The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes online the Animal World - and discount Us online sale

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes online the Animal World - and discount Us online sale

The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin's Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes online the Animal World - and discount Us online sale

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NAMED A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR BY THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEWSMITHSONIAN, AND WALL STREET JOURNAL

A major reimagining of how evolutionary forces work, revealing how mating preferences—what Darwin termed "the taste for the beautiful"—create the extraordinary range of ornament in the animal world.


In the great halls of science, dogma holds that Darwin''s theory of natural selection explains every branch on the tree of life: which species thrive, which wither away to extinction, and what features each evolves. But can adaptation by natural selection really account for everything we see in nature?
     Yale University ornithologist Richard Prum—reviving Darwin''s own views—thinks not. Deep in tropical jungles around the world are birds with a dizzying array of appearances and mating displays: Club-winged Manakins who sing with their wings, Great Argus Pheasants who dazzle prospective mates with a four-foot-wide cone of feathers covered in golden 3D spheres, Red-capped Manakins who moonwalk. In thirty years of fieldwork, Prum has seen numerous display traits that seem disconnected from, if not outright contrary to, selection for individual survival. To explain this, he dusts off Darwin''s long-neglected theory of sexual selection in which the act of choosing a mate for purely aesthetic reasons—for the mere pleasure of it—is an independent engine of evolutionary change.
    Mate choice can drive ornamental traits from the constraints of adaptive evolution, allowing them to grow ever more elaborate. It also sets the stakes for sexual conflict, in which the sexual autonomy of the female evolves in response to male sexual control. Most crucially, this framework provides important insights into the evolution of human sexuality, particularly the ways in which female preferences have changed male bodies, and even maleness itself, through evolutionary time.
     The Evolution of Beauty presents a unique scientific vision for how nature''s splendor contributes to a more complete understanding of evolution and of ourselves.

Review

"Prum''s argument is exhilarating . . .  The Evolution of Beauty should be widely read, as it will provoke readers, shaking them (as reading Hume did to Kant) from their dogmatic slumbers . . . I don’t see how any biologist could read this book and not walk away at least questioning the idea that adaptation must explain every last trait. Survival of the fittest might not be enough to explain nature. We might need survival of the prettiest, too."
—Sam Kean, Wall Street Journal

"Prum draws on decades of study, hundreds of papers, and a lively, literate, and mischievous mind . . . a delicious read, both seductive and mutinous . . . Prum''s attention never strays far from nature, and his writing [about birds] is minutely detailed, exquisitely observant, deeply informed, and often tenderly sensual."
—David Dobbs, New York Times Book Review

"The single most provocative book I read this year, one of those books that changes the way you look at everything . . . Everything about this book is unexpected, including the prose–fine and often funny."
—Michael Pollan

The Evolution of Beauty is at once fascinating, provocative, and totally compelling. Anyone interested in science or art or sex—which is to say everyone—will want to read it.”
—Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction
 
“A fascinating account of beauty and mate choice in birds and other animals. You’ll be amazed by the weird things that birds do to win mates. You’ll also discover why both men and women have armpit hair, why men lack the penis bone widespread in other mammals, and what really happened in the Garden of Eden.”
—Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel

"A major intellectual achievement that should hasten the adoption of a more expansive style of evolutionary explanation that Darwin himself would have appreciated."
—Nick Romeo, Washington Post
 
“A smorgasbord of evolutionary biology, philosophy, and sociology, filtered through Prum’s experiences as a birdwatcher and his diverse research on everything from dinosaur colors to duck sex. Through compelling arguments and colorful examples, Prum launches a counterstrike against the adaptationist regime, in an attempt to ‘put the subjective experience of animals back in the center of biology’ and to ‘bring beauty back to the sciences.’”
—Ed Yong, The Atlantic
 
“Prum’s career has been diverse and full, so that reading this fascinating book, we learn about the patterning of dinosaur feathers, consider the evolutionary basis of the human female orgasm, the tyranny of academic patriarchy, and the corkscrewed enormity of a duck’s penis. Combining this with in-depth study of how science selects the ideas it approves of and fine writing about fieldwork results in a rich, absorbing text . . . The dance Prum performs to convince you to take him on as an intellectual partner is beautiful and deserves to be appreciated on its own terms.”
—Adrian Barnett, New Scientist

"Reads like a memoir, argues like a manifesto, and shines with Prum''s passion for all things ornithological."
—Erika Lorraine Milam, Science

“Life isn’t just a dreary slog of survival. It brims with exuberance—from extravagant plumage to strange courtship rituals. In  The Evolution of Beauty, Richard Prum takes us  into this universe of delights to discover a fascinating idea: that beauty is central to the history of life.”
—Carl Zimmer, author of Parasite Rex and Evolution: Making Sense of Life

About the Author

RICHARD O. PRUM is William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology at Yale University, and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He has conducted field work throughout the world, and has studied fossil theropod dinosaurs in China. He received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

CHAPTER 3
Manakin Dances

How, and why, has beauty changed within and among bird species over the course of millions of years? What determines what any given species finds beautiful? What, in short, is the evolutionary history of avian beauty?

These questions might seem impossible to answer, but we actually have many of the scientific tools we need to address them productively. One of the challenges to understanding the evolution of beauty is the complexity of animal displays and mating preferences. Fortunately, we do not need to invent a trendy new brand of “systems science” in order to investigate these complex aesthetic repertoires, because the science of natural history—the observation and description of the lives of organisms in their natural environments—provides us with exactly the tools we need. Natural history was a critical component of Darwin’s scientific method and remains a bedrock foundation of much of evolutionary biology today. 

Once we have gathered information about individual species, we need other scientific methods to compare and analyze them and to uncover their complicated, often hierarchical evolutionary histories. The scientific discipline that enables us to do that is called phylogenetics. Phylogeny is the history of evolutionary relationships among organisms—what Darwin called the “great Tree of Life.”

