Prum argues convincingly that the subjective experience of animals — the pleasure they take in aesthetic display — is a major evolutionary force. What is less clear and never really considered is whether animals are conscious of this pleasure and what it means when we say they experience beauty ... Prum is particularly eager to emphasize the role that female mating preferences may have played in human evolution, as if feminist arguments were simply waiting for the imprimatur of a biologist. While some of these conjectures are more plausible than others, the book is a major intellectual achievement that should hasten the adoption of a more expansive style of evolutionary explanation that Darwin himself would have appreciated.
...true to his argument, Prum seeks to prevail less through brute force of attack than by making his case with clarity, grace and charm. Like a bowerbird arranging its display for potential mates, he seeks not to best his chesty, chattering rivals, but to persuade the open-minded. The result is a delicious read, both seductive and mutinous ... 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.
Aside from challenging the supremacy of adaptation theory, The Evolution of Beauty poses some unsettling philosophical questions ... Unfortunately, while Mr. Prum makes an excellent basic case for aesthetic evolution, the details can get muddy ... All the same, my disagreements are really signs of engagement: The Evolution of Beauty should be widely read, as it will provoke readers, shaking them (as reading Hume did to Kant) from their dogmatic slumbers. The author hews largely to the animals he knows best, birds and people, with only passing mention of how aesthetic evolution might shape other species. But I don’t see how any biologist could read this book and not walk away at least questioning the idea that adaptation must explain every last trait. Survival of the fittest might not be enough to explain nature. We might need survival of the prettiest, too.
This is a compelling argument, and a welcome examination of gender bias in evolutionary biology. Yet it also raises the thorny question of whether scientific consensus, with its checkered history on issues of race and gender, can ever be a solid foundation for a 'just' society ... Providing an intimate view into the lives of creatures a world away from New Haven, Beauty’s lovingly detailed descriptions of birds in their natural habitat are full of an infectious sense of wonder. They represent Prum at his best ... For someone like me who shares Prum’s politics, this makes for emotionally satisfying reading. It also fits neatly into the broader liberal media ecosystem ... there’s an unwritten but necessary caveat to Beauty: while evolutionary biology and science are inherently political and can provide a framework for understanding political issues, the hard work of convincing others should rely on moral, not empirical, arguments.
Readers may be in for a shock when Prum turns to duck sex, which can be violent, involving what humans would call gang rape, and the illustrations of record-setting duck penises are eye-opening. The author, who charmingly reveals his lifelong fascination with birds, does not base his argument solely on avian evolution, however. In later chapters, he explores the role of female mate choice in primate evolution, a challenging subject that he views as warranting further study. Throughout, the narrative is well-documented and wholly accessible, enriched by the author’s warm personal touches.
That said, Prum does a great service in showing how limited research into human sexuality is ... Despite these quibbles, The Evolution of Beauty has much to recommend it, both as a provocation to the complacency of much contemporary evolutionary thinking and as a scientific hypothesis to be tested.