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The Evolution of Beauty
Cover of The Evolution of Beauty
The Evolution of Beauty
How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us
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A FINALIST FOR THE PULITZER PRIZE
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, SMITHSONIAN, AND WALL STREET JOURNAL

A major reimagining of how evolutionary forces work, revealing how mating preferences—what Darwin termed "the taste for the beautiful"—create the extraordinary range of ornament in the animal world.

In the great halls of science, dogma holds that Darwin's theory of natural selection explains every branch on the tree of life: which species thrive, which wither away to extinction, and what features each evolves. But can adaptation by natural selection really account for everything we see in nature?
Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum—reviving Darwin's own views—thinks not. Deep in tropical jungles around the world are birds with a dizzying array of appearances and mating displays: Club-winged Manakins who sing with their wings, Great Argus Pheasants who dazzle prospective mates with a four-foot-wide cone of feathers covered in golden 3D spheres, Red-capped Manakins who moonwalk. In thirty years of fieldwork, Prum has seen numerous display traits that seem disconnected from, if not outright contrary to, selection for individual survival. To explain this, he dusts off Darwin's long-neglected theory of sexual selection in which the act of choosing a mate for purely aesthetic reasons—for the mere pleasure of it—is an independent engine of evolutionary change.
Mate choice can drive ornamental traits from the constraints of adaptive evolution, allowing them to grow ever more elaborate. It also sets the stakes for sexual conflict, in which the sexual autonomy of the female evolves in response to male sexual control. Most crucially, this framework provides important insights into the evolution of human sexuality, particularly the ways in which female preferences have changed male bodies, and even maleness itself, through evolutionary time.
The Evolution of Beauty presents a unique scientific vision for how nature's splendor contributes to a more complete understanding of evolution and of ourselves.
A FINALIST FOR THE PULITZER PRIZE
NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW, SMITHSONIAN, AND WALL STREET JOURNAL

A major reimagining of how evolutionary forces work, revealing how mating preferences—what Darwin termed "the taste for the beautiful"—create the extraordinary range of ornament in the animal world.

In the great halls of science, dogma holds that Darwin's theory of natural selection explains every branch on the tree of life: which species thrive, which wither away to extinction, and what features each evolves. But can adaptation by natural selection really account for everything we see in nature?
Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum—reviving Darwin's own views—thinks not. Deep in tropical jungles around the world are birds with a dizzying array of appearances and mating displays: Club-winged Manakins who sing with their wings, Great Argus Pheasants who dazzle prospective mates with a four-foot-wide cone of feathers covered in golden 3D spheres, Red-capped Manakins who moonwalk. In thirty years of fieldwork, Prum has seen numerous display traits that seem disconnected from, if not outright contrary to, selection for individual survival. To explain this, he dusts off Darwin's long-neglected theory of sexual selection in which the act of choosing a mate for purely aesthetic reasons—for the mere pleasure of it—is an independent engine of evolutionary change.
Mate choice can drive ornamental traits from the constraints of adaptive evolution, allowing them to grow ever more elaborate. It also sets the stakes for sexual conflict, in which the sexual autonomy of the female evolves in response to male sexual control. Most crucially, this framework provides important insights into the evolution of human sexuality, particularly the ways in which female preferences have changed male bodies, and even maleness itself, through evolutionary time.
The Evolution of Beauty presents a unique scientific vision for how nature's splendor contributes to a more complete understanding of evolution and of ourselves.
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  • From the book CHAPTER 3
    Manakin Dances

    How, and why, has beauty changed within and among bird species over the course of millions of years? What determines what any given species finds beautiful? What, in short, is the evolutionary history of avian beauty?

    These questions might seem impossible to answer, but we actually have many of the scientific tools we need to address them productively. One of the challenges to understanding the evolution of beauty is the complexity of animal displays and mating preferences. Fortunately, we do not need to invent a trendy new brand of "systems science" in order to investigate these complex aesthetic repertoires, because the science of natural history—the observation and description of the lives of organisms in their natural environments—provides us with exactly the tools we need. Natural history was a critical component of Darwin's scientific method and remains a bedrock foundation of much of evolutionary biology today.

    Once we have gathered information about individual species, we need other scientific methods to compare and analyze them and to uncover their complicated, often hierarchical evolutionary histories. The scientific discipline that enables us to do that is called phylogenetics. Phylogeny is the history of evolutionary relationships among organisms—what Darwin called the "great Tree of Life."

