The opinion nowadays is that ornaments such as the peacock’s magnificent train, the splendid plumes of birds of heaven, bowerbirds’ love nests, deer antlers, fins on guppies and virtually what to do with the mandarin goby are signs of male quality.
In such species, females choose males with characteristics that indicate resistance to parasites (shapes go wonky, colors go flat if a male isn’t immunologically buff) or skill at foraging (antlers need a great deal of calcium, bowers lots of time).
However, in other circumstances, the evolutionary handicap principle applies, and also the fact it’s difficult to remain alive when possessing a massive or brightly coloured attraction becomes the reason behind the visual pizzazz. And if this process sometimes goes a little angry, and ever bigger or brasher becomes synonymous with better, then the object of feminine fixation undergoes runaway selection until physiology or predation measures in to set limits.
What unites these explanations is that they are all generally attributed to Darwin and his book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. Here, biologists say, with put his adaptationist stall On the Origin of Species, Darwin proposed female decision because the driving force behind much of the Animal World planet’s visual exuberance.
And then along comes Richard Prum to tell you there is more to it than that. Prum is a ornithology professor at Yale University and a world authority on manakins, a group of sparrow-sized birds whose magnificent men perform mate-attracting gymnastics on branches at the understories of both Central and South American forests. Years of observing the men continue till they nearly failed persuaded him that much of the choice is connected to nothing except a female love of beauty , the only power pushing things ahead is female admiration. This, he states, has nothing to do with performance: it is pure aesthetic improvement, together with”the capability to evolve random and useless beauty”.
As Prum recounts, this notion hasn’t found the best favour in academic circles. But, as he makes plain, he’s not alone. Once again, it seems Darwin got there first, composing in Descent which”the most tasteful beauty may function as a sexual charm, and for no other reason”. The issue is, it seems, that we all think we understand Darwin. In reality, few of us return to the first, rather taking for granted what other people say he explained. In this case, it seems to have created a bit of validation by wish fulfilment: Darwin’s views on sexual choice, Prum says, happen to be”laundered, re-tailored and cleaned-up for ideological purity”.
Clearly Prum is, to put it mildly, bucking a trend, even if he’s in good company. But his career was varied and complete, so that studying this intriguing book, we know about the patterning of dinosaur feathers, consider the evolutionary basis of the individual female orgasm, the tyranny of academic patriarchy, and also the corkscrewed enormity of some duck’s penis. Combining this with detailed analysis of how science chooses the ideas it approves of and nice writing about fieldwork results in a rich, absorbing text.
Not all Prum’s analogies or counterexamples worked for me, and also the attacks on the prevailing view often appeared strident. However, the book deserves to be read, as the notion of pure beauty evolving unallied to choice and unalloyed by function deserves to be examined and considered. You may not wind up agreeing with the reason for its existence, but the dancing Prum plays to convince you to take him on as an intellectual partner is beautiful and deserves to be appreciated on its own terms.