How extreme beauty might defy survival of the fittest

Is beauty always a proxy for genetic health and fitness? Charles Darwin didn't think so.

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  • The Great Argus Pheasant is a six-foot-long bird with elaborate ornamentation on its wings, including golden orbs that create a 3D optical illusion. It fans its feathers in a full hemisphere above the female hen as part of its mating display. Is all that beauty just a signal of fit and healthy genes?
  • Perhaps not, says Yale ornithologist Richard Prum. The 'beauty happens' hypothesis, or aesthetic evolution by mate choice, was an idea first proposed by Charles Darwin—but it is still not accepted as part of standard evolutionary theory.
  • Prum reasons that the kind of extreme, impractical beauty seen in animals like the Great Argus Pheasant is a result of aesthetic mate choice rather than survival of the fittest. Perhaps some species evolved such beauty because it pleases the animals themselves.
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Does being beautiful mean dying sooner? In nature, it can.

The beautiful courtship rituals of the Club-winged Manakin leave both the male and the female worse off physically, says evolutionary ornithologist Richard O. Prum.

Surprising Science

The courtship rituals of the Club-winged Manakin leave both the male and the female worse off physically, says evolutionary ornithologist Richard O. Prum. And yet, it's one of the most beautiful mating habits around. Sometimes, evolution by mate choice can work in an opposing direction to natural selection, guided more by beauty than what is practical.

On the origin of beauty: Darwin's controversial idea about sex

What role does beauty play in evolution? How does Darwin's idea of natural selection apply to how we choose mates? Richard O. Prum, professor of Ornithology at Yale University, explains.

Surprising Science

What role does beauty play in evolution? How does Darwin's idea of natural selection apply to how we choose mates? Richard O. Prum, professor of Ornithology at Yale University, explains that to truly understand the answers, we need to divorce evolutionary biology from eugenic ideas, which were there from the science's early days, and get back to the original theories by Darwin.