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A Beauty of an Introduction to an Idea of Beauty

A review by Manuel Lerdau

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World—and Us, by Richard Prum

Doubleday 2017

428 pages—hardcover

ABA Sales / Buteo Books 14815

Rick Prum’s The Evolution of Beauty has been reviewed many times in both the popular and the professional scientific press. My review, appearing in a science magazine read mostly by non-professional scientists, concentrates on the commonalities and differences of the earlier reviews, pointing the Birding reader toward a few examples that stand out. In writing this “meta-review,” I have come to recognize that the standards of each literature differ from one another more in kind than in rigor: That is, a positive review in the popular press may be completely congruent with a negative review in the scientific press, and vice versa.  

First, where all reviews agree: Prum’s prose is a pleasure to read. He writes with a felicity and enthusiasm that are all too rare in either scientific or popular writing, and his clear sentences and fun paragraphs should serve as models for aspiring essayists. Furthermore, either Prum is such a natural writer that he does not need an editor, or the book is so well edited that the editor’s hand is not apparent. 

The writing here is most enjoyable when Prum is describing the natural history of birds and their mating behaviors. These accounts bring to mind the stories of the early 20th-century nature writer Frank Howard Atkins (he published under the pseudonym F. St. Mars), whose writing about skuas is quoted to such great effect in Arthur Cleveland Bent’s monumental Life Histories. As Doug Futuyma points out in his review in the Quarterly Review of Biology (93[2]: 150-151), Prum’s lovely descriptions of natural history are worth the price of the book. The uniformly glowing reviews published in the popular press have found the combination of detailed recounting of the amazing accomplishments of nature and the author’s downright fun writing irresistible. Indeed, The Evolution of Beauty was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in general non-fiction.  

Why, in the face of all of this praise in the popular press, have the reviews in the scientific literature have been so critical? In addition to the Futuyma review, Gerald Borgia and Gregory Ball published a short but severe critique in Animal Behaviour (137: 187-188), and Gail Patricelli, Eileen Hebets, and Tamra Mendelson (PHM) offered a long and highly critical analysis in the premier journal of evolutionary biology, Evolution (doi:10.1111/evo.13629; open access and available to all on line). The reviews agree on the high quality of Prum’s style, but they point out several scientific and logical problems with his arguments. With respect to his argument regarding the evolution of a beauty for its own sake, Prum is unclear regarding the nature of a null hypothesis, that is, a proposition about the world that can be rejected by data. Second, while he critically examines ideas that contradict his, he does not engage in similar serious critical analyses of his own explanation. Third, the notion that beauty evolves as a male response to female preference is one possible explanation for secondary sexual traits, but Prum expands the idea of beauty from physical traits that cause a female to prefer a given male for breeding into a much broader notion of deep aesthetic appeal, without acknowledging that he is using the same word to refer to different things. The confusion reminds me of the early controversies in sociobiology, when human words such as “rape” were applied to animal behaviors and those animal behaviors then used to justify the human actions described by the same word.  

Finally, Prum, for reasons that are not clear to me, tries to extend his arguments to the human realm as a biological justification of feminism. Female choice in birds becomes an argument for female empowerment and equality in humans. As my high school English teacher used to say, “Everyone should have at least a little Hume,” and Prum should return to A Treatise on Human Nature to review the Is/Ought fallacy, the erroneous notion that just because something is, it ought to be. Jerry Coyne makes this point more wittily in a blog post reviewing Prum’s book: “Female choice in birds is a direct product of evolution, while human feminism is a rational conclusion our species draws to improve society by treating people equally. Feminism should not be buttressed by biology, as that makes it susceptible to further knowledge from biology.”

After reading many reviews, I find myself agreeing with almost all of them. Rick Prum has written a lovely book that is a pleasure to read (and, by the way, also has lovely illustrations).  Anyone who enjoys reading descriptions of bird natural history will enjoy this book. If, however, the goal is to gain a broader and deeper understanding of the evolutionary forces acting on sexual traits, The Evolution of Beauty is more of an introduction than a definitive text.  

– Manuel Lerdau is Professor of Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia and a former U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who studied songbirds and colonial waterbirds in the Mid-Atlantic region. Currently Manuel studies air pollution impacts on ecosystems and how land-use practices affect these impacts. 

Recommended citation:

Lerdau, M. 2019. A Beauty of an Introduction to an Idea of Beauty [a review of The Evolution of Beauty, by Richard Prum]. Birding 50.2: 67-68.

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Birding Book and Media Reviews

Birding Book and Media Reviews

Birding magazine publishes full-length versions of all its reviews on its blog. Books and media of all kinds are evaluated for potential interest level to the ABA membership and then assigned for review and edited by Frank Izaguirre. Contact him at [email protected]
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