- Hardcover: 448 pages
- Publisher: Doubleday (May 9, 2017)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0385537212
- ISBN-13: 978-0385537216
- Product Dimensions: 6.5 x 1.5 x 9.5 inches
- Shipping Weight: 2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 26 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #808 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World - and Us
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"Prum's argument is exhilarating . . . The Evolution of Beauty should be widely read, as it will provoke readers, shaking them (as reading Hume did to Kant) from their dogmatic slumbers . . . I don’t see how any biologist could read this book and not walk away at least questioning the idea that adaptation must explain every last trait. Survival of the fittest might not be enough to explain nature. We might need survival of the prettiest, too."
—Sam Kean, Wall Street Journal
“The Evolution of Beauty is at once fascinating, provocative, and totally compelling. Anyone interested in science or art or sex—which is to say everyone—will want to read it.”
—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction
“A fascinating account of beauty and mate choice in birds and other animals. You’ll be amazed by the weird things that birds do to win mates—such as male manakins, which bounce up and down in coordinated displays but only one gets to mate. You’ll also discover why both men and women have armpit hair, why men lack the penis bone widespread in other mammals, and what really happened in the Garden of Eden.”
—Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel
“A smorgasbord of evolutionary biology, philosophy, and sociology, filtered through Prum’s experiences as a birdwatcher and his diverse research on everything from dinosaur colors to duck sex. Through compelling arguments and colorful examples, Prum launches a counterstrike against the adaptationist regime, in an attempt to ‘put the subjective experience of animals back in the center of biology’ and to ‘bring beauty back to the sciences.’”
—Ed Yong, The Atlantic
“Prum’s career has been diverse and full, so that reading this fascinating book, we learn about the patterning of dinosaur feathers, consider the evolutionary basis of the human female orgasm, the tyranny of academic patriarchy, and the corkscrewed enormity of a duck’s penis. Combining this with in-depth study of how science selects the ideas it approves of and fine writing about fieldwork results in a rich, absorbing text . . . The dance Prum performs to convince you to take him on as an intellectual partner is beautiful and deserves to be appreciated on its own terms.”
—Adrian Barnett, New Scientist
"Reads like a memoir, argues like a manifesto, and shines with Prum's passion for all things ornithological."
—Erika Lorraine Milam, Science
“A provocative redress of a powerful idea: beauty for the sake of beauty. Like all the best science, Prum’s exploration builds on the past with an eye toward the future, creating something bold, challenging, and deeply insightful. Anyone with even a passing interest in evolution should read this book.”
—Thor Hanson, author of Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle
“Splendid colors and lovely songs did not arise in birds because of their usefulness, Richard Prum argues, but because they pleased potential mates. Prum offers an exciting new take on evolution and a whirlwind tour of beauty in the animal kingdom, full of wonders and intellectual stimulation.”
—Frans de Waal, author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
“Life isn’t just a dreary slog of survival. It brims with exuberance—from extravagant plumage to strange courtship rituals. In The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum takes us into this universe of delights to discover a fascinating idea: that beauty is central to the history of life.”
—Carl Zimmer, author of Parasite Rex and Evolution: Making Sense of Life
“I thought I knew a fair bit about sexual selection, but as I read The Evolution of Beauty I was excited by the many stimulating comparative examples Prum cites. From fantastic manakin displays captured by the author’s own field work to bowerbird constructions, duck genitalia, and monkey sex (what little of it there is), Prum’s important insights illuminate beauty, human sexuality, mate choice, and human society. A refreshing new look at compelling age-old topics.”
—Bernd Heinrich, author of Mind of the Raven
“This highly original, must-read book is a fast-paced, passionate and witty wake-up call for us to acknowledge just how powerfully sexual selection has influenced the bodies and behaviors of birds and other beasts, including humans. Prum convincingly builds his case with his unrivaled and sometimes ribald knowledge of birds and then applies these insights courageously and creatively to challenge much of the conventional wisdom about humans. You probably never thought you would learn so much about the human penis from reading about those of ducks!”
—Daniel E. Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body
“Darwin thought evolution was beautiful, but modern biologists have forgotten this. Now Richard Prum, who discovered the real color of dinosaurs, has eloquently reminded us. His book is essential for all who wish to learn how nature works.”
—David Rothenberg, author of Survival of the Beautiful and Bug Music
“Well-documented and wholly accessible, enriched by Prum's warm personal touches. Prum writes that his goal was to present the ‘full, distinctive richness, complexity, and diversity of this aesthetic view of life.’ He absolutely succeeds.”
