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The Stunning Evolution of Beauty


Three things thrill me when I stumble across them: theories on why the world is so varied and beautiful; how the females of all species exercise more agency than traditional culture understands; and that animals have far more cognition than we realize.


It turns out that Charles Dawin championed all three concepts, but his work on these specific topics has been undervalued for 140 years.


Yale ornithologist Richard O. Prum's 2018 book, The Evolution of Beauty: How Dawin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World, uses his extensive understanding of birds to set the record straight.


"Darwin hypothesized that mate choice had resulted in the evolution of many of those traits in nature that are so pleasingly beautiful… from the songs, colorful plumages, and displays of birds to the brilliant blue face and hind quarters of the mandrel," Plum writes.


Darwin understood that mate choice is mostly driven by the females of the species. "Darwin hypothesized that female preferences can be a powerful and independent force in the evolution of biological diversity. Not surprisingly, Victorian scientists ridiculed Darwin's revolutionary idea that females had either the cognitive ability or the opportunity to make autonomous decisions about the choice of mates," he writes. "It [also] seemed impossible that animals could make fine aesthetic judgments. Even if they were able to observe differences in the color of their suitors plumage, or the musical notes of their songs, the notion that they could cognitively distinguish among them, and then demonstrate a specific preference for one or another variation was considered ludicrous.


"What was so radical about this idea was it positioned organisms – especially female organisms – as active agents in the evolution of their own species. Unlike natural selection, which emerges from external forces in nature, such as competition, predation, climate, and geography, acting on the organism, sexual selection is a potentially independent, self-directed process in which the organisms themselves (mostly female) were in charge. Darwin described females as having a 'taste for the beautiful' and an 'aesthetic faculty.'


As a result, "Darwin envisioned two distinct, and potentially opposing revolutionary mechanisms at work. The first mechanism, which he called the law of battle, was the struggle between individuals of one sex, often male – for sexual control over the individuals the other sex. Darwin hypothesized that the battle for sexual control would result in the evolution of large body size, weapons of aggression, like horns, antlers, and spurs, and mechanisms of physical control. The second sexual selection mechanism, which he called the taste for the beautiful, concerns the process by which the members – often female – choose their mates on the basis of their own innate preferences.


Using the law of battle and the taste for the beautiful, Darwin explained the evolution of both armament and ornament in nature."

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