Darwin proposed that discovery of the Tree of Life should become a major branch of evolutionary biology. Unfortunately, research interest in phylogeny was largely abandoned by evolutionary biology during most of the twentieth century. However, powerful new methods for reconstructing and analyzing phylogenies have been developed in recent decades, which has led to a revival of interest. So, now that the two critical intellectual tools necessary to study the evolution of beauty—natural history and phylogenetics—are available, there has never been a better time to be asking questions about how beauty, and the taste for it, evolve. 

Doing so will help us to understand the process of evolutionary radiation—diversification among species—in a new way. In evolutionary biology, adaptive radiation is the process by which a single common ancestor evolves through natural selection into a diversity of species that have a great variety of ecologies or anatomical structures. The amazing diversity of Darwin’s Finches (Geospizinae) on the Galápagos Islands is a canonical example of adaptive radiation. In this chapter, however, we will investigate another group of birds—the neotropical manakins—in order to understand a different kind of evolutionary process: aesthetic radiation. Aesthetic radiation is the process of diversification and elaboration from a single common ancestor through some mechanism of aesthetic selection—especially mate choice. Aesthetic radiation does not preclude the occurrence of adaptive mate choice, but also includes arbitrary mate choice for sexual beauty alone, with all of its often dramatic coevolutionary consequences. 

The science of beauty requires that we get out of the laboratory and the museum and into the field. Fortunately, my bird-watching youth was great basic training for doing natural history research on birds in the field. I discovered the second critical element of this branch of beauty studies—phylogenetics—as an undergraduate at Harvard University. My immersion in formal ornithological studies began in the fall of 1979 with a freshman seminar, the Biogeography of South American Birds taught by Dr. Raymond A. Paynter Jr., the curator of birds at the Museum of Comparative Zoology (MCZ). Dr. Paynter introduced me to the intellectual magic of natural history museums. Up on the fifth floor of the huge and ancient brick building that housed the Bird Department was a series of rooms where hundreds of thousands of scientific bird specimens were curated. During my undergraduate years, the MCZ was my intellectual home. I hung out a lot in the bird collections doing bibliographic work and curatorial tasks for Paynter and generally smelling like mothballs.

Dr. Paynter himself was far too intellectually conservative and cautious to be interested in the revolutionary new field of phylogenetics. But I soon discovered that the latest concepts and methods in this field were being hotly debated downstairs in the Romer Library in the weekly meetings of the Biogeography and Systematics Discussion Group. In retrospect, this time at Harvard was a golden era for phylogenetics. From the meetings of this “revolutionary cell” in the Romer Library, multiple graduate students went out into the world and made fundamental contributions to the field, helping to bring phylogeny back into the mainstream of evolutionary biology.

My own work was profoundly shaped by those weekly discussions in the early 1980s. I became fascinated by phylogenetic methods and eager to reconstruct avian family trees. For my senior honors project, I worked on the phylogeny and biogeography of toucans and barbets. Working at a desk I made for myself on a big table beneath the towering skeleton of an extinct moa in room 507 of the bird collection, I was excited to make observations of toucan plumage and skeletal characters and to construct my first phylogenies. I am happy to say that I have been continuously associated with world-class scientific collections of birds ever since. Only, I don’t smell like mothballs anymore.

As graduation approached, I was casting about for what to do next, searching for a research program that would combine my bird-watching skills and passion with my new obsession with avian phylogeny. Before going on to graduate school, I was desperate to get to South America and to see more of the birds I had met in the drawers at the MCZ. (There were very few tropical bird field guides in those days, so browsing through a museum collection was actually the best way to learn about the birds before actually seeing them in real life.) Intrigued by the Harvard graduate student Jonathan Coddington’s research using the phylogeny of spiders to test hypotheses about the evolution of orb-web-weaving behavior, I wanted to make a similar use of phylogeny to study the evolution of bird behavior.

At about that time, I met Kurt Fristrup, a Harvard graduate student, who had worked on the behavior of the flamboyantly orange Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock (Rupicola rupicola, Cotingidae) (color plate 5), one of the planet’s most amazing birds. Kurt suggested, “Why don’t you go to Suriname to map manakin leks?” In retrospect, this was one of the most consequential pieces of professional advice I ever received.

On a thin branch twenty-five feet high in the sun-dappled understory of a tropical rain forest in Suriname perches a tiny glossy black bird with a brilliantly golden yellow head, bright white eyes, and ruby-red thighs—a male Golden-headed Manakin ( Ceratopipra erythrocephala)(color plate 6). He weighs about a third of an ounce (ten grams), or a bit less than two U.S. quarters. He has a short neck and short tail, giving him a compact body, but he has a nervous energy that belies his almost dumpy appearance. He sings a high, soft, descending whistled puuu and peers intently around, hyperaware of his surroundings. In moments, a second male whistles back from his perch in an adjacent tree, and then a third nearby. The male answers immediately. His social environment is obviously the focus of his keen attention. In all, there are five males clustered together in the forest. They are obscured from one another by foliage, but they are all within earshot of each other.

In response to the neighboring calls, the first male draws himself up into a statuesque upright posture with his light-colored bill pointing upward. After singing an energetic, syncopated, and raspy puu-prrrrr-pt! call, he suddenly flies from his perch to another branch twenty-five yards away. After a few seconds, he flies rapidly back to his main perch singing an accelerating crescendo of seven or more kew calls in flight. His flight path traces a subtle S-curve trajectory, first down below the level of the perch and then up above it. He lands on the perch from above while uttering a sharp buzzy szzzkkkt! Immediately upon landing, the male lowers his head, holds his body horizontal to the branch, and raises his rear up with his legs extended, revealing bright red thighs against his black belly, like a provocatively colored pair of breeches. He then slides backward along the perch in the tiny rapid steps of an elegant “moonwalk,” as if on roller skates. In the middle of the moonwalk, he flicks his rounded black wings open vertically above his back for a moment. After sliding backward for twelve inches along the branch, the male suddenly lowers and fans his tail, flicks his wings vertically again, and resumes his normal posture.

Moments later, the second male Golden-headed Manakin flies in and perches on another branch about five yards away. The first male immediately flies to join him, and they sit quietly side by side—but facing away from each other—in the dramatic upright posture. Intense, competitive, but mutually tolerant, the two males are deeply engaged with each other.

