A robust defense of Charles Darwin’s aesthetic theory of evolution.
Prum (Ornithology/Yale Univ.), the head curator of vertebrate zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, argues that natural selection is not the only evolutionary mechanism at work in nature. Beauty and desire in nature are also dynamic forces, and those features in males that females prefer in choosing mates evolve rapidly. In a nutshell, each species evolves its own standard of beauty by which it chooses mates. After a brief discussion of the early and continued opposition to Darwin’s aesthetic theory, the author illustrates the role of beauty in bird mating by taking readers to Borneo to observe the rituals of the Great Argus, a species of pheasant known as “one of the most aesthetically extreme animals on the planet,” and to Suriname, to see the displays of male manakins, which must meet the “very high standards” of potential female mates. In other chapters, Prum reveals the intricate machinery involved in female bowerbirds choosing their mates. Female ducks, it seems, may not have such autonomy. Readers may be in for a shock when Prum turns to duck sex, which can be violent, involving what humans would call gang rape, and the illustrations of record-setting duck penises are eye-opening. The author, who charmingly reveals his lifelong fascination with birds, does not base his argument solely on avian evolution, however. In later chapters, he explores the role of female mate choice in primate evolution, a challenging subject that he views as warranting further study. Throughout, the narrative is well-documented and wholly accessible, enriched by the author’s warm personal touches.
Prum writes that his goal was to present the “full, distinctive richness, complexity, and diversity of this aesthetic view of life.” He absolutely succeeds, though fierce debate will continue among evolutionary biologists.