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.


GUEST POST: Darwin’s Polar Bear

The following guest post is from writer and wilderness guide Michael Engelhard, whose new book Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon is soon-to-be published by the University of Washington Press. Interested in doing a guest post about Darwin? Drop me an email at michaeldavidbarton AT gmail DOT com.




Darwin’s Polar Bear

by Michael Engelhard

Any high school student knows (or should know) how the beaks of Galápagos “finches” (it was in fact the islands’ mockingbirds that were influential) – of species confined to different islands – helped Darwin to develop his ideas about evolution. But few people realize that the polar bear too, informed his grand theory.

Letting his fancy run wild, in On the Origin of Species, the man used to thinking in eons hypothesized “a race of bears being rendered, by natural selection, more and more aquatic in their structure and habits, with larger and larger mouths, till a creature was produced as monstrous as a whale.” Darwin based this speculation on a black bear the fur trader-explorer Samuel Hearne had observed swimming for hours, its mouth wide open, catching insects in the water. If the supply of insects were constant, Darwin thought, and no better-adapted competitors present, such a species could well take shape over time.

Systematic approaches to animals and their respective niches had long fertilized the intellectual landscape. Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, in his Histoire Naturelle (published serially between 1749 and 1788) clearly distinguished a “land-bear” from a “sea-bear.” But his land-bear category was still muddled: it included a “white bear of the forest” as well as a white sea-bear. The count would have likely become aware of polar bears in the boreal forests of Hudson Bay by 1782, when France occupied Prince of Wales Fort at the mouth of the Churchill River. In a 1785 German edition of the Histoire Naturelle, Buffon’s white land-bear looks different from his sea-bear, clearly showing the shorter neck and snout characteristic of brown bears and black bears. Perhaps the count knew about British Columbia’s white black bears or “spirit bears,” which could have confused him. (Other contributions by Buffon were significant. He discovered the first principle of biogeography, noticing that despite similar environments, different regions have distinct plants and animals.)

Buffon’s classifying of animals by region or habitat – as in the case of the two “different” white bears – prompted later naturalists to try to explain their origins and distribution as resulting from the characteristics of a place. Long before the idea of “habitat” began to infiltrate scientific discourse, the polar bear’s range and that of its prey had been linked to environmental conditions. Synthesizing the work of the Comte de Buffon and other naturalists, the Anglo-Irish Romantic writer Oliver Goldsmith thought the “Greenland bear” exceptional, because it is “the only animal that, by being placed in the coldest climate, grows larger than those that live in the temperate zones. All other species of animated nature diminish as they approach the poles, and seem contracted in their size by the rigours of the ambient atmosphere… In short, all the variations of its figure and its colour seem to proceed from the coldness of the climate where it resides and the nature of the food it is supplied with.” Food availability does play a role in body mass, as does a region’s mean annual temperature, and while polar bears are not the only compact animal thriving in the Arctic such biogeographic observations anticipated the theory of evolution and principles of ecology.

On Svalbard expeditions in the summers of 1858 and 1859, the Scottish nobleman-explorer James Lamont watched polar bears frolic and dive. Intuiting that the animal had become what it is by living on seals, he deduced that the seal and the walrus must have originated first. Lamont assumed that polar bears had evolved from brown bears, “who, finding their means of subsistence running short, and pressed by hunger, ventured on the ice and caught some seals… so there is no impossibility in supposing that the brown bears, who by my theory were the progenitors of the present white bears, were accidently driven over to Greenland and Spitzbergen by storms or currents.” The palest brown bears with the greatest amount of external fat, Lamont thought, would have had the best chance to survive and therefore, reproduce. Upon his return, he wrote to Darwin, whose On the Origin of Species had been published in 1859. Encouraged by Darwin’s response, Lamont elaborated upon walrus and polar bear evolution in his 1861 travelogue, Seasons with the Sea-horses. Darwin approved of Lamont’s hypothesis and because Lamont’s thinking on the subject predated the publication of On the Origin of Species, he later credited Lamont (as he did Alfred Russell Wallace) with independently conceiving the theory of natural selection.