This scene is just a few moments in the bizarre social world of a Golden-headed Manakin lek. A lek is an aggregation of male display territories. Lekking males defend territories, but these territories lack any resources that females might need for reproduction other than sperm: no significant food, nest sites, nest materials, or other material assistance to the female. Golden-headed Manakins defend individual territories between five and ten yards wide, with two to five such territories grouped together. Leks are essentially sites where males put themselves on display in order to lure females to mate with them. Over the breeding season, individual females visit one or more leks, observe male displays, evaluate these displays, and then choose one of those males as their mate.

 Lek breeding is a form of polygyny (one male with many potential mates) that results from female mate choice. In a lek-breeding system, females can select any mate they want, and they are often nearly unanimous in preferring a small fraction of the available males. So a relatively few males get to mate with a relatively large number of females. The skew in mating success is rather like the contemporary skew in income distribution. The most sexually successful males are very successful and account for half or more of all the matings, while other males will never have any opportunity to mate in a given year. Some males go their whole lives without mating.

After mating, female manakins build nests, lay clutches of two eggs, incubate them, and care for the developing young entirely on their own without any help from the males, whose contributions to reproduction end with their sperm donations. Because females do all the work, they don’t depend on the males for anything, and their independence allows them almost total sexual autonomy. This freedom of mate choice has allowed extreme preferences to evolve; females only choose the few males whose behavioral and morphological features meet their very high standards. The rest will be losers in the mating game. Thus the aesthetic extremity of male manakins is an evolutionary consequence of extreme aesthetic failure, which results from strong sexual selection by mate choice.

Female manakins have been choosing their mates in leks for about fifteen million years. Over the course of time, the features they have preferred have evolved into an extraordinary diversity of traits and behaviors among the approximately fifty-four species of manakins distributed from southern Mexico to northern Argentina. Manakin leks are among nature’s most creative and extreme laboratories of aesthetic evolution. For me, they proved the perfect place to study Beauty Happening.

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Timothy J. Cliffe
3.0 out of 5 stars
Read it - but keep your skeptical faculties up and running
Reviewed in the United States on August 22, 2017
This book is very interesting, and well worth reading. It is also deeply flawed. It concerns Darwin’s “other” great idea: That sexual selection (SS) is an evolutionary force driven by arbitrary aesthetic choices, rather than by the environmental imperatives... See more
This book is very interesting, and well worth reading. It is also deeply flawed.

It concerns Darwin’s “other” great idea: That sexual selection (SS) is an evolutionary force driven by arbitrary aesthetic choices, rather than by the environmental imperatives that drive natural selection (NS). (Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, 1871)

Darwin’s theory of sexual selection had two components: Male-male competition for access to females, and female selection of males based on preference for male behavioral and physical traits. The idea of male-male competition has never been controversial, but female choice has often been dismissed, ignored, or presumed to be a variant of natural selection.

Prum takes Darwin’s idea about female mate choice* and runs with it, arguing that:
• Female mate choice is often based on arbitrary and aesthetically pleasing (i.e., sexually attractive) male traits rather than characteristics that show adaptive fitness; thus, sexual selection is essentially different than natural selection. SS is arbitrary in that just about any trait may become the target for female preference.
• This dynamic causes coevolution of male characteristics and female preferences, because the male trait and the female preference for it are both inherited by their offspring.
• This coevolution can readily lead to a “Runaway Process” in which females come to prefer and males come to display very exaggerated traits. (R.A. Fisher developed the Runaway hypothesis many decades ago.)
• Aesthetic Remodelling of males takes place in species in which females have succeeded in establishing autonomy in the mating process. Males become more attractive by evolving appearance and displays preferred by females, but also by not being sexually coercive towards females – because coercive males are unlikely to be selected as mates in these species.
• SS is a strong driver of evolution, speciation in particular, because the arbitrary nature of sexual tastes can drive different populations in different sexual-display directions, to the point that members of these populations no longer recognize each other as suitable mate material.
• SS is such a strong force that the results can run counter to the adaptive results of natural selection; i.e., sexual selection can result in reduced fitness.

*Prum talks primarily about female choice and male display rather than the other way around because that is by far the more common pattern. There are exceptions; most notably humans, in which each sex displays to the other, and both sexes are choosy.

Prum argues strenuously that sexual selection is driven by perceptions of beauty and sexual pleasure rather than any utilitarian purpose such as finding the fittest mate; he sums up these ideas as “Beauty Happens,” or “BH.” Later in the book he adds “Pleasure Happens.”

Much of his material is well-argued and supported with very interesting empirical evidence, mostly about birds. (Prum is a renowned ornithologist.). He is very convincing concerning the arbitrary origin of many of the traits females prefer in males; this book will likely change the way you think about animal evolution, at least to some degree.

The latter part of the book concerns humans. It is much more speculative than the sections on birds, but Prum’s ideas about how mate choice has evolved in humans are interesting and generally seem plausible. I will not detail these ideas except to say that the most interesting involve the behavioral remodeling of ancestral human males. The results are that human males are kinder and less sexually coercive, by a long shot, than most of our nearest relatives, and on top of that human males provide parental care, which no other great ape male does, not even the famously peaceable Bonobo.*** additional note months later: the revelations of, and the necessity for, the MeToo movement suggest that male humans’ tendency toward sexual coercion is a lot greater than Prum ( or I) thought. It’s still less than that of chimpanzees, but as women have been telling the rest of us in no uncertain terms, there’s still an awful lot of coerciveness amongst us.***

All of these ideas are important and well worth considering, which is why I recommend the book. But there are also serious weaknesses. They all concern Prum’s animus towards the adaptationist viewpoint; i.e., the theory that evolved features (including mating displays) are essentially about fitness.

First problem (less important than the others): Prum’s unpleasant tone towards those he disagrees with. I will give one example; there are many more. Prum attacks Alfred Russell Wallace (justifiably), and immediately extends the attack to every adaptationist thinker since—Wallace, he says, uses “. . . the characteristic style of adaptationist argument – mere stubborn insistence.” (p. 34)

Such sweeping and sneering generalizations appear throughout the book. This is an unattractive and unenlightening trait in a book about science.

