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Darwin's theory of natural selection has proven a powerful explanation for the proverbial branches on the tree of life: which species thrive, which wither away to extinction, and what features each evolves. But adaptation by natural selection does not account for everything we see in nature.
In this book, Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum reminds us of Darwin's own views. 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 3D spheres, Red-capped Manakins who moonwalk. In thirty 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 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 splendour contributes to a more complete understanding of evolution and of ourselves.
Richard O. Prum is William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology at Yale University, and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He has conducted field work throughout the world, and has studied fossil theropod dinosaurs in China. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010.
"The Evolution of Beauty is at once fascinating, provocative, and totally compelling. Anyone interested in science or art or sex – which is to say everyone – will want to read it."
– Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction
"A fascinating account of beauty and mate choice in birds and other animals. You'll be amazed by the weird things that birds do to win mates – such as male manakins, which bounce up and down in coordinated displays but only one gets to mate. You'll also discover why both men and women have armpit hair, why men lack the penis bone widespread in other mammals, and what really happened in the Garden of Eden."
– Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs and Steel
"A provocative redress of a powerful idea: beauty for the sake of beauty. Like all the best science, Prum's exploration builds on the past with an eye toward the future, creating something bold, challenging, and deeply insightful. Anyone with even a passing interest in evolution should read this book."
– Thor Hanson, author of Feathers: The Evolution of a Natural Miracle
"Splendid colors and lovely songs did not arise in birds because of their usefulness, Richard Prum argues, but because they pleased potential mates. Prum offers an exciting new take on evolution and a whirlwind tour of beauty in the animal kingdom, full of wonders and intellectual stimulation."
– Frans de Waal, author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?
"Life isn't just a dreary slog of survival. It brims with exuberance – from extravagant plumage to strange courtship rituals. In The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum takes us into this universe of delights to discover a fascinating idea: that beauty is central to the history of life."
– Carl Zimmer, author of Parasite Rex and Evolution: Making Sense of Life
"I thought I knew a fair bit about sexual selection, but as I read The Evolution of Beauty I was excited by the many stimulating comparative examples Prum cites. From fantastic manakin displays captured by the author's own field work to bowerbird constructions, duck genitalia, and monkey sex (what little of it there is), Prum's important insights illuminate beauty, human sexuality, mate choice, and human society. A refreshing new look at compelling age-old topics."
– Bernd Heinrich, author of Mind of the Raven
"This highly original, must-read book is a fast-paced, passionate and witty wake-up call for us to acknowledge just how powerfully sexual selection has influenced the bodies and behaviors of birds and other beasts, including humans. Prum convincingly builds his case with his unrivaled and sometimes ribald knowledge of birds and then applies these insights courageously and creatively to challenge much of the conventional wisdom about humans. You probably never thought you would learn so much about the human penis from reading about those of ducks!"
– Daniel E. Lieberman, author of The Story of the Human Body
"Darwin thought evolution was beautiful, but modern biologists have forgotten this. Now Richard Prum, who discovered the real color of dinosaurs, has eloquently reminded us. His book is essential for all who wish to learn how nature works."
– David Rothenberg, author of Survival of the Beautiful and Bug Music
"Well-documented and wholly accessible, enriched by Prum's warm personal touches. Prum writes that his goal was to present the 'full, distinctive richness, complexity, and diversity of this aesthetic view of life.' He absolutely succeeds."
– Kirkus Reviews