The oldest polar bear fossils found are from Svalbard and northern Norway and have been dated at 115,000–130,000 years old, before the beginning of the last Ice Age. But some biologists think that polar bears diverged from brown bears as early as 600,000 years ago. According to current research, polar bears evolved from brown bears that ventured onto the frozen ocean to stalk marine mammals, possibly after climate separated them from the main population descended from a common ancestor. This was not a single, clean-cut departure, and repeated pairings between both species have turned the family tree into a thicket. Shrinking sea ice could force polar bears to mingle with their southern cousins again, particularly as the latter now travel farther north. In coastal Arctic Alaska, grizzlies have been observed feasting on bowhead whale carcasses, sometimes in the company of polar bears and interbreeding has been documented.

After he had been ridiculed for his musings on a future, insect-eating cetacean bear, Darwin altered that passage in the second edition of Origin and removed it from subsequent ones. “The Bear case has been well laughed at, & disingenuously distorted by some into my saying that a bear could be converted into a whale,” he responded to the Irish algae specialist William Henry Harvey. Still, Darwin insisted that “there is no especial difficulty in a Bear’s mouth being enlarged to any degree useful to its changing habits,—no more difficulty than man has found in increasing the crop of the pigeon, by continued selection, until it is literally as big as whole rest of body.” Lamont’s observations and theorizing as well as the later findings about polar bear evolution vindicated the eminent naturalist and his thought experiment.

Image: L’ours de mer, the Comte de Buffon’s “sea-bear,” from his Histoire naturelle, générale et particulière, 1776. The French polymath paved the way for theories about speciation. (Université de Bordeaux)

Michael Engelhard is the author of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon (University of Washington Press). Trained as an anthropologist, he now lives in Fairbanks, Alaska and works as a wilderness guide in the Arctic.



ARTICLE: Darwin’s “Mr. Arthrobalanus”: Sexual Differentiation, Evolutionary Destiny and the Expert Eye of the Beholder

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

Darwin’s “Mr. Arthrobalanus”: Sexual Differentiation, Evolutionary Destiny and the Expert Eye of the Beholder

Roderick D. Buchanan

Abstract Darwin’s Cirripedia project was an exacting exercise in systematics, as well as an encrypted study of evolution in action. Darwin had a long-standing interest and expertise in marine invertebrates and their sexual arrangements. The surprising and revealing sexual differentiation he would uncover amongst barnacles represented an important step in his understanding of the origins of sexual reproduction. But it would prove difficult to reconcile these findings with his later theorizing. Moreover, the road to discovery was hardly straightforward. Darwin was both helped and hindered by the tacit expectations generated by his transformist theorizing, and had to overcome culturally-embedded assumptions about gender and reproductive roles. Significant observational backtracking was required to correct several oversights and misapprehensions, none more so than those relating to the chronically misunderstood “Mr. Arthrobalanus.” With careful attention to chronology, this paper highlights some curious and overlooked aspects of Darwin’s epic project.

BOOK: Darwin’s Sciences

This new book is so far my favorite Darwin book this year. Darwin’s Sciences (full title: Darwin’s Sciences:  How Charles Darwin voyaged from rocks to worms in his search for facts to explain how the earth, its geological features, and its inhabitants evolved) does not offer some new groundbreaking thesis about Darwin’s life, work, or legacy, but rather pulls together a lot of information about the various branches of the natural sciences Darwin studied into a detailed and readable account. An introduction looks over Darwin’s life, and then chapters on geology, zoology, botany, and the social sciences give an overview of Darwin’s studies and major publications, utilizing his journals, correspondence, and autobiography to place things in context. The bibliography for this book is in itself a treasure of references and Darwin scholarship. While I have only read into the chapter on zoology (note that each page has about perhaps twice the text as most other books, with a small font size), I recommend Darwin’s Sciences for anyone interested in a more than superficial look at what Darwin accomplished in science.


