"The Evolution of Beauty"

Richard Prum has written a provocative book supporting the theory that beauty drives much of evolution. Most scientists have argued that natural selection (i. e. the survival of the fittest) is the only evolutionary apparatus at work in nature.

Prum, however, encourages readers to consider Darwin’s mostly ignored idea of aesthetic evolution as a new model for mate choice. He contends that beauty and desire are dynamic forces in natural selection. He purports that each species develops its own characteristic norms of beauty by which it chooses mates.

After a brief exposition on scientists’ historic resistance to Darwin’s aesthetic evolution theory, ornithologist Prum illustrates his point by citing the role of beauty in bird mating. He describes the courting rituals of the Great Argus Pheasant of Borneo, “one of the most aesthetically extreme animals on the planet.”

According to Darwin’s aesthetic theory, Prum says, male plumage evolves primarily not as a sexual signaling device but in order to meet a value for beauty determined solely by the females of a species.

He then transports the reader to Suriname to view Club-winged Manikins. Males “sing with their wings” as they seek to appear most beautiful to potential female mates. These sparrow- sized males perform mate-attracting gymnastics in the branches of trees in the understory of Central and South American forests.

After years of watching the males carry on until they nearly collapse, Prum is convinced that much of the mate selection is linked to nothing except the female love of beauty itself. The male calisthenics have nothing to do with perceived physical usefulness: females choose a mate for purely aesthetic reasons. Prum offers this as evidence of Darwin’s assertion that beauty for the sake of beauty is an engine of evolutionary change.

The author not only tries to prove Darwin’s aesthetic theory with avian creatures. Later in the book he explores female mate choice based on “the taste for the beautiful” (as Darwin called it) in primates. Prum states that a proper reading of sexual selection indicates that it is a means for females to develop sexual autonomy. By controlling various aspects of male behavior through their choice of mates, females of many species have reduced the prevalence of rape and improved male social skills.

Prum’s thought-provoking first book traverses many boundaries. The author also proposes that aesthetic evolution theory accounts for the development of the female orgasm and homosexuality and places feminism firmly within a biological framework.

Doubleday is the publisher of this beautifully illustrated and well-researched 428-page book.