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The Evolution of Beauty

By: Richard O. Prum

Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group

Imprint: Doubleday

Format: Hardcover | ISBN: 9780385537216

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On Sale: | Pages: 448

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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."
Prum argues convincingly that the subjective experience of animals — the pleasure they take in aesthetic display — is a major evolutionary force. What is less clear and never really considered is whether animals are conscious of this pleasure and what it means when we say they experience beauty.... While some of these conjectures are more plausible than others, the book is a major intellectual achievement that should hasten the adoption of a more expansive style of evolutionary explanation that Darwin himself would have appreciated.
—Washington Post
Richard Prum's “The Evolution of Beauty” is a book to wrestle with. It includes plenty of well-wrought scenes — tales from the author's boyhood birdwatching days, or the story of his lab getting pilloried on Fox News for a $385,000 study on duck genitalia. But above all it focuses on one idea: that beauty drives much of evolution. And even when the details aren't quite convincing, the argument is exhilarating.... Unfortunately, while Mr. Prum makes an excellent basic case for aesthetic evolution, the details can get muddy.... All the same, my disagreements are really signs of engagement: “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.
—Wall Street Journal
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