BOOK: A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction

On the heels of two 2017 books about sexual selection – Darwin and the Making of Sexual Selection by Evelleen Richards and The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us by Richard O. Prum – comes another that looks at how “scientists have taken up where Darwin left off and transformed our understanding of sexual selection.”

a taste for the beautiful

Michael J. Ryan, A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018), 208 pp.

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Publisher’s description Darwin developed the theory of sexual selection to explain why the animal world abounds in stunning beauty, from the brilliant colors of butterflies and fishes to the songs of birds and frogs. He argued that animals have “a taste for the beautiful” that drives their potential mates to evolve features that make them more sexually attractive and reproductively successful. But if Darwin explained why sexual beauty evolved in animals, he struggled to understand how. In A Taste for the Beautiful, Michael Ryan, one of the world’s leading authorities on animal behavior, tells the remarkable story of how he and other scientists have taken up where Darwin left off and transformed our understanding of sexual selection, shedding new light on human behavior in the process. Drawing on cutting-edge work in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, as well as his own important studies of the tiny Túngara frog deep in the jungles of Panama, Ryan explores the key questions: Why do animals perceive certain traits as beautiful and others not? Do animals have an inherent sexual aesthetic and, if so, where is it rooted? Ryan argues that the answers to these questions lie in the brain—particularly of females, who act as biological puppeteers, spurring the development of beautiful traits in males. This theory of how sexual beauty evolves explains its astonishing diversity and provides new insights about the degree to which our own perception of beauty resembles that of other animals. Vividly written and filled with fascinating stories, A Taste for the Beautiful will change how you think about beauty and attraction.

From the publisher, there’s a book trailer and you can read chapter 1 online. Read reviews from Times Higher Education, Kirkus Reviews, Publisher’s Weekly, Ars Technica, and a Psychology Today interview with Ryan. Ryan also appeared on the PRI program Living On Earth to discuss his research and book.


Two new books centered on evolution and the human species

Here are two new books centered on evolution and the human species that readers here may be interested in:


Philip Lieberman, The Theory that Changed Everything: “On the Origin of Species” as a Work in Progress (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 232 pp.

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Publisher’s description Few people have done as much to change how we view the world as Charles Darwin. Yet On the Origin of Species is more cited than read, and parts of it are even considered outdated. In some ways, it has been consigned to the nineteenth century. In The Theory That Changed Everything, the renowned cognitive scientist Philip Lieberman demonstrates that there is no better guide to the world’s living—and still evolving—things than Darwin and that the phenomena he observed are still being explored at the frontiers of science. In an exploration that ranges from Darwin’s transformative trip aboard the Beagle to Lieberman’s own sojourns in the remotest regions of the Himalayas, this book relates fresh, contemporary findings to the major concepts of Darwinian theory, which transcends natural selection. Drawing on his own research into the evolution of human linguistic and cognitive abilities, Lieberman explains the paths that adapted human anatomy to language. He demystifies the role of recently identified transcriptional and epigenetic factors encoded in DNA, explaining how nineteenth-century Swedish famines alternating with years of plenty caused survivors’ grandchildren to die many years short of their life expectancy. Lieberman is equally at home decoding supermarket shelves and climbing with the Sherpas as he discusses how natural selection explains features from lactose tolerance to ease of breathing at Himalayan altitudes. With conversational clarity and memorable examples, Lieberman relates the insights that led to groundbreaking discoveries in both Darwin’s time and our own while asking provocative questions about what Darwin would have made of controversial issues today, such as GMOs, endangered species, and the God question.

This book is reviewed, along with three other new titles about Darwin, in the Times Literary Supplement, and the author of said review discusses it for the TLS podcast.  And a so-so review from Publisher’s Weekly.


Kostas Kampourakis, Turning Points: How Critical Events Have Driven Human Evolution, Life, and Development (New York: Prometheus Books, February 2018), 384 pp. 

