Keats famously proclaimed 'Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye need to know.' A great romantic meme (Keats died of TB, a bachelor, at 26), but honesty, truth are lousy guides to understanding beauty in the world. How many times have you been fooled by a pretty face (or fooled someone with your pretty face)?
In The evolution of beauty: How Darwin's forgotten theory of mate choice shapes the animal world---and us (2017), Richard Prum coins a word for Keats's fatuous meme: flatitude. A faux insight acquiring supposed profundity by flattening the intellectual complexity of the world. Contrast that with Shakespeare's Hamlet telling gorgeous Ophelia to take a hike:
If you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty. Could beauty have better commerce than with honesty? Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but no, the time gives it proof. I did love thee once.
i.e., beauty subverts honesty.
So is beauty full of meaning or arbitrary? Some witty biologists stole the term 'spandrels' from architecture to denote something pretty but useless. The chin is the classic example. Not just any chin, of course. Is it so hard to admit a face is sexy, when it's literally staring you in the face? It's not arbitrary, that's for sure.
Can something be too beautiful? Yes. A certain Helen comes to mind. So maybe ugly is more honest? No. More flat earth thinking.
'Each to his own umwelt'
Orthodox Darwinians too indulge in flatitudes, according to Prum. They go to the opposite extreme and claim 'Beauty is subjective so forget about it. It doesn't belong in real science.' Darwin famously said, “the sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.”
So what did Darwin do? He wrote The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex about just that, but by then the world was already in love with the new meme 'natural selection', so simple and elegant, so beautiful (to scientists). Who needs beauty? And sex, why that's just another adaptive mechanism to ensure the fittest offspring. Nothing special. Besides, we Victorians cannot make sex the centre of the study of nature. Darwin's rival in claiming the evolutionary crown, Alfred Russell Wallace, concluded that natural selection alone was sufficient to account for a set of uniquely human characteristics, and Wallacism, not Darwinism, became the ruling principle. Obviously, Wallace was immune to pretty faces.
Prum fell in love with birds as a child. Such beauty! So he has spent his life studying beauty. A nerd with a heart. When he read Darwin, both volumes On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871), he realized there was a yawning gap, the elephant in the room. Sex! And it was all there in Darwin. The magic evolutionary formula is not elegant. Just like sex, it's messy, but it's beautiful because it's true.
Natural selection + beauty + (culture, religion, i.e., truth for that ethos) = Nature.
It's true because it corresponds with reality. QED.
Every species coevolves its own sense of beauty within its own umwelt, its personal universe, sensory bubble. Jakob Von Uexküll coined the term Umwelt in 1905, which paradoxically seeks objectivity through the study of subjectivity. In his own words: All that a subject perceives becomes his perceptual world and all that he does, his effector world. Perceptual and effector worlds together form a closed unit, the Umwelt.
His goal was to avoid anthromorphizing, seeing everything through the human umwelt, which assumes that animals don't really have a complex life (we are the smart guys). They just blindly act according to natural selection. Who cares what animals think? This is really the step that Darwin was feeling towards.
Fastward to Prum (spoiler alert): We coevolve human beauty, so it's the truth of our umwelt. Hopefully, it's adaptive, i.e., not maladaptive, 'false', which would mean extinction. (i.e., Helen of Troy) We fashion(ed) that which we are evolving towards as our ideal, goal. I find sexy what evolving humanity has intuited as ideal.
Our beauty stats were mostly in place by 10,000BC. Ancient Egyptians look pretty good 10 millennia later. But nonetheless, truth is always changing as we evolve. Our pyramids are very different from those of 10,000BC. There's not much natural selection going on in humans anymore. Once our big brain was in place, evolution moved from genes into memes.* We are definitely evolving socially, and guess what's the main engine now?
You got it. Sex. The male-female dialectic. And who's on top? Right again. The female has been guiding evolution through sexual choice for the last 60m years, really since the rise of mammals. And how did males react? Violence, in humans, patriarchy, jealousy of female sexual autonomy, figuring out ways to beat the rap, to avoid losing male control.
