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Publisher's Summary

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 3-D spheres, red-capped manakins who moonwalk. In 30 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.

©2017 Richard O. Prum (P)2017 Random House Audio

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Excellent extension of sexual selection theory

This is an important book that seeks modestly to radically revise the conventional approach to evolutionary theory, by replacing the assumption that most evolutionary change comes from natural selection. Prum argues instead that our null hypothesis--the starting point for making evolutionary hypotheses--should be the notion that "beauty happens," which means that basic evolutionary changes are random variations of ornaments and sexual organs (in sexually reproducing creatures) that are in many cases developed further due to aesthetic preferences by the opposite sex or due to adaptive advantage occurring serendipitously in some cases. So Prum seeks to turn sexual selection into the focus of evolutionary explanations rather than the red headed stepchild of evolutionary theory that it currently is. I strongly agree with this thesis and urge people to give these ideas a shot.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • BB
  • 01-21-18

Making Sense of Art and Sex

If you are a person who has been fascinated by Darwin’s Theory of Evolution then this is a must read.
In fact, Darwin had two major theories, one of which has been subsumed because it does not fit the “modern” construct of dominant males and passive females that undergirds so much of our cultural experience in America and worldwide. Professor Prum’s radical approach to include both of Darwin’s major theories as an explanation for evolution including the sexual autonomy of both sexes in sexual selection as influenced by an expansive definition of beauty is compelling. The set up is in the whole first section of the book as explained through adaptation by one of the most ancient species on earth - birds. I’m not a birder, but I was riveted all through the section. The second portion of the book applies scientist’s (ornithologist ‘s) research to the contemporary human experience as regards sexual choice of women, men and the full spectrum of the LGBT communities and the relationship of beauty and art in this process - a central postulate of Darwin’s original work. Fascinating and profound.