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Deeper meanings hidden in the recording of James Foley's horrific death.

Deeper meanings hidden in the recording of James Foley's horrific death.

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Challenging Mainstream Thought About Beauty’s Big Hand in Evolution

Challenging Mainstream Thought About Beauty’s Big Hand in Evolution

Not long ago, a physicist at Stanford posed a rhetorical question that took me by surprise.

“Why is there so much beauty?” he asked.

Beauty was not what I was thinking the world was full of when he brought it up. The physicist, Manu Prakash, was captivated by the patterns in seawater made as starfish larvae swam about. But he did put his finger on quite a puzzle: Why is there beauty? Why is there any beauty at all?

Richard O. Prum, a Yale ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, offers a partial answer in a new book, “The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us.” He writes about one kind of beauty — the oh-is-he/she-hot variety — and mostly as it concerns birds, not people. And his answer is, in short: That’s what female birds like.

This won’t help with understanding the appeal of fluid dynamics or the night sky, but Dr. Prum is attempting to revive and expand on a view that Charles Darwin held, one that sounds revolutionary even now.

The idea is that when they are choosing mates — and in birds it’s mostly the females who choose — animals make choices that can only be called aesthetic. They perceive a kind of beauty. Dr. Prum defines it as “co-evolved attraction.” They desire that beauty, often in the form of fancy feathers, and their desires change the course of evolution.

All biologists recognize that birds choose mates, but the mainstream view now is that the mate chosen is the fittest in terms of health and good genes. Any ornaments or patterns simply reflect signs of fitness. Such utility is objective. Dr. Prum’s — and Darwin’s — notion of beauty is something more subjective, with no other meaning than its aesthetic appeal.

Dr. Prum wants to push evolutionary biologists to re-examine their assumptions about utility and beauty, objectivity and subjectivity. But he also wants to reach the public with a message that is clear whether or not you dip into the technical aspects of evolution. The yearning to pick your own mate is not something that began with humans, he says. It can be found in ducks, pheasants and other creatures.

“Freedom of choice matters to animals,” he said recently on a birding trip to a beach near his office in New Haven. “We’ve been explaining away desire rather than actually trying to understand or explain it. That’s one of the biggest shifts that the book is about.”

The book ranges from hard science to speculation, and he does not expect his colleagues to agree with him on all of his ideas. In fact, he gets a twinkle in his eye when he anticipates intellectual conflict.

“I don’t know anybody who actually agrees with me,” he said with a frank smile.

“Even my own students aren’t there yet.”

To grasp his view, a little bit of history is in order. Darwin famously proposed the idea of evolution by natural selection, what is often called survival of the fittest. To put it simply, living things vary in their inherited traits, from speed to color to sense of smell. The traits of the individuals who survive longer and have the most offspring become more common. So, over time, the faster antelope have more young, the fastest of them have more offspring, and antelope end up very speedy.

But reproduction isn’t just about surviving and staying healthy long enough to mate. You have to find a mate. And in many species, your mate must choose you. This process is sexual selection. Female birds are often the ones choosing. And their choices can produce male birds that are incredibly colorful, and some that are elaborate dancers or designers of striking boudoirs — like the bower birds. If, for example, females like males with long tails, then long-tailed males have more offspring, and the longest-tailed of those offspring reproduce more. In the end, that species becomes known for its long tails.

Maydianee Andrade, an evolutionary biologist and vice dean at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, who studies sexual selection and teaches evolution, said that “the question is basically this. You can think of females when they are choosing a mate as foraging. So what are they looking for?”

“If you’re dragging a giant tail behind you, that might tell the female something,” she said. “A male that survives carrying a large heavy tail is more impressive than a male that survives with a short tail.”

But survival might not have anything to do with it. Some female finches use white feathers to line their nest, perhaps to camouflage white eggs. In one experiment, they also liked males with white feathers stuck on their heads better than other males. This seemed to be an aesthetic choice, and also proved that there is no accounting for taste.

Darwin contended that selection-based mate choice was different from natural selection because the females were often making decisions based on what looked good — on beauty, as they perceived it — and not on survival or some objective quality like speed or strength. Scientists of that era reacted negatively, partly because of the emphasis on females. “Such is the instability of vicious feminine caprice that no constancy of coloration could be produced by its selective action,” wrote St. George Jackson Mivart, an English biologist who was at first a great supporter and later a critic of natural selection.

Alfred Russel Wallace, who came up with the theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin, preferred the idea that the colors and patterns meant something — either they were signs that this was a male of the right species, or they indicated underlying fitness. Perhaps only a strong, healthy male could support such a big, beautiful tail.

At the very birth of evolutionary theory, scientists were arguing about how sexual selection worked. And they kept at it, through the discovery of genes and many other advances.