Hedgehog science vs fox play - Wallace-Dawkins vs Darwin-Fisher
A human is an ape who really wants to be songbird. We have worshipped them from time immoral. And for good reason. Birds have the best and most varied social organizations (language, culture). They have the most species (10,000+) of anything living. Our deepest wish is to fly. It's another world. It's as if evolution has rushed forward with man to a final goal of flying into outer space to colonize other planets. But is that vision true? Will it happen?
Marx famously asked Darwin if he could dedicate Kapital to him. Darwin was impressed by Marx but was no communist, and demurred. Marx could have asked Wallace, who was a socialist and called for the nationalization of all land. Interestingly, the same duality in interpretation of Darwin by Darwinians occurred with Marx and Marxists. Just as Marx was interpreted mechanistically, culminating in Marxism-Leninism, so Darwin was interpreted mechanistically, culminating in Wallacism and eugenics.
Isaiah Berlin divided intellectuals into hedgehogs vs foxes. A hedgehog is on a mission, a fox plays, drops its toy, and starts a new game. Darwin and Marx were both. Men on missions but having fun in the process. Evolution is not just survival of fittest, but about charm, sensory delight, subjective experience. The haunting dawn bird song chorus in the forest, cooperative group displays of manakins, the great argus pheasant.
Wallace and Lenin were hedgehogs. No fox genes there. Dawkins (another hedgehog) famously called natural selection the blind watchmaker. When I hear 'watchmaker' I am suspicious. And blind? How about blindingly beautiful? The analogy is incomplete. It ain't got no heart. The history of evolution is one of subjective evaluations made by animals themselves.
The blind can't see, but nature has eyes, ears, noses, brains to evaluate sensory signals and all organisms then evolve to use their senses to make sexual, social and ecological choices. Maybe they're not conscious of their role, but they are nonetheless their own designers. Nothing is blind except a few unfortunate cave fish and deep-sea lobsters. Nature is complicated, and sex is the driving force once a species has figured out the adaptive side of the equation.
Eugenics was a maladaptive Wallacism that inspired Hitler in mass killings and genetic experiments, so it's got a bad name. It's actually the logical conclusion to the Wallace version of Darwin's natural selection. By reducing natural selection to blind nature, the temptation to play god and create a super race was just too strong. Frankenstein's monster. Feelings were not part of evolution. For all scientists this was intoxicating. Everyone was an enthusiastic eugenicist until the 1930s.
But dark Hamlet is lurking in the wings: There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy. The last and most famous eugenicist was Fisher, who also was the greatest biologist since Darwin, according to Dawkins.**
Umwelt uber alles
Why did we lose our way when Darwin handed the whole business to us on a silver platter? Prum hints that it is because of Darwin's stuffy English society's umwelt. English lacks a vital distinction between knowing x, and knowing x as a friend as in savoir vs connaitre. Saber vs conocer. Wissen vs kennen.
We have different parts of the brain for seeing just anyone's face or seeing a friend's face, facial recognition. Birders actually use the face recognition part of brain for bird images whereas ordinary people don't. We can admire the beauty of a male cardinal much as the female cardinal can. Of course, we aren't so discriminating as Mrs Cardinal, as it's not our umwelt, so we're bound to miss nuances she sees. I love to imitate birds, especially the tuneful Mr Cardinal, and sing his sexy cardinal serenade or his fanfare song to protect his territory. I have no idea what he's thinking when he hears me. Is my song 'true'? Probably not but singing is the best medicine, as birds have long known.
The science behind sex
Ornaments are a vital means of communication between observers acting as subjects. The goal is to inspire desire and attachment in the observer. Ergo, subjective experience is crucial to evolution. Heisenberg's uncertainty principle concerning the electron didn't stop anyone from studying electrons. So the indeterminacy of subjectivity just needs some fancier maths and stats, which the 20th century provided (thanks to eugenics and many wars).
The cumulative effect of many individual mating decisions shapes the evolution of ornament. Natural selection is not the only source of design in nature. But biologists grasp at straws. Chins are spandrels. Is it so difficult to see that the chin is beautiful, sexy? That sex makes the world go round?
Other explanations for odd traits that don't look adaptive include
*handicap (American ad: With a name like Smucker's, it has to be good.)
*upsucking to explain a female orgasm. (don't ask)
We could call these silly scientific theories themselves spandrels, useless but pretty ornaments. Saturday night live parodied Smucker's. Why not Death camp jelly?
So who's making the decisions? That depends on how much freedom of choice there is and who does the choosing. In the short run, it may look like the male controls things, in the last resort via rape and enslaving females. But that is rare in nature. Maladaptive. Ducks famously have violent sex, even leading to death of the female, but the female mostly just bides her time, escapes/ endures unwanted advances, defecating later to evacuate the unwanted sperm.
No. Aestheticism trumps choices for adaptive advantage. And we have eugenicist Fisher to thank for an insight that was already staring us in the face. Fisher dusted off Darwin's volume ii in the 1930s, added Mendel, and proposed some real theories. Fisher's sexy son and unstable runaway evolution slowly moved the establishment out of its fetish with Wallace.
An attractive trait becomes an end in itself. Beauty is hardwired into nature. Your sexy son will pass on your genes (and both delight and break many hearts in the process).
But watch out. Remember the tulip crazy in the 18th century. And Easter Island. I.e., too extreme maladaptive traits are not 'true' to life/ survival. Not just beautiful, but tragic.
The bottom line is much more nuanced than blindly adapting. Mate choice is not just for direct survival needs. It's all about beauty. Ars artis. Fisher saw this as not only potentially both horrible (extinction if too beautiful) but potentially wonderful (create a master race).
Fisher realized nature on the whole was pretty good at keeping beauty in check. Usually a gaudy trait stabilizes in a compromise between most adaptive and most beautiful. I.e., a mix of rational/ irrational. You still get a few wild peacocks but that's the cost of doing business with sexually autonomous, choosy females.
Female taste also evolves, so that what they want as a sexy trait coevolves with the peacock feather itself. It's a bit like a husband and wife compromising on ideas for domestic peace, with the wife getting the final word. And it leads to new species. Hence the birds' 10,000 species.
Sexual conflict and aesthetic evolution play critical role in the origins of human intelligence, language, social organization, and diversity of human beauty. In the human female, we see the least dimorphism among mammals, only 18% difference m-f, the curvaceous Barbie doll body, external large breasts (unique in nature). In the male, the classic Ken doll, but not too muscley, the large thick boneless penis for long magical sex (a baculum is boring), large hanging scrotum but small testes. 'Too big' is as much a turn off as 'too little'. Both male and female are mostly hairless (i.e., sexy) but with arm pits and public region (i.e., sexy). So thank Eve for sexy Adam, and thank Adam for sexy Eve, at least their evolved bodies.*** And which is more beautiful? It should be obvious.
The secret of sex
The universe is not always rational. Humans are a prime example. All that really means is there is a higher level epistemology that we mortals can't fathom. It used to be religion. Then science tried to fill the role of god. Best to keep looking, not too arrogantly. There seems to be very little truth hanging around, but there are simple truths that aren't flatitudes.
Animals evolve beauty to please themselves. That is the secret of sex. And we have birds to thank for that insight. Darwin saw that birds were the most aesthetic of God's creatures and the most like humans in taste. This was dismissed as an anthropomorphism but it isn't. Darwin was fighting the artificial barrier between humans and other forms of life erected by scientific chauvinists and bigots. I.e. you can compare species' subjective lives in real world experience. We can at least try to embrace other creatures' umwelt.
Imagine being Mr or Mrs Great Argus
We'll never be bats, but we can get close through imagination and science. Awe is pretty close. The bottom line is all umwelts are valid and should be respected by the human umwelt, not dismissed or made extinct through our arrogance.
Mate choice is coevolutionary. All animal play their own role in evolution of species through sexual and social choices, with the female in 95% of cases pulling the strings in the background.
For those birds like penguins and puffins, where equality of sex prevails, the male and female both display and sing to each other, so the coevolution of beauty is truly m-f. For polyandrous (phalaropes) the female takes multiple mates, performs the courtship displays; the male builds the nest and cares for the young. But those exceptions are just the fox in nature, playing around with his toys.