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Publisher’s description Critical historical events–or “turning points”–have shaped evolution and continue to have a decisive effect on individual lives. This theme is explored and explained in this lucid, accessible book for lay readers. The author argues that, although evolution is the result of unpredictable events, these events have profound influences on subsequent developments. Life is thus a continuous interplay between unforeseeable events and their decisive consequences. As one example, the author cites the fusing of two chromosomes, which differentiated the human species from our closest animal relatives about 4 to 5 million years ago. This event was not predictable, but it had a profound effect on the evolution of our species thereafter. By the same token, certain unpredictable circumstances in the past enabled only Homo sapiens to survive to the present day, though we now know that other human-like species also once existed. The author contrasts such scientific concepts grounded in solid evidence with prevalent misconceptions about life: specifically, the religious notion that there is a plan and purpose behind life, the widespread perception that intelligent design governs the workings of nature, the persistent belief in destiny and fate, and the attribution of an overly deterministic role to genes. This excellent introduction for laypersons to core ideas in biology goes a long way toward dispelling such misconceptions and presents current scientific research in clearly understandable, jargon-free terms.

Again, this book is reviewed in Publisher’s Weekly.

ARTICLE: The Creativity of Natural Selection? Part I: Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mutationists

A new article in the Journal of the History of Biology:

The Creativity of Natural Selection? Part I: Darwin, Darwinism, and the Mutationists

John Beatty

Abstract This is the first of a two-part essay on the history of debates concerning the creativity of natural selection, from Darwin through the evolutionary synthesis and up to the present. Here I focus on the mid-late nineteenth century to the early twentieth, with special emphasis on early Darwinism and its critics, the self-styled “mutationists.” The second part focuses on the evolutionary synthesis and some of its critics, especially the “neutralists” and “neo-mutationists.” Like Stephen Gould, I consider the creativity of natural selection to be a key component of what has traditionally counted as “Darwinism.” I argue that the creativity of natural selection is best understood in terms of (1) selection initiating evolutionary change, and (2) selection being responsible for the presence of the variation it acts upon, for example by directing the course of variation. I consider the respects in which both of these claims sound non-Darwinian, even though they have long been understood by supporters and critics alike to be virtually constitutive of Darwinism.

Journal special issue on “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation”

A whole issue of the journal Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences is devoted to the topic “Replaying the Tape of Life: Evolution and Historical Explanation.” The contents are as follows:

Introduction: Evolution and historical explanation
Peter Harrison, Ian Hesketh

What was historical about natural history? Contingency and explanation in the science of living things
Peter Harrison

The “History” of Victorian Scientific Naturalism: Huxley, Spencer and the “End” of natural history
Bernard Lightman


Theological presuppositions of the evolutionary epic: From Robert Chambers to E. O. Wilson
Allan Megill


What are narratives good for?
John Beatty


Counterfactuals and history: Contingency and convergence in histories of science and life
Ian Hesketh

The spontaneous market order and evolution
Naomi Beck

Contingency and the order of nature
Nancy Cartwright


Freedom and purpose in biology
Daniel W. McShea


“Replaying Life’s Tape”: Simulations, metaphors, and historicity in Stephen Jay Gould’s view of life
David Sepkoski

A case study in evolutionary contingency
Zachary D. Blount


Can evolution be directional without being teleological?
George R. McGhee Jr.

Evolutionary biology and the question of teleology
Michael Ruse

Contingency, convergence and hyper-astronomical numbers in biological evolution
Ard A. Louis


It all adds up …. Or does it? Numbers, mathematics and purpose
Simon Conway Morris

BOOK:Darwin’s Man in Brazil: The Evolving Science of Fritz Müller

A new book from the late biologist David A. West at Virginia Tech promises to fill in a gap in Darwin scholarship – that of the role played by the German naturalist Fritz Müller in the history of evolutionary biology and his relationship with Darwin through correspondence. As West shares in his introduction, Darwin’s son Francis wrote in 1887, “My impression is that of all his unseen friends Fritz Müller was the one for whom he had the strongest regard” (p. 2). It seems then an account of their intellectual friendship as well as an appreciation for Müller’s discoveries is worth a full treatment. Müller, for which Müllerian mimicry is named, appears a couple of times in Desmond and Moore’s Darwin and Janet Browne’s Charles Darwin: The Power of Place; and Browne shares that Darwin wrote to Müller in 1864 in praise of his book Für Darwin: “What an admirable illustration it affords of my whole doctrine!” (p. 260). I thus look forward to learning more about “Darwin’s Man in Brazil.”