Fast forward to the 1980s, when Dr. Prum was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, sharing an office with Geoffrey Hill, now a professor at Auburn University.

At that time, mainstream evolutionary thought took a big swing toward the idea that ornaments and fancy feathers were indications of underlying fitness. “Animals with the best ornamentation were the best males,” Dr. Hill said. This was called “honest signaling” of underlying genetic fitness. The idea, he said, “almost completely ran over what was the old idea of beauty.”

Dr. Hill, for one, was completely convinced. “I was pretty sure I could explain all ornaments in all animals as honest signaling.” But, he added, he has since reconsidered. There are some extreme forms of ornamentation that he thinks don’t signal anything, but rather are a result of the kind of process Dr. Prum favors.

“You can’t explain a peacock’s tail with honest signaling,” Dr. Hill said.

But, he said, he thought Dr. Prum had taken an important idea and gotten “a little bit carried away with it.” The book, he said, “was a great read, and I could tell he put his heart and soul into it.” But, he said, he found it “scientifically disappointing.”

Darwin himself, Dr. Hill said, “was completely unsatisfied with his work on sexual selection.” And the mainstream of evolutionary biology is not hostile to a partial role for arbitrary female choice. Dr. Hill has recently argued for combining several different processes to explain sexual selection.

Dr. Prum is indeed given to enthusiasm, and to intellectual contention. He has been on the winning side of initially unpopular ideas before.

As a graduate student, he sided with researchers who wanted to change the way animals are classified, to emphasize their evolutionary descent. The new idea was called cladistics and it is now the established idea. He has done groundbreaking research on both the physical structure and the evolution of feathers, and he was an early supporter of the notion that birds descended from dinosaurs, another new idea that is now the mainstream view.

In neither case was he a lone voice. But he is nothing if not confident, and not only in his science. Take the question of pizza.

In New Haven, pizza is something akin to a religion, and there are different sects. When I asked Dr. Prum who makes the best pizza in town, thinking he would pick one of the rival pizzerias, he didn’t hesitate.

“I do,” he said. He uses an outdoor grill with a special attachment, and he described his pursuit of the perfect pizza in some detail. When I raised an eyebrow he offered me a reference, a friend and writer who had consumed the Prum pies.

He also acknowledged that he approaches many things with single-minded intensity.

“I’m given to obsessions,” he said. Bird watching was the first and most long-lasting. Evolutionary biology may be the deepest. Cooking, opera, gardening and politics (left-wing) are others.

He has disagreed with the dominant view of sexual selection since graduate school and sees his new book, which he hopes will reach beyond scientists, as a kind of manifesto. It has too many parts to summarize. He takes a chapter, for instance, to speculate that same-sex attraction in humans evolved in our ancestors through female choices that undermine male sexual coercion. For a full account, you need to read the book.

But one particular aspect of his argument is his distress at the idea that almost all evolutionary change is assumed to be adaptive, contributing to fitness. In other words, if a fish is blue, it must be blue for a reason. The color must help it escape predators or sneak up on prey, or be otherwise useful in some way. Beauty, therefore, must be adaptive, or a sign of underlying qualities that are adaptive. Pick a behavior or an ornament or a physical trait, and it is useful until proven otherwise.

That’s backward, says Dr. Prum. Take beauty. Since animals have aesthetic preferences and make choices, beauty will inevitably appear. “Beauty happens,” as he puts it, and it should be taken as nonadaptive until proven otherwise.

In proposing this so-called “null hypothesis,” he draws on the work of Mark A. Kirkpatrick at the University of Texas, Austin, who studies population genetics, genomics and evolutionary theory and had read parts of “The Evolution of Beauty.”

“I’m very impressed that Rick is taking on this crusade,” Dr. Kirkpatrick said. He is not convinced that all aspects of sexual selection are based on arbitrary choices for perceived beauty, but, he said, if Dr. Prum can convince some other scientists to question their assumptions, “he will do a great service.”

For Dr. Prum, at least, there is a partial answer to the question posed by Dr. Prakash. Why are birds beautiful?

“Birds are beautiful because they’re beautiful to themselves.”

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Men risk their lives in wars so women can enjoy societies where they can pursue feminist goals, such as punishing men for sexist language.

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The law on “consensual” incest

David Epstein, a professor at Columbia University, has been arrested and charged with incest for allegedly having a consensual sexual relationship with his adult daughter. The Columbia Spectator reported the news just this morning and it has already made international headlines. It’s a testament to the strength of the incest taboo, not to mention our thirst for new twists on the classic student-teacher sex scandal. In this case, the 46-year-old political science professor isn’t alleged to have had sex with one of his students but rather his 24-year-old daughter, who is in the same age bracket as most of his students. What’s more, his wife is a tenured professor at the university.

