beauty.  The world was perfect, so the story goes, but humans have marred it.  Perhaps, then, science helps us to glimpse the world as it was intended to be?  The Elizabethan experimenter Francis Bacon infamously spoke of nature as an innocent young woman whose secrets must be violently exposed.  Natural philosophers (early scientists) in seventeenth–century England believed that science could restore the knowledge of nature that was lost in the fall, when Adam and Eve first sinned.  Science could bring back beauty in nature, if only in the hypothetical realm of the frictionless physics thought–experiment.  

Today, however, we know that the same insights and technologies that have taught us so much about nature are the very same ones that have destroyed it.  There is no pure knowledge any more than there is a pristine nature.  We cannot go back.  We cannot seek purity.  We must live with beauty and ugliness side–by–side.  

In the bible, there is just one explicit reference to beauty as something that comes with experience and trouble: Proverbs 16:31 tells us that grey hair is a crown of glory.  And yet, without using the word, the pivotal Christian story is all about troubling conventional concepts of beauty.  God comes from the ‘realms of glory’, as the Christmas carol puts it, to dwell in a breakable, hungry, sweating human body.  God’s beauty is unexpected.  It gets its hands dirty.

In her book Radical Joy for Hard Times (2018), Trebbe Johnson describes how she was part of a group that spent time in a ruined place, ravaged by deforestation.  They determined not to turn away from its ugliness, but instead focused their attention upon the stumps and twisted remains.  Their attention was an act of compassion – some might call it meditation or prayer.  As the days passed, they began to see shoots of life in the chewed soil and the acrid compost.  It was not classically beautiful – not pristine – but it was compelling and healing, just as conventional beauty is often experienced.

Philosopher Donna Haraway calls this kind of work ‘staying with the trouble’.  What we call weeds are the first colonisers of burnt and ruined places.  Nature is often feral, marginal.  This kind of beauty doesn’t work from an oppositional binary of ugly and beautiful, pristine and spoiled.  And it draws us in, not as judges of beauty but as participants.  We are not seekers of hypothetical, perfect beauty; rather we are a part of the real, messy thing, woven into the tangle of life.

Perhaps it’s time for me to find A Perfect Planet online, and hit ‘play’ after all.


Interested in this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.

Charlotte Sleigh

Charlotte Sleigh

Charlotte Sleigh is honorary professor in the Department of Science and Technology Studies, UCL, and a curate at St Martin and St Paul’s, Canterbury.  She is a former president of the British Society for the History of Science.

Watch, listen to or read more from Charlotte Sleigh

Posted 18 January 2023

Beauty, Beauty and Truth, Belief, Faith, Science, Truth


See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.