Another look at Darwin’s once-controversial theory of sexual selection, in which the author argues that sexual beauty is in the brain of the beholder.
His study of the sexual behavior of the tungara frog led Ryan (Zoology/Univ. of Texas, Austin), a senior research associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, to develop an explanation of how the brain is involved in mating behavior. The calls, whines, and chucks of male frogs are designed, he found, to inform, charm, and seduce the females, but they can also attract hungry predators. The author’s work with frogs launched a lifetime interest in discovering how beauty is found not just in animals’ calls, but in the scents they give off and the colors they show. He argues that certain domains in the brain help determine what is perceived as beautiful. Thus, understanding the biology of the brain is vital to understanding the biological basis of sexual aesthetics, and those aesthetics drive the evolution of sexual beauty. This is not simple stuff. Ryan works hard to write for general readers, and the narrative is replete with entertaining stories of the sexual marketplace that we and the rest of the animal world inhabit. “Survival is secondary to sex,” he writes, “merely an adaptation to keep animals alive so they can have a shot in the sexual marketplace.” However, many of Ryan’s descriptions of his and other researchers’ work demand close reading and some background in scientific vocabulary, including such terms as “major histocompatibility complex” and “asymetrically dominated decoy.” Small, uncaptioned, black-and-white illustrations open each chapter, and what does come through clearly is the diversity of beauty—and the diversity of sexual behavior.
Despite its appealing title, this is one primarily for the academic market—a good choice for classrooms.