A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction is a popular science book written by an actual expert on the field, addressing the ways in which the world of animals is shaped by sexual selection.
One of Darwin’s major contributions to the panoply of theoretical and observational work we call “evolution” was to recognize, describe, and model sexual selection.
Key to Darwin’s original conception is the presence of an aesthetic sense in females that drives male trait evolution to produce elaborated traits. We now have a much more sophisticated understanding of sexual selection than Darwin had. Females don’t merely have this rather Victorian aesthetic. They are, in some species, picking mates on the basis of meaningful qualities and forcing the opposite sex to compete with each other to demonstrate these qualities. We also, today, understand that while it is more often females driving male trait evolution, the opposite can occur, and we even think we know why a particular directionality of sexual selection driven evolution would occur.
Another thing that has been learned over time is the modalities of selection. The early, obvious cases, such as the peacock displaying to the peahen, are visual and use color. Over time we’ve come to understand many other kinds of traits including auditory and olfactory, much better.
A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction by biologist Michael J. Ryan is an excellent exposition of, and wide ranging sampling of, sexual selection in animals. Ryan ranges across a wide range of sensory modalities. Sexual selection involves direct competition (often seen as fighting) as well as attraction, but Ryan’s book focuses on the latter, on the interplay between Darwin’s presumed aesthetic (but understood as we know of it today) and visual, auditory, olfactory, and other cues embodied in elaborated traits and behaviors.
Since the visual modality is important, it s nice to see ht e publishers spring for a bunch of color plates in the middle of the volume. (This is not a surprise, Princeton makes the best looking books.) Notes are fairly extensive and there is a good bibliography, and it is well written. A very nice book all along.
A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction could be an accompanying volume in an intro or mid level college course on evolutionary biology. Or, the high school or college biology teacher can simply steal numerous examples from the text. That is what I intend to do next opportunity. But it is really an excellent book for the average science geek such as yourself.
From the editors:
From one of the world’s leading authorities on animal behavior, the astonishing story of how the female brain drives the evolution of beauty in animals and humans
Darwin developed the theory of sexual selection to explain why the animal world abounds in stunning beauty, from the brilliant colors of butterflies and fishes to the songs of birds and frogs. He argued that animals have “a taste for the beautiful” that drives their potential mates to evolve features that make them more sexually attractive and reproductively successful. But if Darwin explained why sexual beauty evolved in animals, he struggled to understand how. In A Taste for the Beautiful, Michael Ryan, one of the world’s leading authorities on animal behavior, tells the remarkable story of how he and other scientists have taken up where Darwin left off and transformed our understanding of sexual selection, shedding new light on human behavior in the process.
Drawing on cutting-edge work in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, as well as his own important studies of the tiny Túngara frog deep in the jungles of Panama, Ryan explores the key questions: Why do animals perceive certain traits as beautiful and others not? Do animals have an inherent sexual aesthetic and, if so, where is it rooted? Ryan argues that the answers to these questions lie in the brain?particularly of females, who act as biological puppeteers, spurring the development of beautiful traits in males. This theory of how sexual beauty evolves explains its astonishing diversity and provides new insights about the degree to which our own perception of beauty resembles that of other animals.
A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction is vividly written and filled with fascinating stories, A Taste for the Beautiful will change how you think about beauty and attraction.
Michael J. Ryan is the Clark Hubbs Regents Professor in Zoology at the University of Texas and a Senior Research Associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He is a leading researcher in the fields of sexual selection, mate choice, and animal communication. He lives in Austin, Texas.
Hey, this book has a trailer!