I did not like “The Evolution of Beauty”

Richard Prum has written a book in which he claims that female mate choice for arbitrary male traits, “beautiful” traits, is an underappreciated, revolutionary force in evolution. On the face of it, I should love this book. It appears to challenge standard sexual selection narratives, it emphasizes the importance of natural history, it even tries to be feminist! Why, then, do I dislike it? Because it is disingenuous.

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How do you write a book on sexual selection and not even consider the idea that ornaments may signal environmentally-determined condition and not just “good genes”? How do you manage to not cite Doug Emlen? How, as I’ve mentioned before, do you claim that Fisherian runaway selection is “ignored” by biologists and then not discuss research on sensory drive in fish or frogs or lizards? How do you write a book on sexual selection in birds and not even mention Hamilton and Zuk’s classic work on ornamentation and parasite load?  Why, across your whole book, would you not distinguish between claims that are supported by the literature (you know, with a numbered footnote or endnote leading to a reference) and provocative statements pulled from thin air, making the reader repeatedly do the work of flipping to the end of the book to figure out which is which? After all this, how do you expect a reader to believe you when you say things like this:

Aesthetic evolution by mate choice is an idea so dangerous that it had to be laundered out of Darwinism itself in order to preserve the omnipotence of the explanatory power of natural selection.

I wanted to take this book seriously, but if it doesn’t engage with the literature it is seeking to critique, it does not deserve serious engagement. If, by failing to engage with others’ work on organisms that may not be birds, Prum ends up repeatedly reinventing all the wheels of our current understanding of sexual selection, it is not worth our time or effort to discern if he has in fact come up with something new. If, by setting out to prove himself an iconoclast, Prum mischaracterizes all of us who study sexual selection, he gains no credibility. Ironically, even as something of an adaptationist, I actually begrudgingly agreed with one of this book’s central claims–that we’d be better off considering runaway selection as a null model for ornament evolution–long before learning about any of Prum’s work. I don’t know what that says about Prum’s decision to be quite so combative in this book, and quite so dismissive of huge contributions from a large number of his colleagues.

Full disclosure: once this book started talking about feminism, I couldn’t bring myself to go on (I stopped after Chapter 5, a very mixed-bag chapter about Patricia Brennan’s wonderful work on duck sex). However, I made the mistake of skipping to the end, to see this paragraph:

On the other hand, feminists themselves have often expressed discomfort with standards of beauty, sexual aesthetics, and discussions of desire. Beauty has been viewed as a punishing male standard that treats women and girls as sexual objects and persuades women to adopt the same self-destructive standard to judge themselves. Desire has been viewed as another route to fining themselves under the power of men. Yet aesthetic evolutionary theory reminds us that women are not only sexual objects but also sexual subjects with their own desires and the evolved agency to pursue them. Sexual desire and attraction are not just tools of subjugation but individual and collective instruments of social empowerment that can contribute to the expansion of sexual autonomy itself. Normative aesthetic agreement about what is desirable in a mate can be a powerful force to effect cultural change.

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No. We do not need “aesthetic evolutionary theory” to patronizingly inform us women that we have sexual agency. And women’s sexual agency is not going to save the world–men, get your act together and learn about systemic power imbalances.

I firmly believe that how we study sexual selection needs to be shaken up, but Prum’s approach is most definitely not the way. Maybe there’s something profound in here that I’m completely missing. Maybe it’ll hit me in a few weeks or months or years and I’ll come back and finish this book. Until then, I’ll continue to hold in high esteem the women who have been pushing boundaries and asking difficult questions of the evolutionary biology establishment, women like Marlene Zuk and Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and Patricia Gowaty and Patricia Brennan and Holly Dunsworth and Joan Roughgarden and Erika Milam and Zuleyma Tang-Martinez. I recommend you do the same.

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