The Evolution of Beauty. Richard Prum.

Prum, Richard. The Evolution of Beauty. Doubleday, New York. 2017. NF;5/17.

In my book Forbidden Food I described a university lecture in evolution I attended in about 1970. I stumbled from the portable classroom dazzled with the realization that ideas and attitudes could evolve through changes in the design of the brain, similarly to antlers and the spots on a leopard. I also understood that once a characteristic of a male or female (to use the example my lecturer did: a large female pelvis that enables a safe survivable birth) that makes for successful reproduction gets into a population, a desire to mate with individuals with that characteristic will develop in the opposite sex because it is adaptational, and then the big pelvis or other characteristic itself in adaptational response may be exaggerated in the individuals of the gender with the original characteristic. Girls develop backsides that look big. Beauty in other words, at least in the eyes of the local boys.

A reproductively advantageous characteristic becomes “beautiful” to the opposite sex, and the original (other) sex then makes itself more beautiful over generations to capture more partners. This is “sexual selection”, and Dr. Richard Prum, an expert in birds and evolution, wants us to understand that it is a separate mechanism of evolution from Darwin’s adaptational ”survival of the fittest”.

Darwin you see wrote a second book after his more famous Origin of the Species, called The Descent of Man, in which he described this sexual selection. Prum takes on the recent common wisdom in evolution academia and argues that sexual selection is a way bigger deal than most people including experts recognize and that we should pay more attention to it. This academic author came to love birds as a child, and his excitement about them ignites his ornithologic enthusiasm.

But Dr Prum has another agenda. Sexual selection in birds he tells us helps us to understand how important females, and female choices, are in the human world. He makes this clear and repeats it throughout the book: birds’ gender relationships inform his vision of what we humans can learn from birds. 

Among we are told 10,000 species of birds, certain particular males go to frankly unbelievable lengths to attract females: plumage like peacocks, but also behaviour and setting up bizarrely specific reproductively attractive venues in the wild to try to convince the hens to mate. Dr. Prum finds this worth emulating in that female autonomy and freedom of choice are respected (except for some reason in ducks). This second agenda of his drives a lot of the book’s content. I think it could be one of the reasons why the book has been successful, but it’s also in my opinion one of its problems.

In the (mostly metaphoric) leap from birds to humans I start to have trouble with what this author is doing. “Freedom of choice matters to animals too” he says. I’m not completely comfortable with that reverse version of the idea that we need to learn something from birds who have evolved well-developed (female) freedom of choice. Freedom of choice doesn’t matter to animals in anything like the way it matters to us. It’s there for them because of the coevolution of characteristics and desire I learned about in my university evolution lecture. But you’d have to think at least twice about any gender-oriented political motivation in animals like what we are being encouraged to transfer to humans: they just are what they are.

All through this fascinating book there is a dramatization of after all passive (even where sexually selective) evolution as a battle between the sexes. What would drive this battle, or balance, isn’t clear to me and the metaphor may be a bit misleading. Most male birds, for example, have no penis. There will certainly be evolutionary reasons for this and they may be sexually selective. But the metaphoric implication for humans isn’t direct or one-to-one in any reasonable way I can see, except in Dr. Prum’s imagination and maybe a bit in his mixed commercial motivation. He’s an author and we all want to be successful. And championing popular causes like modern feminism helps sell books and win prizes.

To be fair to Dr Prum he’s a feisty and maverick character, and has an irreverent intelligent sense of humour.  He fearlessly wades into female orgasm, penis size, homosexuality, and other human sex issues in trying to reinforce his metaphoric bridge between birds and us-all. We learn that humans don’t do too badly where enjoyment of sex is concerned. Our forebear monkeys’ sex is brief: most of the time they get the job done in a matter of seconds. Plus they have much smaller penises than even the most modest humans.

Um, okay. Obviously I’m not buying the allegorical lesson offered here. The elaborate, often cooperative group displays of birds result in a hierarchy among males where only the “alpha” male bird pretty much ever gets to mate. I end up bewildered by the persistent and variably-argued conviction that we ought to be more like birds. Not me, thanks. I’m happier taking my chances in the gradually more and more evenly-balanced male-female society of humans. It would be wonderful to fly but I’m pretty attached to and would like to keep my penis, and I’m silly enough to imagine that the average human female would agree. Sorry, I don’t think the answer to human gender equality is castration of the males.

Homosexuality and the evolution of art are evolved socially, not biologically, says Dr Prum. This seems to make sense to me. But there is a murky advocacy of animals as beautiful and to-be-appreciated as art that feels a bit naïvely pantheistic. Yes, birds and giraffes are beautiful to others of their species and also to us, but they don’t paint or write. In respect of social evolution of art and culture, Prum’s idea isn’t original and it’s clear that he has read Daniel Dennett.

I’ve believed ever since university that Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (see Dr Dennett’s book by that name), although universally acknowledged, is under-appreciated. This book elaborates on one part of evolution’s terrible importance: it’s responsible for a world of beautiful creatures, but that beauty involves what is in the eyes of the beholder and behind it in the beholder’s brain. And beauty and the brain play off one another in a sometimes astounding spiral resulting in other species in a lot more and different characteristics than our sexy penises and backsides.

No doubt we could learn something from birds if we thought that human males were generally coercive, arrogant, and harmful to females in our (evolved) male sexual motivation, which picture of men I would say is a pretty popular point of view these days.

My problem is that I’m not like that, and neither are most of the men I know. I love girls and women and I think they should (that word involves something exclusively human) consider, evaluate, and carefully choose sex partners without coercion. But my “should” would apply equally to men’s and women’s right to choose, and also to appreciation of and desire for sexual beauty. What has gone on in the evolution in the bird (“Aves”) class since they branched off from dinosaurs is a fascinating evolution story, but whether it’s usefully instructive for humans I’m not so sure. I think I’d need a set of feathered wings to follow Richard Prum in his leap from bird sexual selection to our modern hearts, minds, and culture. For all our terrible mistakes and recent gradually-evolving gender equality, we are still a little ahead of chickens, seagulls, and crows as far as I can tell.

I was more impressed with this important book than my comments and the score here indicate. If you are interested in evolution and want to enjoy a very bright person’s flights of imagination, taking this book on could be well worth the trouble. 9.0/8.2.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 40 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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