Challenging Mainstream Thought About Beauty’s big hand in evolution

James Gorman in The New York Times:

BeautyNot long ago, a physicist at Stanford posed a rhetorical question that took me by surprise. “Why is there so much beauty?” he asked. Beauty was not what I was thinking the world was full of when he brought it up. The physicist, Manu Prakash, was captivated by the patterns in seawater made as starfish larvae swam about. But he did put his finger on quite a puzzle: Why is there beauty? Why is there any beauty at all? Richard O. Prum, a Yale ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, offers a partial answer in a new book, “The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us.” He writes about one kind of beauty — the oh-is-he/she-hot variety — and mostly as it concerns birds, not people. And his answer is, in short: That’s what female birds like. This won’t help with understanding the appeal of fluid dynamics or the night sky, but Dr. Prum is attempting to revive and expand on a view that Charles Darwin held, one that sounds revolutionary even now.

The idea is that when they are choosing mates — and in birds it’s mostly the females who choose — animals make choices that can only be called aesthetic. They perceive a kind of beauty. Dr. Prum defines it as “co-evolved attraction.” They desire that beauty, often in the form of fancy feathers, and their desires change the course of evolution. All biologists recognize that birds choose mates, but the mainstream view now is that the mate chosen is the fittest in terms of health and good genes. Any ornaments or patterns simply reflect signs of fitness. Such utility is objective. Dr. Prum’s — and Darwin’s — notion of beauty is something more subjective, with no other meaning than its aesthetic appeal. Dr. Prum wants to push evolutionary biologists to re-examine their assumptions about utility and beauty, objectivity and subjectivity. But he also wants to reach the public with a message that is clear whether or not you dip into the technical aspects of evolution. The yearning to pick your own mate is not something that began with humans, he says. It can be found in ducks, pheasants and other creatures. “Freedom of choice matters to animals,” he said recently on a birding trip to a beach near his office in New Haven. “We’ve been explaining away desire rather than actually trying to understand or explain it. That’s one of the biggest shifts that the book is about.”

More here.

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