How Beauty Complicates Evolution (And Vice Versa)

How Beauty Complicates Evolution (And Vice Versa) January 17, 2019

Beauty in nature goes against our simplistic understanding of evolution.

By Serhanoksay - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17195951

A Thing Of Beauty Is a Joy For Ever

The New York Times Magazine recently featured an article that explored how and why nature produces beauty. In “How Beauty Is Making Scientists Rethink Evolution,” we read about how scientists have conceptualized the role of beauty and courtship since Darwin’s day.

The way we think of natural selection—competition for scarce resources and the avoidance of predation—makes it hard to explain physical features like the peacock’s tail. Carrying a long tail made of colorful feathers certainly isn’t the best strategy if a bird needs to outrun predators. The mating rituals of the brightly colored bowerbird, which involve the construction of elaborate artworks out of twigs and flowers in addition to the performance of a strenuous dance, represent an immense expenditure of time and energy for a marriage that only lasts seconds.

How did nature make such behavior cost effective in the struggle for survival?

Endless Forms Most Beautiful

Darwin famously answered the question by proposing the idea of sexual selection. It was obvious to him that a feature or trait that didn’t help an organism feed itself or avoid predators must have value in differential reproductive success. In the terminology of the neo-Darwinian synthesis, these traits and behaviors helped the bearer’s alleles to be better represented in the gene pools of successive generations. The coloring of the Bird of Paradise (whose picture accompanies this post) represents the result of an inflationary spiral engineered by countless iterations of sexual selection.

As the Times article says:

The environment constrains a creature’s anatomy, which determines how it experiences the world, which generates adaptive and arbitrary preferences, which loop back to alter its biology, sometimes in maladaptive ways. Beauty reveals that evolution is neither an iterative chiseling of living organisms by a domineering landscape nor a frenzied collision of chance events. Rather, evolution is an intricate clockwork of physics, biology and perception in which every moving part influences another in both subtle and profound ways. Its gears are so innumerable and dynamic — so susceptible to serendipity and mishap — that even a single outcome of its ceaseless ticking can confound science for centuries.

A Simple, Elegant Explanation That’s Wrong

Sexual selection has been overshadowed by natural selection because we’re more comfortable with a simplistic view of nature as a “struggle for existence” than we are with an understanding of how complex differential reproductive success and natural history are.

Scientists have theorized that sexual selection isn’t as counter-intuitive as it seems; the male’s displays can be considered messages to the female concerning his fitness. A peacock able to escape predators while dragging a train of feathers behind him must have good genes, after all. The females involved in sexual selection, then, are processing data about the comparative genetic worth of the males competing for her favor.

This type of theorizing seems designed to avoid two things that have long made scientists uncomfortable: animal consciousness and female desire. Could it be that the displays work because organisms appreciate beauty for its own sake?

Where the Boys Are

Note how male-centric our approach to evolution is. I’ve mentioned before that science writer Elaine Morgan derided our endless fascination with “The Tarzan Myth”: every trait we assume arose in male humans (like erect posture) derived from the need to hunt and fight, whereas every trait we assume arose in female humans (like breast size) originated from its value in exciting males. The emphasis on natural selection goes along with the Tarzan myth, because competition and predation are considered important factors in evolution.

But the idea that traits in males develop according to the desires of females goes against this bias, and ascribes a lot of power to the female side of nature. Furthermore, the idea that females choose mates not because they perceive data about the competitors’ genetic material but because they respond to beauty is just the sort of fuzzy, sentimental claim that science fans dismiss as irrelevant.

What do you think? Is beauty something that can drive evolution? 

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Raging Bee

    Beauty in nature goes against our simplistic understanding of evolution.

    It does?

  • Try that one again, okay, RB?

    And this time, try.

  • Kevin K

    “Beauty” is a human construct.

    Sexual selection is well described in nature, and does not depend on the human notion of “beauty” in order for it to be demonstrable.

    I’m not sure what you’re driving at here, but the idea that “beauty” is somehow anti-evolution is … stooopid.

  • Insinuating that I declared that beauty is somehow anti-evolution is just as stooopid. Thanks as always for your thought-provoking contribution.

  • Antoon Pardon

    As far as I understand almost anything can drive sexual selection. All it needs is some kind of preference in one sex for a trait in the other sex to appear. As long as that trait is not too big a disadvantage itself. So sure females desiring beatiful males can drive evolution.

  • SocraticGadfly

    I’ve read Prum’s book, and in addition to explaining well sexual selection in general, it is NOT male specific. At the same time, contra the NYT piece, Prum sometimes does flirt with adaptationist explanations, and later parts are in general a bit of a clunker. https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/2023194924

  • Thanks for commenting. I put Prum’s book on my want-to-read list at Goodreads.

    It’s typical that people aren’t making much of an effort to understand what I’m on about here. I should have tried to put it in terms of what we think of as adaptations. Certainly the coloring and features of birds like the peacock and the bird of paradise don’t help them survive in their environments, they just help them reproduce more successfully than their competitors.

  • Ann Kah

    “Just” help them reproduce? “Just”? That’s pretty much the whole driving force for evolution, isn’t it? Survival needn’t be a very large part of the equation al all, just “survival until reproduction”. Anything after that is just gravy.

