Michael McCarthy: With the death of the Emperor we mourn the passing of an ideal

There is an innate and unquenchable human facility for recognising beauty, and that is what we saw in the stag killed on Exmoor

There are many questions surrounding the Emperor of Exmoor, the giant red deer stag which may or may not have been shot by trophy-hunters and whose supposed death has featured heavily in the media in recent days, but one seems to me more interesting than any of the others: why all the fuss?

In discussing this one should accept right away that the story of the Emperor's demise may not be true: there is no direct evidence, attributable to a named person, of his death whatsoever, and in recent days doubts about it have grown. "This story," one old hand from what used to be called Fleet Street murmured in my ear during the week, "has got dodgy written all over it."

But that's not the point, or at least, that's not the point I'm making here. It doesn't really matter whether His Majesty is still with us or not, though one fervently hopes he may be. The interesting phenomenon is the remarkable size of the kerfuffle about him, the sheer scale of the bother about the (supposed) shooting of a single animal, when thousands of such animals are shot every year.

Clearly, there are background themes likely to make the story potent anyway, the principal one being the issue of hunting and animal cruelty. That resonates strongly with many people in Britain, but once it is personalised on to a single creature, it resonates with many, many more. You can talk until you are blue in the face about the issue of the welfare of dogs, for example, and no one will give a cuss, but stick a picture of a wide-eyed mutt in your paper under the headline Unless a Home for Him Is Found By Friday, Fido Is Doomed to Die and your telephone (as I know from experience) will not stop ringing.

In the Emperor and his presumed death, the hunting issue has been personalised dramatically, first and foremost because, with his nine-feet height (to the tip of his antlers) and 300lb weight, the Exmoor stag is said to be the biggest wild animal in Britain. Well, that's pretty special. That makes him even more than personalised; it makes him that key figure of our age, a celebrity, and the death of a celebrity will always make headlines, especially if it occurs through practices some people find socially reprehensible.

But somehow, I feel, that's not it; that doesn't quite get it. I think the essence of the fuss about the Emperor is to be found in the picture of him which first appeared a month ago, which first made him familiar to the public, and which has been appearing everywhere for the past week; and what the essence is about, is beauty. For the Emperor is – or was – quite extraordinary beautiful.

Since the beginning of European culture and for most of its history, beauty has been at a premium; it has been the quality most praised and sought after. For the past few decades, it has been at a discount. You wouldn't quite say it's a dirty word, that it has been banished from public discourse, but it does seem to be an idea your average bien pensant intellectual will not feel entirely comfortable with and will probably instinctively avoid, certainly as a term of praise. In many cases "significant", say, would be far preferable to "beautiful".

For beauty is another version of excellence, and in a society whose accepted modes of thinking are increasingly egalitarian (at least on the surface), excellence is distrusted, as its recognition, in human terms, implies that there are some people who are not excellent, which is unfair to them (even if it is true). That, of course, is at the heart of the right-left debate about education; it was one of the key themes of feminism, which successfully made the beauty contest, the bathing belles in their swimming costumes, one of its first targets.

Yet even if the idea has become politically suspect, it seems to me that there is an inherent human facility to recognise beauty which simply cannot be suppressed by the rise of new social conventions which proscribe it. We can offer one explanation for this from the recent discoveries of evolutionary biology: what we are recognising as beauty, whether in a stag or a person, ultimately is reproductive fitness.

Sexual selection, as Darwin acknowledged explicitly, is one of the most important aspects of natural selection: in the urge to reproduce one's genes effectively, the search for as good a mate as one can possibly find is a dominating theme in the life of many vertebrates, including us. The attractive power of reproductive fitness has been illustrated by experiment most clearly in birds, a prime example being that of swallows. Male swallows have long tail feathers, and the longer they are, the more attractive female swallows find them. The long feathers are beautiful, yet they don't help flying; they actually hinder it. What a male swallow with long tail feathers appears to be saying is, look, I am so fit that I can do all my swallow stuff in spite of these contrivances. Males with long tails, experiments have shown, are without exception chosen first as mates by females; those with short feathers may not mate at all. Female swallows unerringly recognise reproductive fitness, and so, it could be argued, do we.

That, of course, is a very narrow definition of beauty; it might do for Darwinians, and it might in essence be true, but no one would argue that Dante, for instance, was recognising reproductive fitness in 13th-century Florence when he first caught sight of Beatrice. (What a mamma she'll make!) In beauty Dante saw something evolutionary biology does not account for, something spiritual, an Ideal, as countless others down the centuries have seen; perhaps the best definition of it is the idea of perceiving the infinite within the finite. For others, beauty resides in harmony, which in architecture can reduced to, or at least interpreted through, mathematics; beauty can also be seen as harmony with nature, or even harmony with your time. Standards of beauty can be widely, even universally accepted; as the phrase about the eye of the beholder points out, it can be subjective entirely.

Define it how you like; I would contend that there is an innate and unquenchable human facility for recognising it, and that is what we saw in the Emperor, a beast of such peerless proportions that he took the breath away as soon as seen, and left us looking at him in wonder. He almost seemed to be the Ideal of deer. As such, we feel he belongs to us all, and that is why the selfishness of the trophy-hunter who may have taken him to adorn a wall seems so egregious, and provokes such outrage. We can talk of animal cruelty, and animal celebrity, but at the heart of the fuss about the Emperor is beauty; we can proscribe it; we can make it unfashionable; we can make it politically incorrect, but in the end it's too big a part of us. Beauty will out.