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We may have the evolution of beauty completely wrong – New Scientist News




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Many male animals sport dazzling displays to attract a mate. But a new book says we may have misunderstood Darwin – and this is all about arbitrary aesthetics

bird of paradise

It is hard work sporting exuberant plumage like this bird of paradise

Nick Garrett/

It is hard work sporting exuberant plumage like this bird of paradise
Nick Garrett/
“THE sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail… makes me sick,” wrote Darwin, worrying about how structures we consider beautiful might come to exist in nature. The view nowadays is that ornaments such as the peacock’s stunning train, the splendid plumes of birds of paradise, bowerbirds’ love nests, deer antlers, fins on guppies and just about everything to do with the mandarin goby are indications of male quality.
In such species, females choose males with features that indicate resistance to parasites (shapes go wonky, colours go flat if a male isn’t immunologically buff) or skill at foraging (antlers need lots of calcium, bowers lots of time).
But in other cases, the evolutionary handicap principle applies, and the fact it’s hard to stay alive while possessing a huge or brightly coloured attraction becomes the reason for the visual pizzazz. And when this process occasionally goes a bit mad, and ever bigger or brasher becomes synonymous with ever better, then the object of female fixation undergoes runaway selection until physiology or predation steps in to set limits.
What unites these explanations is that they are all generally credited to Darwin and his book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Here, biologists say, having set out his adaptationist stall in On the Origin of Species, Darwin proposed female choice as the driving force behind much of the animal world’s visual exuberance.
And then along comes Richard Prum to tell you there’s more to it than that. Prum is an ornithology professor at Yale University and a world authority on manakins, a group of sparrow-sized birds whose dazzling males perform mate-attracting gymnastics on branches in the understories of Central and South American forests. Years of watching the males carry on until they nearly collapsed convinced him that much of the selection is linked to nothing except a female love of beauty itself, that the only force pushing things forward is female appreciation. This, he says, has nothing to do with functionality: it is pure aesthetic evolution, with “the potential to evolve arbitrary and useless beauty”.
As Prum recounts, this idea has not found the greatest favour in academic circles. But, as he makes plain, he’s not alone. Once again, it seems Darwin got there first, writing in Descent that “the most refined beauty may serve as a sexual charm, and for no other purpose”. The problem is, it seems, that we all think we know Darwin. In fact, few of us go back to the original, instead taking for granted what other people say he said. In this case, it seems to have created a bit of validation by wish fulfilment: Darwin’s views on sexual selection, Prum says, have been “laundered, re-tailored and cleaned-up for ideological purity”.
“Female love of beauty has got nothing to do with functionality: it is pure aesthetic evolution”
Clearly Prum is, to put it mildly, bucking a trend, even if he is in good company. But his 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.
Not all of Prum’s analogies or counterexamples worked for me, and the attacks on the prevailing view often seemed strident. However, the book deserves to be read, just as the idea of pure beauty evolving unallied to selection and unalloyed by function deserves to be examined and considered. You may not end up agreeing with the reason for its existence, but 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.
The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s forgotten theory of mate choice shapes the animal world – and us
Richard O. Prum
This article appeared in print under the headline “Useless beauty”
More on these topics:
Magazine issue 3124 , published 6 May 2017
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