Beauty and the Beasts

When I started to read The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us, by Yale’s Coe Professor of Ornithology, Richard Prum, I had limited expectations. At 540 pages of text, not to mention many pages of endnotes as are common in serious books like this, it was an imposing undertaking. I believed it would help me understand some things I’ve puzzled over, but I largely overlooked the “and Us” part of the subtitle. That was a mistake, though a serendipitous one.

Much of the book is devoted to explaining the concept of mate choice based on aesthetic factors (“beauty” and the animal response to it) as opposed to the historically dominant theory that all evolved traits are driven by adaptive-to-environment considerations of Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” idea. Common understanding to the contrary notwithstanding, Darwin’s “fittest” concept does not refer to conditioning but to adaptation to environmental factors that will determine the reproductive success of individuals and thus the success, or not, of the species. Darwin’s theories have, or course, been written about in countless volumes.

Prum makes the case that Darwin, after publishing On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, had a second big idea that has been largely ignored in the evolutionary sciences. It was set out in Darwin’s second great work: The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex.

I am not going to try here to set out the details of the argument Prum makes, but, as he describes it: “In Descent, Darwin presented his hypothesis that female sexual autonomy – the taste for the beautiful – is an independent and transformative evolutionary force in the history of life.” Evolution at 28. This gave rise to a major conflict in evolutionary biology, leading to the wholesale rejection of the idea that “sexual selection” based on aesthetic factors had any role in evolution beyond that of “natural selection.”

Prum’s work is devoted to exploding that approach and to restoring sexual selection as a parallel and independent force in evolution with extraordinary effects. He explains the idea of “coevolution” in which certain preferences alter the behavior of the opposite sex in dramatic ways so that the two forces, beauty that serves no other “fitness” purpose, and the response to it, evolve together with each influencing the other over evolutionary time. To illuminate this idea, Prum focuses on the lekking behavior of manakins (I had never heard of them) and the extraordinary behaviors of the bowerbirds.

Leks are areas in forest, typically, where male manakins gather in what appear to be coordinated, or at least cooperative, arrangements to participate in competitive displays for the favor of females. This bizarre scheme is driven, Prum argues, by the preferences of females who have, over evolutionary time, rejected the more typical male forms of sexual display and conflict, including the violence often associated with that competition. He discusses at length the fraught situation of sexual violence among ducks and some of the evolutionary changes in the physical structure of female ducks to fend off the otherwise extreme aggressive behavior that sometimes leads to the injury and even death of the targeted female.

Bowerbirds, on the other hand, construct elaborate structures, sometimes a yard wide, in which the inner areas are laid out, by the male, in a manner that enables the female to visit the bower and watch the male perform his often-elaborate mating display while being protected from sudden sexual assault by the male.

Prum’s idea is that the sexual preferences of the female birds have led to the coevolution of changes in male bird behavior that enhance female sexual autonomy. Females in this bird world are the driving force for changes in sexual behavior among males that don’t seem to be explainable any other way. Male displays, including the extraordinarily colorful plumage and means of pre-mating displays, are not, Prum argues, honest indicators of the genetic superiority of the individual birds and thus females do not select mates based on “beliefs” that the chosen male has superior genes that will lead to more successful chicks who will spread the female’s genes even further by being more attractive to males in the future.

Now to the really powerful idea. In the later chapters, Prum turns to the question of human sexual behavior that seems to have no role in enhancing reproductive success. If, for example, male-male sexual preferences have no contribution to reproductive success, how did evolution produce them? Such same-sex preferences are very widespread throughout world populations and across vast stretches of time, at least the time from which we have some record evidence. The same questions arise regarding female-female sexual attraction.

This is a question of enormous social importance because so many people appear to believe that sexual preference and/or sexual identity is a simple “choice” that individuals make. Further, they believe that same-sex preferences are “abnormal” precisely because they deviate from the generally accepted “wisdom” that sexual preference has one purpose only: reproductive success and enhancement of downstream genetic progression.

I pause here to note that Prum himself admits that some of his ideas are speculative and difficult to prove, but he marshals considerable evidence and coherent reasoning from known facts to support those speculations. He at least offers plausible explanations where the alternatives seem singularly weak.

I propose that cultural ideologies of male power, sexual domination, and social hierarchy – that is, patriarchy – developed to reassert male control over fertilization, reproduction, and parental investment as countermeasures to the evolutionary expansion of female sexual autonomy. The result is a new, human sexual conflict arms race being waged through the mechanisms of culture. [italics in original] [Evolution at 551]

…. It is not an accident that patriarchal ideologies are focused so intently on the control of female sexuality and reproduction and also on the condemnation and prohibition of same-sex behavior. Female sexual autonomy and same-sex behavior have both evolved to be disruptive to male hierarchical power and control. These disruptive effects were likely the driving force behind the cultural invention and maintenance of the patriarchy itself.

Despite the near ubiquity of male culture dominance, this view implies that patriarchy is not inevitable, and it does not constitute human biological “destiny” (whatever that is). Patriarchy is a product not of our evolutionary history nor of human biology per se but of human culture. [Evolution at 552]

And, finally,

If patriarchy is part of a cultural sexual conflict arms race, then we should predict the emergence of cultural countermeasures to reassert and preserve female sexual and social autonomy, and so they have…. Although it took thousands of years to happen, the results of these efforts – legal recognition of women’s suffrage, universal human rights, and the abolition of legal slavery – are demonstrations that it is possible to dismantle deeply ingrained components of patriarchy that are often, still, considered as biologically “natural.” [Evolution at 553]

That brings me to the subject I was planning to write about some time ago and expected to place in my other blog, Gay Pride Day events in New York City on June 30. We decided to skip the main parade and attend the Reclaim Pride spinoff that ended on the Great Lawn in Central Park just to see what was going on. The conflict between the main group and the Reclaim folks likely has multiple sources into which I have no experience or insights and therefore will not try to discuss. The people behind the Queer Liberation March and Rally,, had a lot to say. Much anger was expressed by speakers, not only at the takeover of the main event by corporate “sponsors” but also at the police. It seemed clear that there is much work to be done before something resembling peace can be achieved between the gay community and local law enforcement.

One thing that interested me was what I will call the flamboyance of most of the participants. To be clear, I use that term in its non-pejorative sense of “the tendency to attract attention because of one’s exuberance, confidence, and stylishness” and “the quality of being bright, colorful, and very noticeable.” [Google Dictionary] The photographs below show this quite clearly. My first thought was “why do this when it attracts the attention of both anti-gay people and the police who, according to the attendees, treat them very badly?”

Then, it occurred to me (and this thought is reinforced by Prum’s analysis) they may be signaling that they are members of, belong to, have a place in, a particular group with whom they identify in a deep way. The often dramatic, in -your-face flamboyance is not a way of saying “hit me.” It’s a way of saying “respect me — I am who I am. If I’m comfortable with it, why can’t you be also?” Faced with society’s rejection in many cases, they are responding with countermeasures that reject the “you don’t belong” or “there’s something wrong with you” mentality of much of society here and elsewhere. The same evolutionary forces that are at work against the patriarchy and in support of female sexual autonomy are well-aligned with the gay movement and in the end will, inevitably, prevail.

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