Book Review: The Evolution of Beauty by Richard O. Prum

Published by Doubleday, copyright 2017, 427 pages.


My candle burns at both ends;

It will not last the night;

But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends–

It gives a lovely light!

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Painted Bunting, Passerina iris                 click to zoom

The lovely light of the candle is synonymous with the lives of the bizarre and beautiful birds.  One pathway of evolution has resulted in the male’s flamboyant colors, tempting ornaments, and loud love songs, all to impress the female, even at the expense of his survival.  The other more conservative pathway has led to identical males and females of subtle camouflage coloration; the keep-your-head-down, blend in, and stay safe approach to life, with survival being the ultimate goal.

Rose-ringed Parakeet, Psittacula krameri

The conservative approach follows the classic science of evolution by natural selection and survival of the fittest, first described by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace.  Darwin, however, later decided that a different theory was needed to explain the evolution of beauty; a process resulting in the dramatic bright plumages, long tails, striking crests, and unusual courtship behaviors.  The aesthetic evaluation of mate choice and pleasure become the goal of these birds, apparently trumping survival determined by the classic idea of fitness.

Roseate Spoonbill, Platalea ajaja

Richard Prum expertly describes the consternation and debate that Darwin caused in his lifetime over the concept of evolution by sexual selection, a debate that has lasted to the present.  The author takes up Darwin’s fight and supports his argument with fascinating accounts of avian courtship, emphasizing the central role of the female choosing a mate purely for the pleasure of it.  Detractors say that assigning charm, sensory delight, and aesthetic discernment to birds is far too anthropomorphic.  Darwin and Prum disagree.

Indian Peafowl, Pavo cristatus

It was the elaborate beauty of the Peacock’s tail with its eyespots that was so unsettling to Darwin.  How could his “Origin of Species” and survival of the fittest explain this impractical plumage?  His second book, “The Descent of Man”, introduced sexual pleasure and female choice as new and different driving forces in evolution.  As you can imagine, Victorian patriarchal England had significant issues with this revolutionary concept.

Anna’s Hummingbird, Calypte anna

Prum has impressive credentials, first as a childhood birder from New England, then from years of fieldwork in the tropical jungles, and later as a professor of ornithology at Yale.  In the chapter “Beauty From the Beast” he describes the male Bowerbirds and their construction of architecturally elaborate bowers or bachelor pads.  These males build competing aesthetic structures which have no practical use other than to charm and attract a female mate.  The evolving male animal artists must match the corresponding evolution of female preference for their art to be successful.

Blue Grosbeak, Passerina caerulea

The fossil record raises some interesting ideas about the origin of colorful feathers.  It seems that feathers evolved and adorned reptiles prior to other structural changes that would allow flight.  Recently electron microscopy has shown tiny color-forming melanosomes in the feathers of the theropod dinosaurs.  Were these early colorful feathers initially sexual ornaments that only later evolved to the avian structures of flight?

Harlequin Ducks, Histrionicus histrionicus

In the chapter “Manakin Dances” Prum describes the bizarre social world of South American Manakin leks.  A lek is a small, male-defended patch chosen as his personal stage upon which he performs to lure females.  The male, in turn, is chosen for mating by a discerning female who is impressed by his plumage ornaments, acrobatic displays, dancing skills, and acoustic signals.  It is female choice that drives male behavior and sexual evolution.

Green Bee-eater, Merops orientalis

So why do I give this book only 4 stars out of 5?  To me the wheels seemed to come off a bit in Chapter 5, “Make Way For Duck Sex”.  The description of the ducks’ displays, female and male urogenital tracts (males are endowed with a long retractile penis), and the description of copulation, both consensual and otherwise, were fascinating.  But the author at this point begins to enter into a highly speculative correlation of avian behavior with human sexuality, including female autonomy, feminism, fashion, eugenics, and even homosexuality.  Although these are worthwhile topics, the jump from avian evolution which occurs over millions of years to human sociology and cultural evolution, which may change yearly, seemed somewhat farfetched and out of place.

Yellow Warbler, Wilsonia citrina

But this book will have great appeal for birders and non-birders alike.  As I read other reviewers it is clear that birders favor the first half of the book and its wonderful accounts of avian behavior, while non-birders relish the second half which evolves into a parallel discussion of human sexuality and social issues.  Clearly the book will foster many interesting discussions and I can picture it as a popular book club selection.

Baltimore Oriole, Icterus galbula

The next time I am traipsing through the underbrush and see the brilliant crimson flash of the male Cardinal, the iridescent body of the Hummingbird, or hear the loud melodic call of the Carolina wren, I’ll remember Darwin and Prum and the millions of years of sexual selection that have created pleasure for both the birds and the birder.

9 thoughts on “Book Review: The Evolution of Beauty by Richard O. Prum

  1. Steve, you might be interested one day (in your burgeoning spare time) to check out a book by philosopher Charles Hartshorne, one which I read many years ago and probably no longer have. This from his NYT obit in 2000 (at age 103!): “The depth, breadth and utter playfulness of Dr. Hartshorne’s mind is suggested by his 1973 book, ‘Born to Sing.’ The book argued that some bird species had evolved the ability to appreciate melody and sing for the sheer pleasure of it, a notion that continues to intrigue zoological scientists. If he’d never been a philosopher, he would have been a very distinguished ornithologist,’ Dr. Silber said.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll definitely check it out. I find this ongoing debate in the scientific circle fascinating. Darwin was severely criticized by Wallace and essentially ostracized by the majority for even suggesting pleasure may be an ingredient of natural selection in some cases. And the debate goes on. Thanks for the suggestion and comment.


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