Second and more essential problem: Arbitrary criteria vs. fitness–indicating criteria. Prum has convinced me that many mating criteria are arbitrary in origin--but he further argues, at great length, that most sexual displays provide no information at all about male fitness, and this seems highly questionable. He gives multiple examples of strenuous and exacting male displays, which require that the males be vigorous, healthy, and often very precise. And he emphasizes that many female animals are extremely picky about which males they choose. The choosiness of females implies they can discern very subtle differences in display quality – which suggests that fitness (all that vigor, health, and precision) is one very possible factor in those choices.

Oddly enough, in his argument about the irrelevance of fitness Prum echoes various Victorian critics of sexual selection whom he had previously eviscerated. When Darwin published his theory of sexual selection, Wallace and others (all men) claimed that female animals were too insensate to recognize or appreciate fancy male traits. Prum quite rightly says that these men were totally wrong about female animals’ perceptual abilities. But then he says that female animals probably can’t tell a more-fit from a less-fit male (p. 80). I am curious whether Prum realizes how much he sounds like those misogynistic Victorians.

Prum says that if mate choice concerns fitness, every teensy element of sometimes very complex displays must have been naturally selected for the information it provides about fitness. And every such display element must have been better at showing fitness than all possible alternative display components. I don’t buy it. I accept that mate-choice criteria may be arbitrary in origin – but arbitrary criteria, singly and in combination, nonetheless place demands on the displaying male. Such demands cost energy. Less fit males (e.g., those that are weak, diseased, or parasite-ridden) will be less able to perform such displays adequately. If Prum were to show us mating displays that favor inept, unhealthy, or weak males as much as their fitter counterparts he would have a stronger argument. He has described no such cases.

Third problem: Prum’s unconvincing dismissal of Amotz Zahavi’s Handicap Principle. This important and influential adaptationist idea argues that organisms often evolve characteristics that look counter-productive at first glance; e.g., the peacock’s tail. That appendage looks like a terrible burden; why does he have it? The handicap principle says, in effect, that it’s a boast about fitness – the peacock is saying to the peahen “I am so amazingly fit that I can survive lugging this tail around. No predator has caught me despite the difficulty of running or flying with this thing, and its perfection shows I am resistant to the ravages of parasites. And your babies, honey, will inherit my fitness.” This is a “fitness” argument, obviously, and therefore Prum rejects it. I can’t evaluate all the details of Prum’s dismissal (although see below), but I perceive a considerable irony – Prum’s SS displays look just like Zahavian handicaps to me. Per Prum, males have developed costly aesthetic displays in response to female preferences, just as, per Zahavi, they have developed costly handicaps to advertise their fitness to those same females. It looks more like a difference in perspective and terminology than a true difference in substance.

Fourth problem: Prum is dishonest, I think, about the evolution of Zahavian handicaps. First he describes how an arbitrarily selected sexual display trait may run counter to optimal adaptiveness. Then he very plausibly explains that the evolution of such a trait must therefore strike some kind of equilibrium between its sexual attractiveness and its adaptive drawbacks (p. 41). But when he speaks of the handicap principle, he derisively (and amusingly – pp. 44-48) claims that the handicap principle would inevitably lead to handicaps of such extremity that the organism would die. He utterly fails to consider whether Zahavian handicaps would develop in the same way as maladaptive Prumian sexual traits; i.e., whether an equilibrium would develop. I can’t see any way this is other than dishonest. It makes me wonder if there are other dishonest arguments that I didn’t recognize.

(I highly recommend Zahavi’s 1997 book The Handicap Principle. You may not buy all his arguments, but if you’re interested in evolution, I guarantee you will find it fascinating.)

Fifth problem: Prum’s tendency to caricature the views of adaptationists. They are all absolutists, per Prum, who believe “Natural selection must be true, and all sufficient, because it is such a powerful and rationally attractive idea” (p. 44). Note that this sentence implies that natural selection has not been proved (NS “must be true . . . because it is . . . an attractive idea”). But the larger problem is the phrase that adaptationists think NS must be “ all sufficient.” Certainly most evolutionists think NS is the primary force sculpting organisms, but the many books about evolution that I have read over the past 40 or so years always acknowledge that other forces are also at work. The comment quoted above is one of many in which Prum creates a straw-man absolutist adaptationist who is actually quite rare.

Sixth problem: The Null Hypothesis. Prum points out that good scientific hypotheses must be falsifiable, and says that this requires a null hypothesis for any given set of observations or experiments (p. 68 ff.). The null hypothesis, in essence, is that an apparent correlation between two phenomena is due to chance, rather than to anything special. To support an alternative hypothesis (e.g., say, the hypothesis that superior fitness is causally correlated with high mating success), experimenters must refute the null hypothesis; i.e., they must show that their results are unlikely to be due to chance.

Prum says that the appropriate null hypothesis for the theory that mating displays are about fitness is his own Beauty Happens theory. I.e., to prove that displays are about fitness, experimenters must prove that displays are NOT about aesthetic sexual attractiveness. I am unable to grasp the argument. Apparently BH is equivalent to chance? Because display traits are arbitrary, maybe?

But the fact that I can’t grasp this argument is not my greatest concern. Rather, I find it indefensible that Prum spends pages prescribing a null hypothesis for adaptationist hypotheses – but he never once describes the appropriate null hypothesis for his own Beauty Happens theory. I have the (perhaps-mistaken) impression that he thinks no null hypothesis is required for BH. But if so, he seems to have forgotten his own starting point – a scientific theory must be falsifiable.

Seventh problem: The guy who wrote about all the same stuff years earlier. Much of Prum’s book sounded familiar to me, so I rooted around my bookshelves and found The Mating Mind by Geoffrey Miller, published in 2000, and reread the whole thing. It is almost the same book as Prum’s regarding the components of sexual selection, including similar but much deeper material about humans, with one major difference--Miller is an adaptationist, and believes that those Runaway-process-arbitrarily-chosen-aesthetically-pleasing-behaviorally-remodelled display traits tend to impart information about fitness.