About the Author
RICHARD O. PRUM is William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology at Yale University, and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He has conducted field work throughout the world, and has studied fossil theropod dinosaurs in China. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010.
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It concerns Darwin’s “other” great idea: That sexual selection (SS) is an evolutionary force driven by arbitrary aesthetic choices, rather than by the environmental imperatives that drive natural selection (NS). (Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871)
Darwin’s theory of sexual selection had two components: Male-male competition for access to females, and female selection of males based on preference for male behavioral and physical traits. The idea of male-male competition has never been controversial, but female choice has often been dismissed, ignored, or presumed to be a variant of natural selection.
Prum takes Darwin’s idea about female mate choice* and runs with it, arguing that:
• Female mate choice is often based on arbitrary and aesthetically pleasing (i.e., sexually attractive) male traits rather than characteristics that show adaptive fitness; thus, sexual selection is essentially different than natural selection. SS is arbitrary in that just about any trait may become the target for female preference.
• This dynamic causes coevolution of male characteristics and female preferences, because the male trait and the female preference for it are both inherited by their offspring.
• This coevolution can readily lead to a “Runaway Process” in which females come to prefer and males come to display very exaggerated traits. (R.A. Fisher developed the Runaway hypothesis many decades ago.)
• Aesthetic Remodelling of males takes place in species in which females have succeeded in establishing autonomy in the mating process. Males become more attractive by evolving appearance and displays preferred by females, but also by not being sexually coercive towards females – because coercive males are unlikely to be selected as mates in these species.
• SS is a strong driver of evolution, speciation in particular, because the arbitrary nature of sexual tastes can drive different populations in different sexual-display directions, to the point that members of these populations no longer recognize each other as suitable mate material.
• SS is such a strong force that the results can run counter to the adaptive results of natural selection; i.e., sexual selection can result in reduced fitness.
*Prum talks primarily about female choice and male display rather than the other way around because that is by far the more common pattern. There are exceptions; most notably humans, in which each sex displays to the other, and both sexes are choosy.
Prum argues strenuously that sexual selection is driven by perceptions of beauty and sexual pleasure rather than any utilitarian purpose such as finding the fittest mate; he sums up these ideas as “Beauty Happens,” or “BH.” Later in the book he adds “Pleasure Happens.”
Much of his material is well-argued and supported with very interesting empirical evidence, mostly about birds. (Prum is a renowned ornithologist.). He is very convincing concerning the arbitrary origin of many of the traits females prefer in males; this book will likely change the way you think about animal evolution, at least to some degree.
The latter part of the book concerns humans. It is much more speculative than the sections on birds, but Prum’s ideas about how mate choice has evolved in humans are interesting and generally seem plausible. I will not detail these ideas except to say that the most interesting involve the behavioral remodeling of ancestral human males. The results are that human males are kinder and less sexually coercive, by a long shot, than most of our nearest relatives, and on top of that human males provide parental care, which no other great ape male does, not even the famously peaceable Bonobo.
All of these ideas are important and well worth considering, which is why I recommend the book. But there are also serious weaknesses. They all concern Prum’s animus towards the adaptationist viewpoint; i.e., the theory that evolved features (including mating displays) are essentially about fitness.
First problem (less important than the others): Prum’s unpleasant tone towards those he disagrees with. I will give one example; there are many more. Prum attacks Alfred Russell Wallace (justifiably), and immediately extends the attack to every adaptationist thinker since—Wallace, he says, uses “. . . the characteristic style of adaptationist argument – mere stubborn insistence.” (p. 34)
Such sweeping and sneering generalizations appear throughout the book. This is an unattractive and unenlightening trait in a book about science.
Second and more essential problem: Arbitrary criteria vs. fitness–indicating criteria. Prum has convinced me that many mating criteria are arbitrary in origin--but he further argues, at great length, that most sexual displays provide no information at all about male fitness, and this seems highly questionable. He gives multiple examples of strenuous and exacting male displays, which require that the males be vigorous, healthy, and often very precise. And he emphasizes that many female animals are extremely picky about which males they choose. The choosiness of females implies they can discern very subtle differences in display quality – which suggests that fitness (all that vigor, health, and precision) is one very possible factor in those choices.
