Saturday, January 20, 2018

Michael J. Ryan's "A Taste for the Beautiful"

Michael J. Ryan is the Clark Hubbs Regents Professor in Zoology at the University of Texas and a Senior Research Associate at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. He is a leading researcher in the fields of sexual selection, mate choice, and animal communication.

Ryan applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction, and reported the following:
Nature surrounds us with beauty: melodious songs of birds, brilliant colors of tropical fishes, and the spectacular flashing of fireflies are just a few examples.

All of this beauty evolved in the service of sex in which courters, usually males, strive to make themselves more sexually attractive to choosers, usually females. The driving force responsible for these diverse sexual traits is what Darwin referred to as “a taste for the beautiful,” the sexual aesthetics that guide individuals in their choice of mates.

To understand beautiful traits we need to understand why choosers find them beautiful. In many cases beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but more generally beauty is in the brain of the beholder. Thus to understand beauty we need to understand how the brain perceives beauty.

In A Taste for the Beautiful I draw on recent studies in neuroscience and evolutionary biology to explore how sexual aesthetics are rooted in the brain—specifically the female brain—and how many of the details of what we find beautiful actually derive from other things the brain evolved to do. I describe how the senses, the brain, and its cognitive architecture mold sexual aesthetics in animals, including humans, and how the evolution of sexual beauty can be viewed as a series of experiments in which males try out different traits in an effort to please females.

Page 99 reports one bizarre result of such an evolutionary experiment. Female birds just love to hear their males sing. Male manakins evolved a novel instrument to better please the ears of their females—they bring their wings over their shoulders and rub them together creating a violin-like sound that makes the females swoon. Such musical ingenuity occurs in other animals as well. Elsewhere in the book I explain how some males mimic food and predators to trick females into mating; why beauty is so dangerous for the beautiful; why Mickey Gilley was right, for both of us and for frogs, when he sang “all the girls get prettier at closin’ time”; and how sexual fetishes in animals help us understand pornography in humans.
Learn more about A Taste for the Beautiful at the Princeton University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue