The blind watchmaker animated by selfish genes does not exhaust the entire spectrum of life, in nature, there is room for pleasure, luxuriance, and even for taste as an end in itself. For Darwinists, the time has come to recite a grande mea culpa, and the beauty (it must be said) is that the first interlocutor to whom Darwinists must apologize is him, Charles Darwin. Review of The Evolution of Beauty.
With all due respect to John Keats, there is nothing more false and as if that were not enough with all due respect also to Dostoevsky, but above all of us may God forgive us, who shamelessly called him into question to a tone to conversations however forgettable, beauty will not save the world. And this is her magic, beauty is free, it is not a mirror of truth and not even redemptive of evil it only has to account for itself. Beauty has to be beautiful period. At least this is what nature teaches us and in particular evolutionary biology, which after reducing everything to fitness seems to have finally discovered that there is something that can escape the harsh law of adaptation and selection, which not every character of living forms finds its raison d’etre in adaptivity that the blind watchmaker animated by selfish genes does not exhaust the entire spectrum of life, that in nature there is room for pleasure, luxuriance and even taste for an end in itself. For Darwinists, the time has come to recite a grande mea culpa, and the beauty (it must be said) is that the first interlocutor to whom Darwinists must apologize is him, Charles Darwin.
Aesthetic Evolution, Darwinism’s Mad Aunt
Born from the father of evolutionism together with the theory of natural selection the idea of evolution by sexual selection has been dropped into oblivion by its own followers, ready to consider immoral and then simply unscientific to introduce pleasure, charm, desire, and admiration among the factors that govern nature.
And instead, as shown in The Evolution of Beauty (Adelphi) Richard Prum, one of the most authoritative zoologists in the world, it is time to recognize Darwin’s aesthetic evolution, a theory hitherto treated like a mad aunt to be kept hidden in the attic of Darwinism. Spacing between science, philosophy, and sociology, Prum redeems the role of desire and opens our gaze to a new natural history centered on arbitrariness (mostly female) and the search for beauty as opposed to the struggle and domination of the strongest. Sexual selection – writes Prum – provides us with an electrifying vision of evolution.
The Sight Of The Peacock’s Feathers Makes Me Sick
Darwin introduces the hypothesis of sexual selection already in the Origin of Species (1859), where alongside natural selection he identifies in the choice of the partner a key factor for the evolution of characters that from the point of view of the pure struggle for survival would not have any sense. Darwin cannot explain, for example, the length of the male peacock’s tail, evidently an impediment to escape from a predator but certainly useful for impressing the female. And the perfect ocelli that adorn the peacock’s tail haunt him even more. The sight of the peacock’s feathers when I look at it makes me sick,” he wrote in 1860 to his friend Asa Gray.
In the Origin of Species, however, sexual selection is only sketchy, after all, he had already put a lot of meat on the fire the idea of a nature dominated by chance and no longer governed by a divine plan, the idea of a common descent shared by all living beings and the very well-founded suspicion of a consequent animal kinship of man. It will be the origin of man (1871) the work in which this further idea comes fully to the surface, it is here that he traces to the end the vision that alongside natural selection there is also a selection that refers to beauty, underlining how in the animal world the choice of partner is not necessarily dictated by prowess, vigor or any character linked to a higher level of fitness for the offspring, but can be dictated simply by taste.
Nature Is Gory But It Can Be Sexy
Regarding the fanciful courtship choreography of certain bird species, Darwin writes that certainly, the gentle warbling modulated by the males during the mating season are admired by the females, and if the female birds were unable to appreciate the beauty of the colors, ornaments, and voice of their male companions, all the toil and care of which these give evidence in showing their graces in the eyes of the females would be spent in vain and this cannot be admitted at all
And then he takes as an example the case of the argon pheasant and its “large feathers that are impressive from an aesthetic point of view, but such that they do not allow the wings to be used for flying.
This case is extremely interesting – he writes – because it provides good proof that the most refined beauty can only serve to entice the female and not for any other purpose”. Only beauty counts, no ulterior motives. The arbitrariness of choices oriented by charm and attraction, therefore, plays an evolutionary role alongside the blind force of natural selection. Nature is gory but it can be sexy. A hypothesis with such explosive potential that it must be immediately defused.
Darwin’s (truly) Dangerous Idea
In a famous and highly influential book published in 1995, philosopher Daniel Dennett called the natural selection Darwin’s Dangerous Idea according to Prum, it is now time to update the script and reserve this title for sexual selection.
Releasing the sexual choices of animals from the yoke of adaptive utility means recognizing many unheard-of things. It means, to begin with, recognizing in animals subjective sensory experiences fully comparable to human ones, it implies the possibility of being able to consider them as aesthetic agents and, perhaps even more unacceptable in the presence of orthodox Darwinists still in possession of the majority package of evolutionary biology, it means recognizing single individuals no longer only as passive subjects concerning the external forces of natural selection, such as competition, predation, climate, and so on, but as active subjects in their own evolutionary trajectories.