David A. West, Darwin’s Man in Brazil: The Evolving Science of Fritz Müller (Gainesville: University Press of Florida , 2016), 344 pp.

Publisher’s description Fritz Müller (1821-1897), though not as well known as his colleague Charles Darwin, belongs in the cohort of great nineteenth-century naturalists. Recovering Müller’s legacy, David A. West describes the close intellectual kinship between Müller and Darwin and details a lively correspondence that spanned seventeen years. The two scientists, despite living on separate continents, often discussed new research topics and exchanged groundbreaking ideas that unequivocally moved the field of evolutionary biology forward. Müller was unique among naturalists testing Darwin’s theory of natural selection because he investigated an enormous diversity of plants and animals, corresponded with prominent scientists, and published important articles in Germany, England, the United States, and Brazil. Darwin frequently praised Müller’s powers of observation and interpretation, counting him among those scientists whose opinions he valued most. Despite the importance and scope of his work, however, Müller is known for relatively few of his discoveries. West remedies this oversight, chronicling the life and work of this remarkable and overlooked man of science.

BOOK: Complexity: The Evolution of Earth’s Biodiversity and the Future of Humanity

This new book might be of interest to this blog’s readers:


William C. Burger, Complexity: The Evolution of Earth’s Biodiversity and the Future of Humanity (Amherst, NY: Prometheous Books, 2016), 380 pp.

Publisher’s description Tracing the arc of evolutionary history, biologist William C. Burger shows that cooperation and symbiosis have played a critical role in the ever increasing complexity of life on earth. Life may have started from the evolution of cooperating organic molecules, which outpaced their noncooperating neighbors. A prime example of symbiosis was the early incorporation of mitochondria into the eukaryotic cell (through a process called “endosymbiosis”). This event gave these cells a powerful new source of energy. Later, cooperation was again key when millions to trillions of individual eukaryotic cells eventually came together to build the unitary structures of large plants and animals. And cooperation between individuals of the same species resulted in complex animal societies, such as ant colonies and bee hives. Turning to our own species, the author argues that our ability to cooperate, along with incessant inter-group conflict, has driven the advancement of cultures, the elaboration of our technologies, and made us the most “invasive” species on the planet. But our very success has now become a huge problem, as our world dominion threatens the future of the biosphere and confronts us with a very uncertain future. Thought-provoking and full of fascinating detail, this eloquently told story of life on earth and our place within it presents a grand perspective and raises many important questions.

BOOK: A Brief History of Creation: Science and the Search for the Origin of Life

Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II, A Brief History of Creation: Science and the Search for the Origin of Life (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2015), 336 pp.

Publisher’s description How did life begin? It is perhaps the most important question science has ever asked. Over the centuries, the search for an answer has been entwined with some of science’s most revolutionary advances including van Leeuwenhoek’s microscope, Darwin’s theory of evolution, and Crick and Watson’s unveiling of DNA. Now, in an age of genetic engineering and space exploration, some scientists believe they are on the verge of creating life from nonliving elements and that our knowledge of the potential for life on other planets is ever-expanding. In the midst of these exciting developments, A Brief History of Creation provides an essential and illuminating history of Western science, tracing the trials and triumphs of the iconoclastic scientists who have sought to uncover the mystery of how life first came to be. Authors Bill Mesler and H. James Cleaves II examine historical discoveries in the context of philosophical debates, political change, and our evolving understanding of the complexity of biology. The story they tell is rooted in metaphysical arguments, in a changing understanding of the age of the Earth, and even in the politics of the Cold War. It has involved exploration into the inner recesses of our cells and scientific journeys to the farthest reaches of outer space. This elegantly written narrative culminates in an analysis of modern models for life’s genesis, such as the possibility that some of the earliest life was composed of little more than RNA, and that life arose around deep-sea hydrothermal vents or even on other planets, only to be carried to the Earth on meteorites. Can we ever conclusively prove how life began? A Brief History of Creation is a fascinating exploration not only of the origin-of-life question but of the very nature of scientific objectivity and the process of scientific discovery.