  • tophilacticus

    I think I may be missing Prum’s point, but isn’t his emphasis on beauty and aesthetic sexual selection repackaged (and heterosexual selection at that)? At first it seemed to me to be quite profound, that it appears to counter utilitarianism but then I think of it in context of my own field of paleontology, and it seems to be sexual selection advertised differently. In paleontology, most characteristics we can’t readily explain (and not so readily) or seem ambiguous are given the purpose of attracting mates. A friend once made the comment that what if the colorful variety of birds plumage exists simply as an unfolding of life, that it is a part of life’s diversity. I dismissed this at first, then thought about how much sex (and straightness) are emphasized in biology and paleontology. Could this be a cultural bias in science that’s missing here, the heterosexual point of view, that has led us down a rabbit-hole?

  • I agree with you about the hetero-centric nature of the sexual selection concept. I guess it’s a matter of debate how much we impose our biases onto animal behavior and how much is observed.

    And yeah, sexual selection does act like a placeholder in these instances. We just assume that if a feature or behavior doesn’t contribute to an organism’s survival, it must facilitate mating in some way. It’s putting the cart before the horse.

  • > We just assume that if a feature or behavior doesn’t contribute to an organism’s survival, it must facilitate mating in some way.

    You just gave me a whole new perspective on my appendix.

  • (((J_Enigma32)))

    I’ve always seen this as being kind of self evident. After all, when I look at something like a male peacock, I see something that evolved to try and woo females. We see the same thing with animals that build nests and then try to woo the female with how well their nests are built. Sexual selection requires both components, after all. I don’t understand why humans would be any different, but then, I’ll freely admit I’m speaking as an autodidact and amateur, meaning I’m a blow-hard to who doesn’t know jack shit, but I pontificate at length about the subject on the Internet because it’s what all the cool kids do anymore.

    As a side note, I’ve often wondered how much of the whole “competition and predation” model of evolution and nature isn’t driven by our own culture’s positive view of competition and the artificial winner/loser binary. After all, there’s a number instance where working together is the superior option. But because we’re all about “individualism” (no we aren’t, but we’ll ignore that for a moment) and “free will” and ensuring that “real life” sucks for everyone but the very rich because it sucked for the few whiny White males who go out an vote for ass hats like Trump, we tend to contextualize evolution using that same binary.

  • when I look at something like a male peacock, I see something that evolved to try and woo females.

    Well, okay, but let’s not go too far down the adaptationist rabbit hole. The only reason we’re safe in assuming that a physical feature derives from sexual selection is because it seems so detrimental to the organism’s survival chances. Saying it evolved to try and woo females is a selectionist just-so story that raises just as many questions as it purports to answer: when and how did the feature arise? What about the feature appeals to females and why?

    I’ll freely admit I’m speaking as an autodidact and amateur, meaning I’m a blow-hard to who doesn’t know jack shit

    That makes two of us!

    I’ve often wondered how much of the whole “competition and predation” model of evolution and nature isn’t driven by our own culture’s positive view of competition and the artificial winner/loser binary.

    No doubt about it. We impose order on our knowledge that makes it resonate with our cultural and social beliefs. There are a lot of biases about superiority, conflict, and control encoded in the way we understand species evolution.

  • Seems to me that sexual selection is merely one component of natural selection. But I seriously know next to nothing about evolution beyond what I read in Jerry Coyne’s “Why Evolution is True.”

  • tophilacticus

    Hahaha.

    Or “beauty is internal” and if/when it ruptures “love hurts.”

  • Jim Jones

    > It was obvious to him that a feature or trait that didn’t help an organism feed itself or avoid predators must have value in differential reproductive success.

    ISTM that all life forms, from the simplest to the most complex, have two core drives:

    1. Survive.

    2. Reproduce.

    Any species without those will die out. And those explain most behaviors.

  • wannabe

    The human appendix may be vestigial in terms of day-to-day digestion, but it is currently hypothesized to be a reservoir for “good” digestive bacteria during diarrheal illness. It may also have other functions. See Wikipedia.

  • i claim comedic license. =)

  • wannabe

    Homosexual penguin couples sometimes steal the eggs of hetero penguins, hatching and raising the offspring. The result: More penguins prone to allowing their eggs to be stolen. Sexual selection at work!

    Hey, you wanted a theory…
    /s

  • See Noevo

    What do you think? Is beauty something that can drive evolution?

    I think evolution is, and will one day be revealed to all to be,

    perhaps the greatest embarrassment and shame in the histories of science and of rational thought.

  • Dude. Not one of your amigos could be bothered to come here and engage you?

    Guess your bait’s getting a little stale.

  • Chuck Johnson

    You are once again promoting the politics of dishonesty and ignorance.
    You don’t understand science.
    It’s important to your style of Christianity that you don’t understand.

  • Chuck Johnson

    “What do you think? Is beauty something that can drive evolution?”

    Yes.
    In humans, the word “beauty” can help to drive evolution.

    Other creatures do not have the word “beauty”.
    For them, the intuitive or instinctive version of the perception of beauty can help to drive evolution.

    An enormous number of factors are driving evolution all over our planet as we discuss this.
    Our discussions are also helping to drive evolution.

  • Chuck Johnson

    Simulated honesty and simulated sincerity.

    The power and persuasiveness that one can gain by being dishonest has a very strong appeal.