The Evolution of Beauty

In this book Richard Prum ( argues that natural selection is not the only evolutionary mechanism at work in animal life. Beauty and desire in nature are also dynamic forces, and those features in males that females prefer in choosing mates evolve rapidly.

In a nutshell, each species evolves its own standard of beauty by which it chooses mates. After a brief discussion of the early and continued opposition to Darwin’s aesthetic theory, the author illustrates the role of beauty in bird mating by taking readers to Borneo to observe the rituals of the Great Argus, a species of pheasant known as ‘one of the most aesthetically extreme animals on the planet,’ and to Suriname, to see the displays of male manakins, which must meet the ‘very high standards’ of potential female mates.

In other chapters, Prum reveals the intricate machinery involved in female bowerbirds choosing their mates. Female ducks, it seems, may not have such autonomy. Prum also describes the violence of duck sex, involving what humans would call gang rape. The illustrations of record-setting duck penises might cause a delicate lady to blush. The author, who charmingly reveals his lifelong fascination with birds, does not base his argument solely on avian evolution. In later chapters, he explores the role of female mate choice in primate evolution, a challenging subject that he views as warranting further study. Throughout, the narrative is well-documented and wholly accessible, enriched by the author’s warm personal touches. This is a science book to savour.

Prum writes that his goal was to present the ‘full, distinctive richness, complexity, and diversity of this aesthetic view of life.’ Do read this to judge for yourself whether he has succeeded.

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.

Enquire at your local library. Check if this new work of popular science is in stock by consulting the online catalogue at

448 pages in Doubleday

First published 2017

ISBN  978-0385537216

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Professor Richard Prum

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