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.
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
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.
"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