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Good Reads  Evolutionary Biology  Evolution

A Taste for the Beautiful The Evolution of Attraction

Popular Science
By: Michael J Ryan(Author), Emma Ryan(Illustrator)
216 pages, 16 plates with colour photos; 8 b/w illustrations
A fun an accessible book that argues that beauty is foremost in the brain of the beholder.
A Taste for the Beautiful
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  • A Taste for the Beautiful ISBN: 9780691191393 Paperback Jun 2019 In stock
  • A Taste for the Beautiful ISBN: 9780691167268 Hardback Dec 2017 Usually dispatched within 5 days
Selected version: £12.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Darwin developed the theory of sexual selection to explain why the animal world abounds in stunning beauty, from the brilliant colours of butterflies and fishes to the songs of birds and frogs. He argued that animals have "a taste for the beautiful" that drives their potential mates to evolve features that make them more sexually attractive and reproductively successful. But if Darwin explained why sexual beauty evolved in animals, he struggled to understand how.

In A Taste for the Beautiful, Michael Ryan, one of the world's leading authorities on animal behaviour, tells the remarkable story of how he and other scientists have taken up where Darwin left off and transformed our understanding of sexual selection, shedding new light on human behaviour in the process. Drawing on cutting-edge work in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, as well as his own important studies of the tiny túngara frog deep in the jungles of Panama, Ryan explores the key questions: Why do animals perceive certain traits as beautiful and others not? Do animals have an inherent sexual aesthetic and, if so, where is it rooted? Ryan argues that the answers to these questions lie in the brain – particularly of females, who act as biological puppeteers, spurring the development of beautiful traits in males. This theory of how sexual beauty evolves explains its astonishing diversity and provides new insights about how much our own perception of beauty resembles that of other animals.

Vividly written and filled with fascinating stories, A Taste for the Beautiful will change how you think about beauty and attraction.


Preface ix

1 Why All the Fuss about Sex? 1
2 Why All the Whining and Chucking? 13
3 Beauty and the Brain 33
4 Visions of Beauty 53
5 The Sounds of Sex 77
6 The Aroma of Adulation 105
7 Fickle Preferences 126
8 Hidden Preferences and Life in Pornotopia 148

Epilogue 169
Notes 171
Bibliography 177
Index 187

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Beauty is in the brain of the beholder
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 14 May 2018 Written for Hardback

    Here is a strange question: does the sight of a peacock’s tail make you sick? Well, it did have this effect on Charles Darwin. The reason was perhaps more cerebral than anything else. With A Taste for the Beautiful, professor in animal behaviour Michael J. Ryan gives a superbly readable and accessible account of his and other’s studies that address how sexual beauty comes about, and why we see such a bewildering diversity of traits used in mate choice.

    Following the formulation of his theory of natural selection, Darwin struggled to explain why males in some species would prance around with such impractical and cumbersome ornaments as a peacock does. Enter the theory of sexual selection (see also Prum’s recent, rather misleadingly titled The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – And Us. Misleading because this theory has been anything but forgotten). If traits contribute to making an animal sexually more attractive and thus reproductively more successful, sexual selection will favour them, even if this leads to opposing pressure from natural selection. Darwin was thus able to give us a “why” for the existence of sexual beauty, but not really a how. How does this lead to visual signals in some species (e.g. colours), but auditory in others (e.g. bird song or mating calls in frogs)?

    For a long time, a favourite explanation was that choosers (often females) prefer certain courters (often males) based on traits that indicate that the courter is genetically fit and healthy and will pass on this genetic legacy to the couple’s offspring. However, there isn’t all that much empirical support for the “good genes” hypothesis. If this sounds familiar, “good genes are overrated” was indeed the central message of Rosenthal’s Mate Choice (Ryan mentored Rosenthal as a graduate student, so it is not surprising to see the agreement between their arguments). Ryan has become famous for his idea of sensory exploitation. He argues that beauty is in the brain of the beholder. Brains do a lot more than thinking about sex. Foremost, they busy themselves with survival by finding food, or avoiding becoming someone else’s meal. Depending on the exact ecology of a species, vision might be important for this, or sound. Point is, an organism’s brain will be sensitive to certain queues in the environment, it will have certain biases. Colour vision in many primates for example is very sensitive the colour red, as it helps them detect food in the forest canopy. And that is what sexual selection latches onto. It exploits these already existing sensitivities. Thus, the colour red is used in primate mating displays. But that preference for red was already in place, in-built in the brain for use in other contexts. The preference for certain sexual traits precedes these traits rather than the other way around.

    Ryan has spent decades working on túngara treefrogs, a small frog species living in Panama where males gather in groups and produce calls to attract females. They produce a two-part call, a high-pitched whine, followed by low-pitch chucks. But why? Ryan’s neurobiological work over the years has shown that males call at those frequencies that elicit the strongest neural responses in the females.

    The middle section of the book looks at other examples of visual, acoustic and olfactory beauty throughout the animal kingdom. It quickly becomes clear that Ryan does not think sensory exploitation is king; there are other explanations for some observations. Birdsong might help a chooser pick a courter of the same species (also important). Smell can be co-opted to prefer a partner who is genetically different enough from you so as to avoid inbreeding.