So Prum mentions Miller exactly once, and dismisses him with a misleading comment about one paragraph in Miller’s book (p. 279). It strikes me as thoroughly dishonest that Prum fails to mention that Miller wrote about ALL the same ideas 15 years earlier. Obviously he disagrees with Miller about fitness in particular; that doesn’t seem a sufficient reason to ignore this closely related book. Given Prum’s own tendency towards unpleasant innuendo, I feel justified in speculating that he didn’t want to call attention to the fact that Miller beat him to the punch on a great many particulars.

(I highly recommend The Mating Mind. It’s clearly written, comprehensive, thought-provoking, and lacking the animosity that infects Prum’s book.)

I have spent much more time detailing my problems with Prum’s book than spelling out what I like, but I will repeat what I said at the beginning: The Evolution of Beauty is a worthwhile and eye-opening book. But don''t read it uncritically.
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R. James Tobin
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
For professionals & general readers
Reviewed in the United States on January 8, 2018
Darwin is best known for On the Origin of Species, (1859), which argues that biological evolution is the result of natural selection or survival of the fittest, thus determining future generations. Later Darwinists stressed the genetic basis of this. Darwin is less known... See more
Darwin is best known for On the Origin of Species, (1859), which argues that biological evolution is the result of natural selection or survival of the fittest, thus determining future generations. Later Darwinists stressed the genetic basis of this. Darwin is less known for his later book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Reference to Sex (1971). Even less well known is his 1872 volume, The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. Contemporaneous with Darwin was Alfred Russell Wallace, who came to pretty much the same theory of evolution as Darwin in his Origin.

Wallace, and others at the time and since, strongly rejected Darwin’s s later views about sexual selection. Richard O. Prum has written The Evolution of Beauty in defense of Darwin’s idea of co-evolution from both natural and sexual selection, the outstanding element of which is female choice in mating. Like Darwin, he writes about both animals, most specifically about certain species of birds, as well as humans, from an avowedly feminist point of view, in contrast to Victorian patriarchal views denying personal autonomy to women.

Prum began field observation of birds at a very young age and in 1982, at age seventeen, he spent several months in a Surinam rain forest, in South America, in search of the virtually unknown White-bearded Manakin. In 1985 he published a paper in The Auk on his observations there.Of chief interest is breeding behavior of manakins, involving “leks” or groups of male birds which have, over fifteen million years, evolved elaborate mating displays or dances in small territories. There is “an extraordinary diversity of traits and behaviors” among the males. A visiting female chooses a mate from among the males; Prum significantly sees this as an aesthetic selection. As for the males, the most successful of them have an opportunity to charm and mate with multiple females. Bowerbirds, studied elsewhere, build elaborate structures, of different sorts, in some of which female birds can shield themselves from unwanted approach by the males, whose displays the female watches, and sometimes disdains. There are many species of both kinds of bird.

Prum includes a chapter on sex in ducks, which sometimes involves violence but in some cases
fertilization from unwanted coitus is frustrated by the structure of female anatomy which has evolved to prevent fertilization. As an instance of unwanted male sexual violence, I was once the shocked witness of forced insemination of a female mallard, held down by cohorts of the dominant male. The female clearly expressed her displeasure afterwards.

Prum’s credentials in ornithology are impeccable. He is William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology at Yale University and the head curator of Vertebrate Zoology at Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History. His bibliography included seventeen articles in scientific publications he published in the last third century. His notes and general bibliography cover 54 pages of small print. He credits a number of his exceptionally talented graduate students who have done extensive field or laboratory work contributing to understanding of bird behavior and evolution.

About two-thirds of this book is about birds, after which Prum turns to human social evolution involving female autonomy in sexual choice. Some of his later chapters are admittedly speculative in nature, perhaps more essays than presentation of hard evidence; they continue his main theme of the growing reality of female sexual preference, which has influenced male behavior. He even argues that this may have had effects on homosexuality.

A word to the general reader: this is not a difficult read, with the exception of Chapter Two, “Beauty Happens,” which is a tightly argued defense of the author’s basic assumptions, against possible objections. If you are not acquainted with the concept of “null hypothesis, ”I understand this to be simply a working theory subject to “falsification” or disproof by contrary evidence. I find Prum to be persuasive throughout. If he had written this book when I was a young student seriously considering a career in ornithology, I would have wanted very much to have studied with him. But that was many years ago and I turned to other studies.
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Robert L. Moore
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A Very Readable Book with a Revolutionary Message
Reviewed in the United States on December 24, 2017
This book is astonishing in its scope and the force of its argument. But I expect that many evolutionary biologists will take up arms against its central, revolutionary thesis, the idea that evolution can be arbitrary rather than systematically adaptive because sexual... See more
This book is astonishing in its scope and the force of its argument. But I expect that many evolutionary biologists will take up arms against its central, revolutionary thesis, the idea that evolution can be arbitrary rather than systematically adaptive because sexual selection, unlike natural selection, is guided by nothing more than the preferences of individual specimens in the mating game.

Yes, Prum wants us to believe that natural selection is a limited factor in driving evolution, and that our aesthetic sensibilities have emerged through sexual, not natural, selection. And so have the interesting and complex sensibilities of bower birds, manakins and many other species that observers might be inclined to describe as “artistic” in their mating behavior.

Attributing aesthetic tastes to birds, even birds that, by virtue of their DNA, construct elaborate bowers as devices for attracting mates, may seem far-fetched. It certainly did to me, until I was about halfway through Prum’s book – by which point I became convinced that the author is right about the arbitrariness and significance of sexual selection as opposed to natural selection per se.

Moving from birds (Prum’s specialty) to primates and, finally, to Homo sapiens, the author walks on increasingly shaky ground. For example, he argues that bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) might be able to show us something about the evolution of non-hierarchical sexual relations in humans. Yes, they might, but then again…

The idea of non-hierarchical sexual relations among humans, particularly relations that offer autonomy to females, is a major secondary theme of Prum’s. And, though I would say there is nothing in his argument that I would reject as simply wrong, there is quite a bit that definitely needs more supporting evidence. But this is only to be expected in a work so wide-ranging in its scope and so revolutionary in its aim.

