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The Evolution of Beauty

How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World - and Us
Narrated by: Dan Woren
Length: 13 hrs and 39 mins
Categories: Non-fiction, Biology
4 out of 5 stars (8 ratings)

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Summary

A major reimagining of how evolutionary forces work, revealing how mating preferences - what Darwin termed "the taste for the beautiful" - create the extraordinary range of ornament in the animal world.

In the great halls of science, dogma holds that Darwin's theory of natural selection explains every branch on the tree of life: which species thrive, which wither away to extinction, and what features each evolves. But can adaptation by natural selection really account for everything we see in nature?

Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum - reviving Darwin's own views - thinks not. 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 3-D spheres, red-capped manakins who moonwalk. In 30 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 long-neglected 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 splendor contributes to a more complete understanding of evolution and of ourselves.

©2017 Richard O. Prum (P)2017 Random House Audio

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Profile Image for Tam Hunt
  • Tam Hunt
  • 13-06-17

Excellent extension of sexual selection theory

This is an important book that seeks modestly to radically revise the conventional approach to evolutionary theory, by replacing the assumption that most evolutionary change comes from natural selection. Prum argues instead that our null hypothesis--the starting point for making evolutionary hypotheses--should be the notion that "beauty happens," which means that basic evolutionary changes are random variations of ornaments and sexual organs (in sexually reproducing creatures) that are in many cases developed further due to aesthetic preferences by the opposite sex or due to adaptive advantage occurring serendipitously in some cases. So Prum seeks to turn sexual selection into the focus of evolutionary explanations rather than the red headed stepchild of evolutionary theory that it currently is. I strongly agree with this thesis and urge people to give these ideas a shot.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Hobbyist
  • 04-05-18

Interesting book with annoying tendencies

While the theme of the book was interesting, I kept getting vibes of self-praise. The constant comparison of the author to Darwin got old really fast. Rather than focusing on the author's interesting ideas, the author seemed to try to forcefully get the approval of the listener/reader. On the other hand, the author describes several interesting examples to each of his points.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Constance M Brown
  • 15-11-18

Tour de force of Darwin’s theory of sexual selection

Prum pulls off an amazing feat of providing evidence based arguments of a scientific theory that are convincing and easily understood. He is also an entertaining writer who keeps the reader engaged in every step. Dan Warren is an excellent reader who even makes the bird songs for the listener.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

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  • Fred
  • 08-10-18

Excellent Ornithology then a PC Polemic

Scientists can be quite good if they write on their field of study. This author is an excellent writer and an expert ornithologist. That makes for a great read on birds and sexual selection. It’s also an important book on randomness and evolution. But after that he goes completely off the deep end. That’s disappointing and sad. Humans and birds last shared a common ancestor hundreds of millions of years ago. That should give the prudent scientist reason for caution when using birds as the model for human mate choice. Not so Dr Prum. He then becomes an anthropologist (physical, cultural and social), primatologist, ancient historian and an economist! Quite abroad range of expertise! I fear the important evolutionary message is lost among political “just so” stories.

2 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • Mel Ziegler
  • 02-11-19

Profound, and surprisingly feminist!

Besides the fascinating stories of mate choice, plumage evolution and mating rituals this book is revolutionary in its conclusions. Reviving Darwin’s more subtle and overlooked theories of evolution, and building on them with exhaustive research today the author leads us in a deep dive into our human culture. This book holds the seeds to heal our culture .

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  • Joel Smallwood
  • 11-03-19

Interesting ideas. A little oversold.

This book is definitely worth a listen.
A quick technical note. The narrator was great. I kind of wish they added actual bird calls. The narrator did an admirable job mimicking them. It makes sense in an audiobook that they could play actual recordings.
Regarding the content.
All in all, I agree with the author. I think Evolutionists can often overlook anything other than Natural Selection as a force for evolution. And I think that his theory of aesthetic selection is reasonable. Of course, most evolutionary biologists would agree, but they do tend to minimize.
That being said, I absolutely don't think the aesthetic selection should be the null hypothesis, which he argues for, and I don't like when he turns to conspiracies and cultural biases as to why it isn't more widely accepted.
Still a good book that is worth listening to.

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  • circa24
  • 08-09-18

Sexual Selection in an Old Light

Evolution of Beauty looks at the theory of Sexual Selection from the idea proposed by Darwin to our current day synthesis of ideas. The book argues for re-elevating this mechanism to the prominence that it deserves. However, I would argue that among many who have studied evolution, it has held such a position for many years. That said, the book helps remind people that natural selection may lay at the base of the modern family of theories about evolution, but this theory, itself, has many clades.

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  • Chencheno111
  • 05-09-18

A new look at evolutionary sexual selection

Although I may not agree with everything presented in the book, it is a compelling narrative. The book offers a critical look at long-held dogmas in sexual selection, while narrating fascinating stories of natural history. It’s well narrated and easy to listen too. I wonder if the author would look into non-vertebrates and plants and still maintain his position

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  • jeri jones
  • 23-08-18

This book has something to teach us all!

I’m no scientist but if you can stick with it, this book will give you powerful insight into how female preferences in mate choice (by mainly examining the most ornamental animals on our planet — birds, along with humans) have influenced the planet’s aesthetic evolution and beauty. I’m thoroughly convinced now that God is indeed a woman! Great book!

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  • Tomaso
  • 06-08-18

Evolution update

I love well written science books but often seem to have trouble finding one. This book was a gem! Entertaining, enlightening and educational. My wife heard me listening to the book and she was hooked. A caveat: we both are big Darwin fans and rate this up there with Quaamen's Song of the Dodo which we also love.