A world full of penguins or phalaropes would be safe but a bore. The extravagant species -- beauty -- is where the female does the choosing. So female choice, and female sexual autonomy are responsible for natural beauty.
So which sex ends up the most beautiful? The male. Just ask the great arguses. He's generally the strongest, most artistic, energetic, defending territory while modest mummy tends the kids. The old backhanded compliment 'He's so artistic' is true. Gays have more female-inspired traits, including aesthetics.
As for Rita Haworth wannabees, let the men die young (they do). Besides, it's dangerous to look too alluring, especially if you're smaller and weaker. Just ask single women on any urban street today, where women are touted as the sexier sex. This is a hangover from patriarchy, today in its debauched phase, where the female imago is a projection of male fantasies, not female reality. The aggressive male umwelt. At least the Greeks (and British) got the m-f beauty equation right (if not a lot of other stuff). Women should take their cue from nature to avoid the mad duck males and figure out what they really want to look like.
Science had to suppress subjectivity. Female autonomy as the driving force of evolution did not fit patriarchy. Darwin was/is every bit as revolutionary as Marx, and his message about sex was as disgusting, horrifying to bourgeois society as Marx's message about capital. Mr Moneybags and Frankenstein's Monster are the great archetypes of capitalism
Now we are living out social evolution, driven by the m-f arms race. It's not so much genes (so far), but memes. Beauty is an ever-evolving meme, a coevolutionary dance between desire and display. It has inspired laws making males less aggressive, empowering women, gays, eating away at patriarchy. Wokism. But is this manifestation of social evolution maladaptive? When does evolution become revolution? Chaos?
By extending the argument from the purely physical to conscious social evolution, we are in danger of making assumptions that truly are not true. Playing god. Subjectivity is at work, as Darwin established, but logical spin-offs like eugenics and other forms of playing god quickly lead to abuse. ****
Can we redefine human sexuality to cancel out m-f as the fundamental dialectic? I think Fisher is having a chuckle at our clumsy attempt at a woke eugenics. Rather than discarding that duality, the better direction is trans-speciesism, finding commonalities with other sentient beings. And loving and shaping our environment to meet their needs as much as ours.
So the female almost always calls the shots, creates beauty and does all the drudgery. For mammals yes. 90%. But birds of a feather flock together. And parent together.
Birds, lacking a penis, put the female in complete control of evolution. So what would you expect? Yes, 85% of bird species are 2 parent families. Meanwhile, female chimps, even bonobos wash all the dishes and take the kids to school every day, while the gang of males just monkey around. The birds' secret? No penis! When Prum explained this to a doubting Thomas colleague, he shot back: but that's nihilism!
Prum is very upbeat, a real birder. No male chauvinist. But 'anything goes because nature says so' is not a good foundation for society. Beware maladaptive behaviour (and well-intentioned nerds). Taking this evo-feminism into transgender-transhumanism is perilous, more eugenics.
With Darwin-Fisher-Prum the new paradigm, we're still firmly rooted in the m-f dialectic, adaptive vs aesthetic, Darwin and Marx. If that's the sort of nihilism Prum's friend dreads, then down with anthropomorphic speciesism. But if any theory is maladaptive, undermining society, then reject it. No more spandrels, please!*****
* Susan Blackmore, Meme machine, 1999.
**As eugenics fell out of fashion after WWII, Fisher became a black sheep. His honours (stained glass window, R. A. Fisher Lectureship, Fisher Halls, etc) were stripped away in woke 2020.
*** Science (perhaps tongue in cheek) now suggests Eve was made not from Adam's rib (both have 24), but from Adam's baculum, which God thoughtfully removed so they could have hot sex for minutes (vs seconds among chimps).
****Like Jews deciding they don't need to wait for God's will to go back to Jerusalem. Instead of eugenics creating artificial humans, zionism actualizes the desire, the land as an incarnation of a desire, regardless of consequences.
***** In their defense, they are more cherished now as, yes, art than the hulking towers they grace.