Duncan M. Porter and Peter W. Graham, Darwin’s Sciences (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2015), 264 pp.

Publisher’s description A complete scientific biography of Darwin that takes into account the latest research findings, both published and unpublished, on the life of this remarkable man. Considered the first book to thoroughly emphasize Darwin’s research in various fields of endeavor, what he did, why he did it, and its implications for his time and ours. Rather than following a strictly chronological approach – a narrative choice that characteristically offers an ascent to On the Origin of Species (1859) with a rapid decline in interest following its publication and reception – this book stresses the diversity and full extent of Darwin’s career by providing a series of chapters centering on various intellectual topics and scientific specializations that interested Darwin throughout his life. Authored by academics with years of teaching and discussing Darwin, Darwin’s Sciences is suited to any biologist who is interested in the deeper implications of Darwin’s research.

Chapter 1, the Introduction, can be read online here.

ARTICLES: “Darwin’s “Beloved Barnacles” & “What Would Have Happened if Darwin Had Known Mendel”

Two Darwin articles from Vol. 33, no. 1 (2011) of the journal History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences:

Darwin’s “Beloved Barnacles”: Tough Lessons in Variation


Costas Mannouris


Abstract In 1846, burdened by insecurity and self-doubt, and having been convinced that he needed to study some group of organisms closely, Darwin embarked on an eight-year odyssey in the protean and perplexing world of barnacles. At the time, he was searching for evidence in support of his theory of evolution by natural selection. In the course of his long study of barnacles, however, he was not just validating his preexisting theoretical system, but was also modifying his views on such fundamental aspects as the universality of individual variation, which is the focus of this paper. According to this notion, the members of any population of living things are expected to exhibit sufficient differences from one another for natural selection to operate. By emphasizing the theoretical value of the barnacle project, my analysis contributes to the historiographic tradition which highlights the significance of the period between the first comprehensive formulation of the theory of evolution by natural selection in 1844 and its urgent publication in the late 1850s. In the course of these years, Darwin’s theory was not just accumulating empirical laurels, but was also expected to adapt to a changing conceptual landscape.


What Would Have Happened if Darwin Had Known Mendel (or Mendel’s Work)?


Pablo Lorenzano


Abstract The question posed by the title is usually answered by saying that the “synthesis” between the theory of evolution by natural selection and classical genetics, which took place in 1930s-40s, would have taken place much earlier if Darwin had been aware of Mendel and his work. What is more, it nearly happened: it would have been enough if Darwin had cut the pages of the offprint of Mendel’s work that was in his library and read them! Or, if Mendel had come across Darwin in London or paid him a visit at his house in the outskirts! (on occasion of Mendel’s trip in 1862 to that city). The aim of the present paper is to provide elements for quite a different answer, based on further historical evidence, especially on Mendel’s works, some of which mention Darwins’s studies.

Talking about apes

Oregon Zoo, Portland

Patrick with an orangutan at the Oregon Zoo last November

I had an interesting exchange with the young man pumping my gas this morning.

Attendent: Hey, why do you have a picture of me on your car?

Me: What?

Attendent: The zoo sticker with the gorilla on it, looks like me.

Me: Oh, that’s an orangutan.

Attendent: Same thing.

Me: Not really…

Attendent: Well, they live in different places.

Me: Yes, gorillas in Africa and orangutans in Indonesia. They’re both apes, along with humans and chimpanzees.

Attendent: Monkeys, right?

Me: Apes and monkeys are different; apes don’t have tails.

Attendent: How would I know something like that?

Me: Did you ever take a biology course in high school?

Attendee: I never finished any of my classes. Maybe that’s why I’m pumping your gas and you’re teaching me about apes and monkeys. [gas pumping stops]