    Darwin proposed that discovery of the Tree of Life should become a major branch of evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, research interest in phylogeny was largely abandoned by evolutionary biology during most of the twentieth century. However, powerful new methods for reconstructing and analyzing phylogenies have been developed in recent decades, which has led to a revival of interest. So, now that the two critical intellectual tools necessary to study the evolution of beauty—natural history and phylogenetics—are available, there has never been a better time to be asking questions about how beauty, and the taste for it, evolve.

    Doing so will help us to understand the process of evolutionary radiation—diversification among species—in a new way. In evolutionary biology, adaptive radiation is the process by which a single common ancestor evolves through natural selection into a diversity of species that have a great variety of ecologies or anatomical structures. The amazing diversity of Darwin's Finches (Geospizinae) on the Galápagos Islands is a canonical example of adaptive radiation. In this chapter, however, we will investigate another group of birds—the neotropical manakins—in order to understand a different kind of evolutionary process: aesthetic radiation. Aesthetic radiation is the process of diversification and elaboration from a single common ancestor through some mechanism of aesthetic selection—especially mate choice. Aesthetic radiation does not preclude the occurrence of adaptive mate choice, but also includes arbitrary mate choice for sexual beauty alone, with all of its often dramatic coevolutionary consequences.

    The science of beauty requires that we get out of the laboratory and the museum and into the field. Fortunately, my bird-watching youth was great basic training for doing natural history research on birds in the field. I discovered the second critical element of this branch of beauty studies—phylogenetics—as an undergraduate at Harvard University. My immersion in formal ornithological studies began in the fall of 1979 with a freshman seminar, the Biogeography of South American Birds taught by Dr. Raymond A. Paynter Jr., the curator of birds at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). Dr. Paynter introduced...
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.
Reviews-
  • Publisher's Weekly

    Starred review from March 6, 2017
    Prum, a professor of ornithology at Yale, provocatively questions whether virtually all biologists have misunderstood a core concept first proposed by Charles Darwin. As Prum explains, the vast majority of evolutionary biologists consider sexual selection, in which females choose males with whom to mate, to be a type of natural selection. Male ornamentation, such as peacock tail feathers, arises as a means to advertise health and virility. Using his own research on tropical birds as a base, Prum follows Darwin in positing that such ornamentation has no such signaling value and arises instead for its aesthetic value—a value determined solely by the females of a species. Presenting persuasive supporting data while clearly articulating much about the scientific process, Prum maintains that a correct reading of sexual selection indicates that it is a potent mechanism for females to develop sexual autonomy. By controlling various aspects of male behavior through mate choice, Prum argues that females of many species have reduced the incidence of rape while increasing male sociality. He also offers hypotheses for the evolution of the female orgasm and homosexuality while embedding the concept of feminism solidly within a biological framework. Prum crosses many boundaries while provoking readers to consider Darwin’s ignored idea as a new paradigm.

  • Kirkus

    March 15, 2017
    A robust defense of Charles Darwin's aesthetic theory of evolution.Prum (Ornithology/Yale Univ.), the head curator of vertebrate zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, argues that natural selection is not the only evolutionary mechanism at work in nature. Beauty and desire in nature are also dynamic forces, and those features in males that females prefer in choosing mates evolve rapidly. In a nutshell, each species evolves its own standard of beauty by which it chooses mates. After a brief discussion of the early and continued opposition to Darwin's aesthetic theory, the author illustrates the role of beauty in bird mating by taking readers to Borneo to observe the rituals of the Great Argus, a species of pheasant known as -one of the most aesthetically extreme animals on the planet,- and to Suriname, to see the displays of male manakins, which must meet the -very high standards- of potential female mates. In other chapters, Prum reveals the intricate machinery involved in female bowerbirds choosing their mates. Female ducks, it seems, may not have such autonomy. Readers may be in for a shock when Prum turns to duck sex, which can be violent, involving what humans would call gang rape, and the illustrations of record-setting duck penises are eye-opening. The author, who charmingly reveals his lifelong fascination with birds, does not base his argument solely on avian evolution, however. In later chapters, he explores the role of female mate choice in primate evolution, a challenging subject that he views as warranting further study. Throughout, the narrative is well-documented and wholly accessible, enriched by the author'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, though fierce debate will continue among evolutionary biologists.

    COPYRIGHT(2017) Kirkus Reviews, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

  • Library Journal

    January 1, 2017
    The MacArthur Fellow who proclaimed birds the descendants of dinosaurs counters the notion that Darwin's theory of natural selection fully explains which species thrive. Prum turns to Darwin's overlooked theory of sexual selection, which argues that choosing a mate for aesthetic reasons is its own key force in evolutionary change.

    Copyright 2017 Library Journal, LLC Used with permission.

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The Evolution of Beauty
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How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us
Richard O. Prum
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