Beauty is Lurking Everywhere


“The most notable and revolutionary feature of Darwin’s theory of mate choice is that it was explicitly aesthetic. He described the evolutionary origin of beauty in nature as a consequence of the fact that animals had evolved to be beautiful to themselves.”
The Evolution of Beauty, Richard O. Prum

I once came across this wonderful sentence: “Beauty is lurking everywhere.” Damned if I know from where, but I latched onto the sentence, if not the author of the sentence, with a rare tenacity (at least as far as my mind’s usual light grip on factoids is concerned). If I was forced to guess I’d say Shakespeare…but given Shakespeare’s proclivity to produce delicious bon mots by the boat load, that feels like cheating—it’s like guessing a particular invention came from China.

I was prompted today to not be such a terrible blogger (it’s been about a year…) and get back to my purpose here which is to help me not forget all the books I read! And, as well,  make a good reading suggestion for others at the same time. What’s the fun of reading if you can’t share the fun?

So, back to beauty—Richard O. Prum’s fascinating book The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—And Us asks the next logical question for a person who believes, as I do, that beauty is indeed lurking everywhere, and that question is: but why?

“Throughout the living world whenever the opportunity has arisen, the subjective experiences and cognitive choices of animals have aesthetically shaped the evolution of biodiversity. The history of beauty in nature is a vast and never-ending story.”

Prum focuses on Darwin’s book which followed Origin of the Species, Descent of Man. Darwin was not satisfied with the problem of beauty which his theory of natural selection could not adequately explain. The peacock’s gorgeous arrayment left Darwin feeling nauseated. Not because of the excessive pulchritude, but because those long ridiculous feathers can not really be much help in survival, not least of all of the fight or flight variety.

What is so wonderful about Prum’s book is his expertise in ornithology, his explanation of the null/ not null practice of data collection and how that suppresses a whole lot of data, scientific bias, as well as his promotion of the subversive nature of what Darwin was really getting at—female empowerment. At times the book feels like a feminist apologia. Why is beauty lurking all around us? Because the ladies like it like that.

“What was so radical about this idea was that it positioned organisms—especially female organisms—as active agents in the evolution of their 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 describes females as having a “taste for the beautiful” and an “aesthetic faculty.” He described males as trying to “charm” their mates…..”

Because this theory, Darwin’s theory of the evolution of beauty, is so hard for some to accept as it throws into disarray the parameters of how evolution functions (fittest, Yes! but prettiest too!), the final third of Prum’s book is more speculative than he, or I, would prefer. But it at least leads in a direction of discovery that says damn implicit/explicit misogyny! our evolution is fascinating, complicated, and positively dripping in implications whether some might like what is revealed or not! Prum is not afraid to apply facts and humor in order to recuperate Darwin’s controversial ideas in the service of science. And I like it like that.

6 responses to “Beauty is Lurking Everywhere

  1. Welcome back! Great post. But it begs the question, how much of our sense of beauty is dictated by culture or other environmental factors? For example, mothers tend to think their children are beautiful because they are theirs. In part it reflects a quote from I think Goethe about we see what we know, hence we probably see beauty in the familiar.

  2. Thanks! Ah yes, and each species has their own sense of beauty too. These are questions for further research, but the start is expanding how we understand evolution and beauty’s role in that evolution—whether from cultural or environmental causes it’s the possible real effect of beauty, for its own sake, that’s so interesting.

  3. Glad you’re blogging again. And yes, beauty plays a critical role in natural selection as well as in artistic expression. As every artist is aware, creation is not possible without opening yourself to your feminine side. It is also the source of all civilization.

    • Thanks! I think you may be correct. I always though The Epic of Gilgamesh is a wonderfully funny and early source to back up the claim of the female’s civilizing influence.

  4. Beauty lurking is an interesting image. As nature, an opportunistic mugger, “red in tooth and claw” or as art, also from Lord Alfred–out of context as usual, “So runs my dream …with no language but a cry”
    Is what gives us pause when viewing art the same as what’s going on with peahens? Is art just tail feathers? Where men (usually) shout to the ladies (usually), “Look at all this useless-for-survival stuff I own; look how excessively fit I am!” But that’s just owning art, what about making it? Peacocks and hens don’t separate makers from owners. We do. Something to ponder.
    Another “I like it like that” here:

    • Excellent song. Thank you! Your question, “Is art just tail feathers?” made me think of a bird featured in the book whose feathers speak to the impossibility of using “just” as a modifier when it comes to tail feathers, as well as hinting at an unasked answer to your statement “Peacocks and hens don’t separate makers from owners.” The Argus is an example of nature claiming the ground first for high art. The circle shapes running up the length of the feathers are formed in PERSPECTIVE! So that when the female is underneath them (they extend like a peacocks but then hover over the female allowing the light to play with the clear portions of the feathers—amazing) she sees the circles as the same size—not to mention their 3-D tromp l’oeil qualities. I just have to stop for a second and say—wow. To the second point, the book’s thesis is that the females are, in a way, the makers. It is their preference for this ‘unless’ beauty that makes, or evolves, them. They may do it unconsciously, but in that regard humans are not so different with all of our unconscious preferences pushing evolution who knows where.

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