In sum, this is truly one of the most worthwhile and eye-opening books I can recall encountering. I expect that it will be attacked forcefully by many established biologists, yet, however it may fare in the coming debates, it has to be counted as one of the most significant science books of the year.

And, by the way, it is also a very pleasant read, even when some of the topics it covers are decidedly ugly. For example, it has changed my view of ducks forever, those feathery brutes with their corkscrew penises, fake-compartment vaginas, and all-around non-aesthetic copulation. Reader, be warned.
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klockrike
3.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A disappointment.
Reviewed in the United States on June 27, 2018
The tone of the author in this book is not what I prefer to read - condescending and with selective facts. In some cases there are misunderstandings or misrepresentations of how science and evolutionary biology processes actually work, which bothers me. It is surprising... See more
The tone of the author in this book is not what I prefer to read - condescending and with selective facts. In some cases there are misunderstandings or misrepresentations of how science and evolutionary biology processes actually work, which bothers me. It is surprising that it got such good reviews in newspapers, etc., maybe because it was so well-written and that the book reviewers couldn''t evaluate the details of the evolutionary arguments? It feels a lot more than propaganda for a particular theory at times, instead of a scientifically reasoned piece with critical evaluation of data and hypotheses. I expected so much better from this book.
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Hiker
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A Subtle View of Evolution
Reviewed in the United States on June 15, 2017
For the non-specialist, this book is real revelation. Survival of the fittest is usually considered to be the only force shaping species in the evolutionary process. Prof. Prum makes the case that other forces, specifically autonomous mate selection, may play a... See more
For the non-specialist, this book is real revelation. Survival of the fittest is usually considered to be the only force shaping species in the evolutionary process.

Prof. Prum makes the case that other forces, specifically autonomous mate selection, may play a pivotal role in the determination of the characteristics of a species. This concept, first introduced by Charles Darwin himself, has been ignored by most evolutionary biologists until the last few decades. But only by recognizing that another force, or forces, may play a substantial role in guiding evolution can one understand and appreciate the intricate variability observed in living species.

The idea that independent and sometimes conflicting forces may shape the evolutionary process makes the theory far more subtle and convincing than the simple principle of survival of the fittest.

Professor Prum''s writing is erudite, witty and entertaining. This is an important book which should be read by anyone interested in modern biology.
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Stanley Krippner
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Survival of the Prettiest
Reviewed in the United States on August 2, 2020
Early on in his career as an ornithologist, Richard Prum became interested in evolutionary processes that defy simplistic adaptive explanations. However, Darwin had covered his bases by introducing mate selection by beauty as well as by more pragmatic considerations. This... See more
Early on in his career as an ornithologist, Richard Prum became interested in evolutionary processes that defy simplistic adaptive explanations. However, Darwin had covered his bases by introducing mate selection by beauty as well as by more pragmatic considerations. This principle was ignored at the time, probably because it gave female perspectives a powerful and independent role in mate selection, an option that was not popular in Victorian England. Prum has taken the concept of beauty from the humanities and applied it to the sciences. But at the end of this remarkable book, Prum takes the "aesthetics of nature" back to the humanities, demonstrating how they can be enriched by this evolutionary perspective. Survival of the fittest is not always enough to explain evolution. The survival of the prettiest often needs to be considered as well.
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Mikio Miyaki
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
evolution of charm and sensory delight
Reviewed in the United States on March 25, 2021
“The Evolution of Beauty” satisfies every readers who like controversies, who love wonder of nature, and who want to elucidate about mysterious human beings. Richard O. Prum stresses a profound joy - of savoir and connaissance - created by the convergence of book learning... See more
“The Evolution of Beauty” satisfies every readers who like controversies, who love wonder of nature, and who want to elucidate about mysterious human beings. Richard O. Prum stresses a profound joy - of savoir and connaissance - created by the convergence of book learning and life experience. Evolutionary theory has been directed spotlight on an adaptation side so far. Prum claims evolution is frequently far quirkier, stranger, more historically contingent, individualized, and less predictable and generalizable than adaptation can explain. He insists Darwin himself well knew of this fact. How did beauty, and the taste for it, evolve? Female sexual autonomy, he says, is predominantly responsible for the evolution of natural beauty. He picks up biology and ecology of argus pheasant, manakins, and bowerbirds. We can confirm their eloquent mate selecting traits through moving pictures on Youtube. Mate selection is a good opportunity to solve a collision of interest between males and females. These birds tell us aesthetic coevolution has had a powerful, innovative, and decisive impact on the quantity and form of biological diversity. Leks and coordinated display are likely the result of female preferences for socially cooperative aesthetic gathering of males. Sexual autonomy matters in nature. When sexual success is determined by mate choice, survival is not the only priority in life. He explains violent struggle between males and females of ducks. Unselected male ducks become coercive in copulation. The result are continuously developed measures and countermeasures over initiative in mating. He thinks social monogamy of penis-free birds are strongly correlated with female sexual autonomy.

How did we become human? How did a sense of beauty happen in our soul? Our idea about beauty is slightly different between peoples depend on cultural, social, and geographical conditions. Prum claims Darwin has discovered that evolution is not merely about the survival of the fittest but also about charm and sensory delight in individual subjective experience. Our sexual behavior is full of wonder comparing those of our primate brothers. Prum asserts we have a better account of our becoming human by including aesthetic female mate choice, sexual coercion, and female autonomy in the evolution of humans. He takes orgasm and same-sex behavior as an object of study. He explains the possibility of arbitrary, aesthetic mate choice might play a great role in developing sensory experience. Males have been evolutionarily de-weaponized and only culturally rearmed in nature. Opposing to this trend, patriarchal culture in human society - male power, sexual domination, and social hierarchy - has developed to reassert male control over fertilization, reproduction, and parental investment as countermeasures. These countermeasures, he thinks, prevented modern women from fully consolidating the previous evolutionary gains in sexual autonomy. Permanent breast tissue is unique to humans, he claims, and is likely an aesthetic traits that has evolved by male mate choice. He assumes cultural mating preferences can create feedback loops that result in the evolutionary elaboration of aesthetic value. When sexual autonomy is abridged or disrupted by coercion or violence, he says, mate choice itself can provide the evolutionary leverage to assert and expand the freedom of choice. Female sexual pleasure and orgasm has been evolved as an accession of female desire and choice. Male same-sex behavior evolved on its way to advance female sexual autonomy as female aesthetic remodeling of maleness. Female same-sex behavior is a defensive, aesthetic, and adaptive response to the direct and indirect costs of coercive male control over reproduction. Female choice expanded to encompass the broader social personality and social relationship experience, ultimately resulting in the evolution of male paternal investment.

