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Is a Gender War Woven into the Fabric of Creation?

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us

By Richard O. Prum

Publisher: Doubleday

Pages: 448 pages

Price: $30

Review Author: Anthony Giambrone

Anthony Giambrone, O.P., is a Dominican friar of the Province of St. Joseph (New York) and a Professor of New Testament at the École biblique in Jerusalem.

In March 2013, shortly after the re-election of Barack Obama, federal budget negotiations broke down in a cyclic flare-up of protest against wasteful government spending. In this familiarly dysfunctional atmosphere, Fox News reported on a mini-scandal dubbed “Duckpenisgate,” exposing with outrage the awarding of a $385,000 National Science Foundation grant for the study of ducks’ private parts. The recipient of that funding, evolutionary biologist and Yale professor of ornithology Richard O. Prum, has now submitted his findings to the public in a handsome, hardbound volume from which we might finally judge how well our tax money was spent.

To an irregular consumer of popular science, The Evolution of Beauty seems to be one of the most interesting and provocative books on evolution in quite some time. There is substance here for philosophers and scientists alike. The author’s leftist social agenda, unfortunately, waxes as the text proceeds and meshes uncomfortably with the fascinating findings and theorizing of a talented naturalist. Prum’s achievement is thus the composite vision of a man whose eye is both open to the display of superfluous beauty that ornaments the natural world, and filmed over by the political shibboleths that govern modern university culture. His book at once helps liberate science from a straightjacketed, reductively functionalist, and objectifying view of nature, and coerces its readers to submit to an aggressive gender ideology.

The book’s essential insight is easily summarized. Darwin was not convinced that adaptive evolution alone (i.e., “survival of the fittest”) could explain the evolution of species in all its spectacular diversity — and he was right. “The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail,” Darwin said, “whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” Certain features of animal life are so extravagantly unsuited to survival, so outrageously crippling in fact, that another evolutionary dynamic must be at work. Aesthetic evolution by mate choice is, accordingly, the missing evolutionary force and a necessary supplement to narrow “Darwinian” orthodoxy. Indeed, as Prum avers, this is “Darwin’s really dangerous idea.”

In Prum’s account, however, the reception of Darwin has myopically celebrated only his early text, On the Origin of Species, forgetting the scientist’s final masterwork, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. The latter was, in fact, quickly scuttled, and its author was considered a traitor to his own cause. The explanatory power of adaptive evolution simply proved to be so rational, so ordered, and so easily applicable that it swiftly became the lens through which all else was filtered, analyzed, and judged — even Darwin’s own more mature and deeper insights.

Thus, when it came to the dynamics of mate selection studied by Darwin, male/male competition was easily assimilated and accepted by the guild. It so nicely fits the survival-of-the-fittest rubric — as when two big-horned males repeatedly smash their heads together to demonstrate who has superior strength in order to settle who gets to pass on his genes and reproduce with the observing, passive female. On the other hand, Darwin also suggested a second, more “irrational” process of mate selection. (Odd that head-butting should be the model of reasonable behavior.) This second process is oriented around the female’s own preference, when on account of some particular attractiveness of form, color, scent, behavior, or voice — having absolutely no advantage in relation to an individual’s direct survival — the female simply freely chooses the mate that pleases her most. Thus do such hindering but “beautiful” traits enter the evolutionary gene pool, develop, and get passed down.

Darwin himself understood that the phenomenon of aesthetic evolution is best seen in the mating patterns of birds, where extravagant ornament appears like runway fashion trends. Prum’s study — stoked by the ornithologist’s profound enthusiasm — is a surprisingly enjoyable, detailed, mathematically modeled, and nicely illustrated account of the intricacies of mate selection among various species of birds, from the rarely observed courting display of the great argus of Sumatra to the complex dancing rituals of the gorgeous golden-winged manakin and the startlingly violent sex lives of the infamous ducks. In each case, the demonstration helps secure and advance the claim that much extraordinary avian morphology and behavior is best explained as a factor of female desire and mate selection.

Prum’s bold but considered attribution of “desire” and “choice” to his evolutionary protagonists risks anthropomorphism, yet it opens an intriguing space to contemplate the interiority and, indeed, the “irrationality” of the animal kingdom. Teilhard de Chardin spoke evocatively of le dedans des choses, the “within” of the subhuman orders from mineral to animal, and Martin Buber, too, sought somehow to reverse the Entzauberung of nature. Whether envisioning a subjective animal agency in the process of avian evolution can move us to a science more attuned to Teilhard’s “Phenomenon of Man” remains an open but important question.

What is clear is that, in Prum’s effort to move his science in this direction, a familiar ideology of “choice” has intruded. Enter at last the male member of the waterfowl. Among the fascinating facts revealed by Prum’s research is the observation that the sexual organs, male and female, of a wide variety of non-territorial duck species have seemingly co-evolved to confound one another’s operation. Thus, the male duck’s genitalia typically wind in the opposite direction of the interior corkscrew design of the female, as if she biologically intended to thwart his reproductive mission. (Unlike 97 percent of bird species, drakes are phallic animals.) The female has, in point of fact, evolved a protective form of defense against the threat of macho ducks, who have the habit of violently “gang-raping” and at times even killing the females. (Prum here hesitates over his perhaps insensitive or offensive usage of the language of “rape,” but remarks, “I think the phrase ‘forced copulation’ does an intellectual disservice to our understanding of sexual violence in nonhuman animals.”)

What Prum ultimately draws from this ugly underside of duck sex is the existence of a gender war woven into the fabric of creation. Males and females are pitted not in harmonious complementarity but in an aggressive, sexual struggle for self-assertion. And the exercise of female agency, female “choice” concerning the conditions of reproduction, from choice of mate to the rejection of an unwanted conception, is a critical balance in the biological, inter-gender “arms race” disturbing the world of birds — and men. Admittedly, Prum’s inevitable jump here to our race does not come without a foray into primate evolution and the mounting of additional, often very interesting, argumentation. Still, when he transmutes female “choice” into a celebration of “reproductive rights,” and as his book terminates with a chapter titled “The Queering of Homo sapiens” — an effort to explain effeminate males as more agreeable to females and somehow safer for the species, being allied against the tyranny of testosterone — readers may be forgiven for wondering what’s driving the science.

The tragedy of Prum’s violent, gender-war view is that it bends back against the very phenomenon of beauty he so rightly and happily calls to witness. At the end of the day, desire and pleasure in his system are swallowed up in an age-old game of power — the libido is ensnared by the libido dominandi. Needless to say, as real and sad as duck (and human) as sexual violence is, this is a reductionist view of nature, too focused on one phenomenon of the animal world, and a profound misconstrual of both beauty and freedom.

It is not implausible that natural science, even the most seemingly arcane and absurd investigations, should have real political and social implications. But it is unlikely that an ornithologist is in the best position to understand what his research ultimately means for the human species. Even the deepest erudition in bird dances and duck reproduction does not translate so easily into strict moral insight. At base, Prum is an astute observer of natural beauty, a congenial nerd who says he wanted to be a professional bird watcher since he was ten. It is clear, however, that he aspires to be something more. Since Darwin’s Origin of Species and Descent of Man, the business of evolutionary biology (not the worst way to land a bestseller) was always about understanding who we are — as Prum has proved anew.

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