It has all the sordid ingredients to supply tabloid headlines for days, but far more interesting — at least in my nerdy universe — are the laws behind this case and others like it. After all, the relationship in this case allegedly began after Epstein’s daughter reached the age of consent. It isn’t a clear-cut case of child abuse, and there are no allegations that the three-year-long relationship carried on without the daughter’s consent. Although, as we saw with Mackenzie Phillips, many argue incestuous relationships between parent and adult child can never truly be consensual. I went to law professor J. Dean Carro, who defended a noteworthy case in which a man was convicted of incest for having sex with his 22-year-old stepdaughter, to better understand how our legal system tackles this near-universal taboo.

Generally, in cases like this involving “consensual activity within the home,” it comes down to the question of whether the government has “a compelling state interest” in regulating the activity. “Some courts recognize that the government does have an interest in regulating incestuous conduct because of the risk of pregnancy and the heightened risk of genetic defect,” he says. Other courts will convict even without such a risk: In Ohio, a sexual battery statute states that a stepparent should never have sexual contact with a stepchild (and that is regardless of age). Most courts are concerned about parents preying on their children, he said. “Regardless of the age of the child, there’s still a theory that a parent is always a parent, a child is always a child and, as a result, there truly can’t be a consensual sexual act.” That explains why the daughter isn’t charged in this case. “The idea is the perpetrator is the parent and the victim is the child. We don’t normally prosecute a person falling within the protected class, and you remain a member of the protected class even above age of consent.”

The prosecution of “consensual” adult incest is relatively rare because most cases often don’t come to the surface. “Unless somebody becomes aware of it, it occurs and people never report it,” he said. When it is reported, it’s usually because the other parent finds out about it, he said. And, if it involves someone in any way connected to fame or prestige — an Ivy League school, say — you can guarantee the media will find out about it.

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Poisonous gas attack by ISIS leads to fears terrorists are mass producing CHEMICAL WEAPONS

ISLAMIC State (ISIS) terrorists are believed to have launched a chemical weapons attack involving MUSTARD GAS in northern Iraq.

The sick assault from the crazed jihadist group was unleashed on Kurdish forces using poisonous gas inside dozens of mortar shells, according to German troops stationed in the area.

Around 60 Kurds were injured, returning with breathing difficulties and burns.

United States officials are investigating the claims and talking to affected troops but suspect it was mustard gas, possibly left over from former dictator Saddam Hussein's weapons stash.

Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said the it was taking the allegations "very seriously" while a senior US government source said: "We have credible information that the agent used in the attack was mustard."

US Ambassador at the United Nations, Samantha Power said, if true, it would further prove that ISIS carries out "systematic attacks on civilians who don't accord to their particularly perverse world view".

It has led to fears ISIS is mass-producing chemical weapons to be used against both troops and civilians.

The attack took place against the Peshmerga Kurdish force on Wednesday near the town of Makhmur in the Kurdistan region.

German military trainers have been backing the Kurdish troops and are understood to have 90 personnel in the area. They reported the incident to the defence ministry in Berlin.

French weapons inspectors have also arrived in the area to take samples.

The Peshmerga General Command said in a statement yesterday: "The terrorists launched 45 120mm mortar shells tipped with chemical heads on Peshmerga positions which led to the injury of a number of Peshmerga forces with burns on different parts of their bodies."

It follows ISIS being accused of a chemical weapons attack in similar reports last month.

Jihadists were said to have used 'chlorine-filled rockets' in a sick onslaught against civilians and rebel fighters in Kurdish-controlled areas of Iraq and Syria.

There were also reports of ISIS having "industrial" gas masks for the use of their fighters, leading to fears of further chemical attacks.

However, fears have grown over the latest attack as mustard gas is said to be up to 3,000 times more powerful than chlorine.

Mustard gas was initially used by Germany during the First World War where it incapacitated troops and was reported to have left many victims disfigured.

Deaths were often painful and could take three to four weeks.

The United Nations banned its use, along with a number of other chemical weapons, in 1993.

But Syrian President Bashar Assad's government was said to have used chemical weapons in an attack on a suburb of the Syrian capital of Damascus in 2014 that killed hundreds of civilians.

There have been numerous reports of chemical weapons use in Syria since then - especially chlorine-filled barrel bombs.

Kurdish forces, which are supporting US-led air strikes with a ground offensive against ISIS, are said to be woefully armed against the well-funded extremist group.

This week's alleged attack came a day before ISIS claimed responsibility for the truck bombing at a Baghdad market which killed 67 in one of the most deadly attacks since the Iraq War.

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