Prum’s phrase “we humans can appreciate their beauty, but we have played no role in shaping it” resonate gravely after closing the book.
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Brendan W. Shanahan
4.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Memoir/Treatise on Beauty: Interesting, Worthy Ideas with Evidence Wanting
Reviewed in the United States on June 15, 2021
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what this book is. The first half reads like a memoir of an ornithologist by a Darwin fan-boy trying to push back on the utilitarian view of evolution. The second reads like a lay-man’s science-book on human evolution, sexual selection,... See more
It’s difficult to pin down exactly what this book is. The first half reads like a memoir of an ornithologist by a Darwin fan-boy trying to push back on the utilitarian view of evolution. The second reads like a lay-man’s science-book on human evolution, sexual selection, and beauty. Whatever it is, it is ok.

I came to the book hoping for a condensed, overly-footnoted book on contemporary understandings of beauty, its frontiers, its points of contention, its decades-old debates. I didn’t get that. The first seven chapters read like the memoirs of a passionate birder and Darwinist. While there were insights into evolution and beauty along the way, they were sprinkled between stories of hunts for rare birds, falling in love with a fellow researcher and his to-be wife, and long excavations into the intellectual history of this-or-that theory. His writing was quirky, charming, and interesting, but I was looking for a condensed treatise on the subject. I felt frustrated by his whimsies and, eventually, skipped to the second half of the book, hoping for a more focused treatment of the subject. I got it.

The second half of the book takes a sharp turn from the meandering story-telling of the first. Prum writes it like a treatise, all-be-it with his characteristic whimsy and love of story. He tries to paint a picture of what we used to know, why it changed, what we know now, what we’re still debating, and what we’re clueless about. He covers topics like the myth of symmetry and fitness, why women have breasts, our pickiness (male chimpanzees and apes, for example, will mate with any fertile female – doesn’t matter how ugly), and why men have such big dicks. Throughout, he offers plenty of mythical and pop-culture references (Zeus and Hera, Marilyn Monroe) to drive home clear points to the reader. And while he draws on some of what he wrote in the first half, I think it works as a stand-alone section.

After reading the second half, though, I felt as if I’d just finished a spectacular meal at a restaurant – only it wasn’t filling and I had to wait 2 hours before it arrived at my table. Most of the ideas that he places forward are just that: ideas. And while there might be strong evidence to support their conclusions, they were based primarily on conjecture, comparison, and counterfactual thinking. While this can generate interesting explanations for why men have such extravagant penises, it still strikes me as a bit of a “just so” story for 21st century evolutionary bioloigists. More precise, focused, data-driven research plus ruling out other possibilities needs to be done before we can land on his ideas with any certainty. At present, they''re plausible "just so" stories. To Prum’s credit, he sometimes points this out and is cautious with his language. Another general criticism was the lack of citations. I suspect that it might be because of the sparsity of good studies out there, but he didn''t say - and this, again, casts much of his analysis into question.

Overall, two different-but-related books in one: 1) an ornithologists memoirs, gushing love of Darwin, and struggles against evolutionary biology orthodoxy and 2) a treatise on contemporary understandings of beauty and sexual preferences in humans. Prum does a decent job at both, but I’m still hungry for more. Perhaps I’ll have to wait a few decades before a treatise with the quality and depth I long for can be written. For people looking for more information on this topic, this’ll do.
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Top reviews from other countries