Although unaware of their role, animals have become their own architects. They are no longer blind, Prum observes. Leaving room for the whim and whim of sexual preferences, giving them a role in evolution is an absurd and dangerous idea and, as such, it is immediately neutralized. The first of the Darwinists think about it, the co-discoverer of natural evolution by natural selection, Alfred Wallace.
Beauty Is Not Honest
Through a detailed survey of both the texts and the contexts, Prum reconstructs anything but the linear path of Darwinism from the very day of the publication of the Origin of Species and shows how even in this story what often happens when exegetes too diligent intend to transform in doctrine the ideas of the master. A canon is created and, in this case, the strange idea of sexual selection appears immediately out of register.
Wallace is the first to put forward the hypothesis renamed by Prum “BioTinder”, still prevalent today among biologists, according to which beauty serves no other purpose than to provide practical information on the genetic profile and adaptive qualities of the potential partner: that is, there would be an “honest” correlation between ornament and vigor, charm and ability to survive. Wallace does not deny sexual selection, only that he makes it a secondary effect of natural selection, and so all of Darwin’s passages that “the finest beauty can only serve to entice the female and not for any other purpose” are neutralized.
In a book eloquently titled Darwinism, published in 1889, Wallace establishes the line that from then on will become orthodoxy to this day. In the preface, he writes: “In rejecting the phase of sexual selection depends on the choice of the female, I insist on the greater effectiveness of natural selection. This is pre-eminently the Darwinian doctrine, and for this reason, my book is the spokesperson for pure Darwinism ”. The “useless” and “superfluous” considerations on the aesthetic performance of animals and, in particular, on the choices of females, are put in the background and, in the name of “pure Darwinism”, are left to die in the oblivion of evolutionism.
The strange case of the delicious machining competing to be pure, you will always find a purer one who purifies you. This phrase attributed to Pietro Nenni can be useful here too, after all, politics is not entirely free from Darwinian logic. To purge the orthodoxy that from Wallace to Dawkins has so far marginalized aesthetic Darwinism are those that Darwin himself defined as the most aesthetic of all animals, birds, creatures who have almost the same taste for beauty that we have.
An ornithologist at Yale and before that a birdwatcher with unlimited curiosity, Prum is a world reference in the study of birds. Geometries, sounds, colors, verses, acrobatics, real fields of conquest designed with painstaking precision, the sample of courtship strategies described by Prum is exciting and amazing. Among the many examples, there is one that can help us purge the purists who in the name of the “real” Darwin have sacrificed beauty to the idol of natural selection.
I first heard the song of the delicious manachin in 1985, on my first morning in El Placer. That day, amidst the sounds that made up the noisy morning choir in the moss-covered forest, I thought that those strange notes of electronic music were the musical ruminations of a parrot and instead I was surprised to discover that the sound came from the undergrowth and that it was the work of the legendary, and then almost unknown, delicious manachin
In the work of studying and collecting materials, Prum realizes that unlike their aliterate “cousins”, some of the delicious managing feathers have a very strange anomaly, the abnormal thickening, and thickening of some feathers. The explanation of the anomaly comes more than twenty years later, the time to invent high definition cameras. And in fact, only by reviewing the movement of the wings of the delicious managing in a slowed-down sequence can we understand that the Manchin’s song is produced by the beating of the oscillation frequency of its feathers. But that’s not all, because the frequency of the sound is so high that the swing of the wing alone could not justify it. To immense surprise, Prum and his team discover that the weird sound is produced by shrill, the same technique used by cicadas and crickets. Those strange feathers serve to act as a resonator, like the string of a violin they amplify the volume of the sound.
Better To Enjoy Than To Survive
Faced with such an innovation, one wonders what evolutionary advantage lies behind the anomalous structure of the feathers of the delicious machine. According to the logic of Wallace and pure Darwinists, the success of a courtship technique is always the success of a signal on the genetic quality of its bearer. But in the case of the delicious managing, this is not the case: unlike all the other bird species in the world so far known, the deformed ulna of this bird is the only one not hollow and this is to the detriment of its ability to fly. as if between chances of survival and chances of seduction he had opted for this second path.
“The screeching sounds produced by the delicious manachin are much more than a new, unusual way of singing. They show once again that natural selection is not a universally valid and determinative evolutionary force. Sexual desire and mate choice can have maladaptive developmental consequences. Decadent consequences. Natural selection is not the only force that shapes the forms of nature observes Prum.
Beauty is truth”? Not even. Beauty is not necessarily honest and does not tell the truth about the chances of survival that it brings as a dowry. Does beauty save the world? Not even. Decadent behaviors such as those of the delicious machine can in fact lead to extinction. In addition to recognizing the role of sexual selection in promoting the evolution of new species, we should accept the fact that sexual selection itself can lead to the decline or extinction of a species. After all, is it really so surprising that many of the species with the most exquisitely elaborate and aesthetically extreme ornaments are rare species? In my opinion, not concludes Prum. Beauty lies and extinguishes, it has no other reason than to be what it is.