Oddly enough, in his argument about the irrelevance of fitness Prum echoes various Victorian critics of sexual selection whom he had previously eviscerated. When Darwin published his theory of sexual selection, Wallace and others (all men) claimed that female animals were too insensate to recognize or appreciate fancy male traits. Prum quite rightly says that these men were totally wrong about female animals’ perceptual abilities. But then he says that female animals probably can’t tell a more-fit from a less-fit male (p. 80). I am curious whether Prum realizes how much he sounds like those misogynistic Victorians.
Prum says that if mate choice concerns fitness, every teensy element of sometimes very complex displays must have been naturally selected for the information it provides about fitness. And every such display element must have been better at showing fitness than all possible alternative display components. I don’t buy it. I accept that mate-choice criteria may be arbitrary in origin – but arbitrary criteria, singly and in combination, nonetheless place demands on the displaying male. Such demands cost energy. Less fit males (e.g., those that are weak, diseased, or parasite-ridden) will be less able to perform such displays adequately. If Prum were to show us mating displays that favor inept, unhealthy, or weak males as much as their fitter counterparts he would have a stronger argument. He has described no such cases.
Third problem: Prum’s unconvincing dismissal of Amotz Zahavi’s Handicap Principle. This important and influential adaptationist idea argues that organisms often evolve characteristics that look counter-productive at first glance; e.g., the peacock’s tail. That appendage looks like a terrible burden; why does he have it? The handicap principle says, in effect, that it’s a boast about fitness – the peacock is saying to the peahen “I am so amazingly fit that I can survive lugging this tail around. No predator has caught me despite the difficulty of running or flying with this thing, and its perfection shows I am resistant to the ravages of parasites. And your babies, honey, will inherit my fitness.” This is a “fitness” argument, obviously, and therefore Prum rejects it. I can’t evaluate all the details of Prum’s dismissal (although see below), but I perceive a considerable irony – Prum’s SS displays look just like Zahavian handicaps to me. Per Prum, males have developed costly aesthetic displays in response to female preferences, just as, per Zahavi, they have developed costly handicaps to advertise their fitness to those same females. It looks more like a difference in perspective and terminology than a true difference in substance.
Fourth problem: Prum is dishonest, I think, about the evolution of Zahavian handicaps. First he describes how an arbitrarily selected sexual display trait may run counter to optimal adaptiveness. Then he very plausibly explains that the evolution of such a trait must therefore strike some kind of equilibrium between its sexual attractiveness and its adaptive drawbacks (p. 41). But when he speaks of the handicap principle, he derisively (and amusingly – pp. 44-48) claims that the handicap principle would inevitably lead to handicaps of such extremity that the organism would die. He utterly fails to consider whether Zahavian handicaps would develop in the same way as maladaptive Prumian sexual traits; i.e., whether an equilibrium would develop. I can’t see any way this is other than dishonest. It makes me wonder if there are other dishonest arguments that I didn’t recognize.
(I highly recommend Zahavi’s 1997 book The Handicap Principle. You may not buy all his arguments, but if you’re interested in evolution, I guarantee you will find it fascinating.)
Fifth problem: Prum’s tendency to caricature the views of adaptationists. They are all absolutists, per Prum, who believe “Natural selection must be true, and all sufficient, because it is such a powerful and rationally attractive idea” (p. 44). Note that this sentence implies that natural selection has not been proved (NS “must be true . . . because it is . . . an attractive idea”). But the larger problem is the phrase that adaptationists think NS must be “ all sufficient.” Certainly most evolutionists think NS is the primary force sculpting organisms, but the many books about evolution that I have read over the past 40 or so years always acknowledge that other forces are also at work. The comment quoted above is one of many in which Prum creates a straw-man absolutist adaptationist who is actually quite rare.
Sixth problem: The Null Hypothesis. Prum points out that good scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable, and says that this requires a null hypothesis for any given set of observations or experiments (p. 68 ff.). The null hypothesis, in essence, is that an apparent correlation between two phenomena is due to chance, rather than to anything special. To support an alternative hypothesis (e.g., say, the hypothesis that superior fitness is causally correlated with high mating success), experimenters must refute the null hypothesis; i.e., they must show that their results are unlikely to be due to chance.
Prum says that the appropriate null hypothesis for the theory that mating displays are about fitness is his own Beauty Happens theory. I.e., to prove that displays are about fitness, experimenters must prove that displays are NOT about aesthetic sexual attractiveness. I am unable to grasp the argument. Apparently BH is equivalent to chance? Because display traits are arbitrary, maybe?