    Ryan effortlessly switches between anecdotes of his research, clear explanations of theoretical ideas (e.g. Weber’s law, fluctuating asymmetry), and remarkable observations. And thus we meet bees that shag flowers that look like bees, on the off chance they miss out on mating with a female. Frogs who walk the fine line between sex and death because their mating calls attract both females and eavesdropping bats that eat them. Or why it is that the girls in a bar are prettier towards the end of the evening (hint: preferences can be fickle, and there is an element of time in here).

    Ryan has purposefully chosen to exclude weapons and combat, another result of sexual selection, from his book. For that he refers the reader to Emlen’s Animal Weapons. Similarly, mate choice and sexual selection express themselves in the nuts and bolts of reproduction: genitals, which Ryan leaves out of consideration. For this, Schilthuizen’s Nature’s Nether Regions is an amusing introduction.

    A Taste for the Beautiful is not meant to be an exhaustive overview or a theoretically comprehensive treatise. Don’t expect summaries, diagrams, tables, or formulas. Rather, it is a fun and surprisingly accessible book explaining how certain traits end up being perceived as beautiful and how important the role of the brain is in all of this.
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Michael J. Ryan is the Clark Hubbs Regents Professor in Zoology at the University of Texas and a Senior Research Associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He is a leading researcher in the fields of sexual selection, mate choice, and animal communication. He lives in Austin, Texas.

Popular Science
By: Michael J Ryan(Author), Emma Ryan(Illustrator)
216 pages, 16 plates with colour photos; 8 b/w illustrations
A fun an accessible book that argues that beauty is foremost in the brain of the beholder.
Media reviews

"Ryan charms readers with his account of attraction in the animal kingdom, including humans."
Scientific American

"How Darwin would have loved a book such as this."
BBC Wildlife

"A hugely enjoyable book written with authority, easy charm and a great deal of wit [...] This is science communication as it should be done: authoritative but never dull, engaging but never dumbed down [...] [A] beautiful book."
Times Higher Education

"Delightful and enlightening."
Natural History

"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 [...] 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. [...] 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."
Kirkus Reviews

"In this appealing book, Ryan, professor of zoology at University of Texas, investigates the potential for a scientific understanding of what makes some biological traits sexually attractive [...] Ryan leads a thoughtful and enlightening tour of brain function across an array of animals, focusing on three senses: sight, sound, and smell. In each case he presents current research, some of which is his own, detailing the nature of experimental design and the excitement of gaining new insights while discussing what remains unknown [...] Ryan offers much to enjoy in his provocative book."
Publishers Weekly

"In this engaging book, Michael Ryan explores why all animals look for beauty in the opposite sex. Using his studies of Central American frogs as a jumping-off point, he expertly guides us through new discoveries and ideas about how brains have evolved to yearn for the beautiful. Surprisingly, what female frogs admire in their male suitors illuminates our own desires and attractions."
– Virginia Morell, author of the New York Times bestseller Animal Wise: How We Know Animals Think and Feel

"We say 'beauty is in the eye of the beholder.' Turns out, beauty is in the brain. The brain decides what strikes us as beautiful. This book raises and answers an astonishing set of questions: What is the perception called beauty? How did our brains acquire it? On what basis do our brains inform us about what is beautiful? And why does a peacock's tail seem beautiful to both a peahen and a person? This is a profound, often amazing, book. It's, well, beautiful."
– Carl Safina, author of Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel

"Written by a distinguished scientist and filled with fascinating stories, this book presents the revelation that, for very good evolutionary reasons, beauty is in the mind, as well as the eye, of the beholder."
– Peter R. Grant, coauthor of 40 Years of Evolution: Darwin's Finches on Daphne Major Island

"This lovely book delves into the origins and perception of beauty – sensations that generate specific reward responses in the brain. Ranging from neurobiology to behavior and psychology, Mike Ryan seamlessly integrates animal and human data. He also describes how science works, which is more important now than ever."
– John Endler, Deakin University, Australia

"This is a superb book on one of the most powerful selective forces in nature – the taste for beauty, especially the female preference for male beauty. Want to learn about smell and sex, the deeper meaning of bodily symmetry, or color vision as a route to emotionally understanding others? You have come to the right place. Michael Ryan weaves together all of this and much more to produce a beautiful tapestry on the meaning of beauty in nature."
– Robert Trivers, author of Deceit and Self-Deception: Fooling Yourself the Better to Fool Others

"I loved this book! In this authoritative, informative, and entertaining popular science account of the biological basis of sexual beauty, Michael Ryan, a master of the subject, draws on his own pioneering work and seamlessly integrates it with other studies. The book shows how a deep understanding of the mechanisms of mate choice in nature help us to better understand ourselves."
– Daniel T. Blumstein, University of California, Los Angeles

"This is a book for anyone who wants to know more about the mysteries of sexual selection. Michael Ryan guides readers through the complex and fascinating path of the evolution of beauty with the authority of somebody who is responsible for some of the subject's most important milestones."
– Leonida Fusani, University of Vienna and University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, Austria

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