Davide Ferrara
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Definitely worth a read
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on November 10, 2017
This is a very interesting book and perspective on how humans (and all living beings / animals) have come to define "Beauty". It sort of builds on the type of approach taken to social science put forward by Geertz ("The Interpretation of Cultures",...See more
This is a very interesting book and perspective on how humans (and all living beings / animals) have come to define "Beauty". It sort of builds on the type of approach taken to social science put forward by Geertz ("The Interpretation of Cultures", especially the first part of that book), but takes a different focus, if not entirely different epistemological developmental view. Was interesting to learn that Darwin originally put this forward as -- as the title implies -- not many have pursued this particular aspect of Darwin''s work. Worth reading if one wishes to understand more about the core origins and depth of key aspects of human (and general) nature. It doesn''t get more "core" than "mate choice", does it?
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Ralph Hepworth
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A remarkable book well worth reading
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on July 26, 2018
This is a remarkable book. It''s a bit of an effort to get into it but well worth it. The author shares his passion for birds with conviction and you will find out more about the way ducks have sex then you ever thought there was to know. Then the author gets going and sets...See more
This is a remarkable book. It''s a bit of an effort to get into it but well worth it. The author shares his passion for birds with conviction and you will find out more about the way ducks have sex then you ever thought there was to know. Then the author gets going and sets out his belief that evolution of beauty – ''beauty happens'' in his words – occurs via it parallel and linked selection mechanism to utilitarian natural selection. His presentation is always well-founded and soundly argued - and thoroughly convincing. He makes speculative forays – and is always clear where he is doing this – into human sexuality amongst other things. This last chunk of the book is exciting and I found it hard to put it down. Well done Prof Prum; I''d give your book a six rating if I could.
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Blue axolotl
2.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A frustrating, partisan book written by a very knowledgeable scientist
Reviewed in the United Kingdom on June 16, 2021
This is a very frustrating book, its subject is sexual selection with in depth examples of birds. But it quickly veers off to a polemic, from sexual selection to "evolution of beauty". Beauty is never actually defined and in my view this is a major drawback, if you want to...See more
This is a very frustrating book, its subject is sexual selection with in depth examples of birds. But it quickly veers off to a polemic, from sexual selection to "evolution of beauty". Beauty is never actually defined and in my view this is a major drawback, if you want to discuss beauty you could at least say what it is. Birds may be beautiful for us but I am sure sexual selection occurs as well in creature we may find less attractive, maybe male cockroaches find females pretty or the other way around? And then it veers again in a social and ethical realm. The evolution of beauty is a way of liberating females and LBGT people and fight market economics! That is plain dumb. The author obviously didn''t consider the downside of sexual selection, the many creatures that are just not attractive enough or strong enough. He has never been a wallflower at a party. Very frustrating that such an obviously knowledgeable scientist wrote this as a pamphlet rather than a way to open science to more people. I''ll blame it on America''s tribal wars...
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animal lover
5.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
Prum argues for Darwin''s suppressed theory of the evolutionary significance of female choice
Reviewed in Canada on August 18, 2017
loved this book! Prum has brought notice to Darwin''s theory of evolution through beauty and mate choice. Darwin proposed aesthetics as a shared biological and cultural trait across lifeforms. He based this thought on observations of bird plumage and mating traditions....See more
loved this book! Prum has brought notice to Darwin''s theory of evolution through beauty and mate choice. Darwin proposed aesthetics as a shared biological and cultural trait across lifeforms. He based this thought on observations of bird plumage and mating traditions. Darwin argued that females of bird species choose beautiful displays of males, and this results in physical adaptations. Also, the aesthetic qualities of cultural traditions enacted by the males are chosen by females, and this results in the adaptation in the species’ cultures. The theory was largely suppressed until recently because of its feminist implications—females leading evolutionary adaptation—and because it acknowledged conscious choice in animals. Prum''s book is a welcome addition to aesthetic evolutionary theory and ecofeminism.
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Concobus
2.0 out of 5 starsVerified Purchase
A confused book. Only worth reading for people who already know enough about evolution to be able to parse the nonsense
Reviewed in Canada on August 30, 2018
I have a PhD in evolutionary biology. Like many evolutionary biologists, I will note that there are a number of serious problems with this book. The good press is mostly coming from reporters, not biologists. It''s not all bad, but overall, I cannot recommend even the bird...See more
I have a PhD in evolutionary biology. Like many evolutionary biologists, I will note that there are a number of serious problems with this book. The good press is mostly coming from reporters, not biologists. It''s not all bad, but overall, I cannot recommend even the bird sections of this book because the content related to evolution is deeply confused. Here are some of the problems. This is not an exhaustive list. There are many more problems than I can list here. First, Prum misrepresents opposition to Fisher''s model of runaway selection. Runaway selection and arbitrary female choice are presented in introductory evolutionary biology textbooks (e.g. Futuyma & Kirkpatrick), and in what is probably the most popular biology book of all time ("The Selfish Gene"). This is not some forgotten secret that has laid dormant and untaught in evolutionary biology for decades. It is fair to say that most evolutionary biologists do not accept the ubiquity of runaway selection, but this is on the basis of (lack of) evidence. Prum asks us to accept runaway selection as the "null model" for sexual selection, despite there being more arguments against its ubiquity than for it, and despite it not producing testable quantitative predictions (unlike the neutral theory of molecular evolution, which is Prum''s point of comparison for a null model). Second, Prum ignores evidence against his position and misrepresents the arguments of his opponents. Runaway selection on arbitrary traits cannot work if there is a cost to female choice. Prum does not tell us this, even though--as other reviewers have pointed out--it essentially disproves the entire premise of the book. That''s quite the omission! As an example of misrepresenting his opponents, at one point, Prum misrepresents Alan Grafen, who said that accepting Fisher''s model in opposition to honest signalling models would be "methodologically wicked". What he meant by this is simply that accepting a non-adaptationist hypothesis represents the end of inquiry. It''s like shrugging your shoulders and saying "I don''t know what this trait could be good for, therefore it must be good for nothing." That kind of argument from ignorance is not how science progresses. You need to make hypotheses and try to knock them down. Third, at one point, it becomes clear that Prum has not understood the arguments against his position. For example, when discussing Zahavi''s handicap principle, Prum asks why male animals do not seem to evolve true handicaps such as missing limbs in order to signal their high quality. This shows that Prum has not understood at all what an "honest signal" is. An honest signal is a *reliable* indicator of male quality. The reason that males do not evolve missing limbs is that a male with bad genes can just as easily have a missing limb as a male with good genes. Therefore, there would be selection against females accepting missing limbs as a signal because it would lead them to being easily fooled about the quality of their mate. This kind of easily faked signal is not evolutionarily stable. Instead, natural selection will cause females to rely on *honest signals*: signals that are easy for good males to produce but hard for bad males to produce. That Prum does not know this shows that he does not understand the arguments against his position or that he is choosing to misrepresent them. Fourth, Prum''s appeal to consequences in rejecting the "good genes" model of mate choice is deplorable. Prum says we must reject this model in order to divorce evolutionary biology from eugenics. No! What we must do is judge the truth of each model based on the EVIDENCE. Prum''s fallacious line of argument here has long been used by creationists to reject evolutionary theory in its entirety. Fifth, Prum''s own speculations on human sociobiology are deeply irresponsible in my opinion. For example, he admits that none of the mathematical models behind the material he is proposing have been published so he doesn''t really know if what he is proposing is even theoretically possible. But then he says "humans likely [this]" and "humans likely [that]" on the basis of essentially zero evidence. It''s all his untested pet theory. Et cetera. If you read this book, know that what you are reading is not an honest representation of the state of evolutionary biology. This book is pushing the author''s viewpoint, and in my opinion stretches the boundaries of the truth in order to do so. By the end of the book, you get the sense that his motivation for writing the book may have been based largely based on two things: 1) his personal politics, 2) his resentment at having had his viewpoints criticized in peer review (by experts who know better) and a desire to bypass the peer-reviewed journals and "win the argument" by appealing directly to the public. Give this one a pass.
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