But the fact that I can’t grasp this argument is not my greatest concern. Rather, I find it indefensible that Prum spends pages prescribing a null hypothesis for adaptationist hypotheses – but he never once describes the appropriate null hypothesis for his own Beauty Happens theory. I have the (perhaps-mistaken) impression that he thinks no null hypothesis is required for BH. But if so, he seems to have forgotten his own starting point – a scientific theory must be falsifiable.
Seventh problem: The guy who wrote about all the same stuff years earlier. Much of Prum’s book sounded familiar to me, so I rooted around my bookshelves and found The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller, published in 2000, and reread the whole thing. It is almost the same book as Prum’s regarding the components of sexual selection, including similar but much deeper material about humans, with one major difference--Miller is an adaptationist, and believes that those Runaway-process-arbitrarily-chosen-aesthetically-pleasing-behaviorally-remodelled display traits tend to impart information about fitness.
So Prum mentions Miller exactly once, and dismisses him with a misleading comment about one paragraph in Miller’s book (p. 279). It strikes me as thoroughly dishonest that Prum fails to mention that Miller wrote about ALL the same ideas 15 years earlier. Obviously he disagrees with Miller about fitness in particular; that doesn’t seem a sufficient reason to ignore this closely related book. Given Prum’s own tendency towards unpleasant innuendo, I feel justified in speculating that he didn’t want to call attention to the fact that Miller beat him to the punch on a great many particulars.
(I highly recommend The Mating Mind. It’s clearly written, comprehensive, thought-provoking, and lacking the animosity that infects Prum’s book.)
I have spent much more time detailing my problems with Prum’s book than spelling out what I like, but I will repeat what I said at the beginning: The Evolution of Beauty is a worthwhile and eye-opening book. But don't read it uncritically.
Prum respects them. He doesn't revere them, and he challenges them. The book is rich with citations of other younger scientists who are breaking new ground.
Prum's heresy is to refute the Darwinists by going back to Darwin's original texts, in particular The Descent of Man. This second opus was not nearly as well received as The Origin of Species. Darwin's avid fans, led by Alfred Russell Wallace, thought that Darwin had gone off the deep end to propose that sexual preference, alone and apart from evolutionary fitness, was a prime mover in evolution. Wallace and Darwin argued until the latter's death, after which it became standard Darwinist dogma to insist that aesthetics operated only as signals of evolutionary fitness. Viz: the peacock's cumbersome tail is a signal that it must be a very healthy bird indeed to bear such a handicap and yet survive.
Prum became a devoted bird watcher as a child in the 1960s. Barely mentioned here is his ground-breaking work in the evolution of feathers. The first few chapters, however, cover a wealth of innovative science on avian evolution, and especially the evolution of their mating behavior. He makes a strong case that (1) female choice operates among all bird species, though more strongly among some than others, (2) that male and female behavior co-evolved in ways that were (3) often unrelated to adaptive fitness – how well the birds could cope with their environment.
Starting with Chapter 8 he generalizes his theories to human beings. We are quite different from old world monkeys and apes. A major difference is that, as with birds, females have had considerable power to choose the fathers of their children. They have also had incentive – humans are the only ape males who help much with their upbringing. Prum theorizes that female choice has been a major factor driving human evolution.
He then launches into politically sensitive issues, providing Darwinist arguments to support feminism and homosexuality. While the early chapters hint at Prum's political liberlism, these are where the gloves come off.
One hopes that conservative scientists will take up the argument. This is the kind of intellectual ferment in which science progresses rapidly. While some of Prum's conclusions may be overdrawn, one suspects that many of his claims will stand. One of my frustrations as a reviewer is that the opponents of books such as The Bell Curve and Climate Change Reconsidered talk them down, they seldom offer refutations. Prum's book is serious, his arguments well formed, and intellectual honesty demands that those (conservatives) who would disagree cite scientific arguments to refute him. It is a five-star effort all around.
Below is the table of contents. Discussions of the individual chapters are included as comments 1-3..
1: Darwin’s Really Dangerous Idea
2: Beauty Happens
3: Manakin Dances
4: Aesthetic Innovation and Decadence
5: Make Way for Duck Sex
6: Beauty from the Beast
7: Bromance Before Romance
8: Human Beauty Happens Too
9: Pleasure Happens
10: The Lysistrata Effect
11: The Queering of Homo sapiens
12: This Aesthetic View of Life
John V. Wylie