Should fitness share the stage with beauty? My review of Prum’s “Evolution of Beauty”

Charles Darwin, 1883, by John Collier. National Portrait Gallery, London.

The Times Sunday Book Review, six days ahead of the Sunday paper, published today my review of Richard Prum’s “The Evolution of Beauty” (and a few other titles). I found Prum’s book “a delicious read, both seductive and mutinous” — mutinous in particular against those he feels have entrapped evolutionary biology in an “impoverished, even corrupted” gene-centric view “of evolution in general, and in particular of how evolution has shaped sexual relations and human culture.”

This adaptationist view, which sees all selection as natural selection based on fitness, should make room for a view that sees sexual selection, which is exerted through mating choices based on aesthetics and pleasure, as an evolutionay force independent and sometimes contrary to natural selection.

He nimbly mines both the animal and human literature to show how, for one human trait after another, adaptationist explanations miss the mark while aesthetic explanations hit home. His catalog of Things Natural Selection Can’t Explain but Sexual Selection Easily Can includes homosexuality, a tendency toward monogamy, both sex’s taste and capacity for sex outside of female fertility periods, the deweaponization of the human male through the evolutionary shrinkage of almost every body part except the brain and the evolution of human paternal care, which is highly unusual among our fellow apes and close primate cousins. To name just a few.

Consider, for instance, this handful of well-known distinguishing human traits: our constant interest in sex, permanent breasts, big penises, and, last but hardly least, women’s orgasms. Except for constant sexual interest (and possibly female orgasm) in bonobos, none of these traits evolved in our fellow ape species. Prum argues that they evolved in humans because they help women evaluate men’s prosocial-pleasure potential. When sex offers orgasm at relatively low pregnancy risk, it provides a way not just to reproduce but to assess potential mates’ attention to female desires, tastes and choices. Essentially, Prum says, humans evolved to negotiate and have sex as a sort of display ritual. The boudoir is our bower.

Help yourself to the rest over at the Times.

Many thanks to the wonderful New York Times Sunday Book Review editors Parul Sehgal and Gal Beckerman, who supported this review so nicely; and to colleagues Nathaniel Comfort, Eric Johnson, and Daniel Lende, who helped me improve it greatly with sharp reads on early drafts. Any errors, god forbid, are mine.