from the world's big
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.
RICHARD PRUM: One of the most aesthetically extreme birds is the Great Argus, a kind of pheasant found in Southeast Asia. After Darwin wrote The Origin of Species he was challenged by the Duke of Argyll in an anti-evolutionary tract to examine the feathers of the Great Argus Pheasant, which included these beautiful golden spheres like a three-dimensional optical illusion, arrayed on the wing feathers. Indeed, Darwin spent a long time trying to hypothesize how these beautiful spheres could evolve from intermediate states through the process of mate choice.
In the coming century the first person to ever see, the first scientist ever to see the display of the Argus Pheasant was William Beebe. He traveled to Borneo, where he spent months studying the bird in the wild and only getting occasional glimpses. First, he found a male territory, where the six-foot-long male pheasant displays in an area about the size of a quarter of a basketball court. He clears the soil and waits for a female.
Well, when Beebe built his first blind or hide right next to the display site, the male abandoned it. Later he tried building a tree house over another one, and the male abandoned it as well. In his third attempt, he had his assistants dig a foxhole in the ground right by the display site, and every morning he got into the hole and was covered up with brush, and he spent all day hiding inside of a foxhole in the forest in Borneo. After a week, finally, a female visited this male and he was able to see the amazing display of the Argus Pheasant.
In this case, what happens is the male opens his wings and arrays his wing feathers like a blown-out umbrella, creating a hemisphere that is suspended over the female. In this case, the golden balls on his wing feathers are suspended in the air, shaking, right over the female's head. It's an amazing and striking display. How could this have evolved? Well, Beebe, when he looked at them, noticed that the hen, the Argus Pheasant female, was basically stoic or unresponsive, and he wrote that "it's clear to me that any aesthetic impact of that display is wasted on that little hen." In other words, he couldn't imagine that she was having the kind of aesthetic experience that he was. Of course, he had been spending months in search of this bird, and a week sitting in a hole in the ground; he's having a religious experience! He imagined that the bird should be dramatically moved. But I think he got it fundamentally wrong.
In fact, behind every evolved ornament in nature, like the Argus Pheasant display, there's an equally elaborate and coevolved cognitive concept about what is beautiful. The better way to imagine the female's behavior is like a connoisseur or art collector at an art exhibition. How do they regard this new art? Well: critically, with some discernment. And this is exactly the attitude of the Great Argus female, because she, through her choices, is really responsible for the elaborate evolution of those ornaments. Now, is the display of the Great Argus an honest signal of male quality, or merely beauty happening? It's an interesting question that still isn't resolved. But I believe that there are so many dimensions to this ornament that it is unlikely that it could communicate quality. In this case, all of the different golden spheres, their array over the female, the many other elaborate details of display, each one of them could only evolve as an honest indicator of equality if they were independently associated with additional information about mate quality. Each cost would only evolve if it provided information. So I think it's extremely unlikely that aesthetically extreme displays like the Argus Pheasant evolved because of honest advertisement or adaptive Wallacian mate choice. I think they're another fantastic example of beauty happening.
- 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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Gender and sexual minority populations are experiencing rising anxiety and depression rates during the pandemic.
- Anxiety and depression rates are spiking in the LGBTQ+ community, and especially in individuals who hadn't struggled with those issues in the past.
- Overall, depression increased by an average PHQ-9 score of 1.21 and anxiety increased by an average GAD-7 score of 3.11.
- The researchers recommended that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.
Study findings<p>For the study, <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-020-05970-4" target="_blank">published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine</a><em>, </em>Flentje and her team evaluated survey responses from nearly 2,300 individuals who identified as being in the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) community. Most of the participants were white, while nearly 19 percent identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Multiple genders were represented with cisgender women (27.2 percent) and men (24.6 percent) making up a majority of the participants. Sixty-three percent had been assigned female at birth. For the most part, participants identified their sexual orientations as queer (40.3 percent), gay (36.5 percent), and bisexual (30.3 percent).</p><p>The JGIM study participants were recruited from the 18,000-participant <a href="https://pridestudy.org/" target="_blank">PRIDE Study</a> (Population Research in Identity and Disparities for Equality), which is the first large-scale, long-term national study focusing on American adults who identify as LGBTQ+. It conducts annual questionnaires to understand factors related to health and disease in this population. </p><p>Participants filled out an annual questionnaire (starting in June 2019) and a COVID-19 impact survey this past spring. Flentje noted that on an individual level, some people may not have experienced a big change in anxiety or depression levels, but for others there was. Overall, depression increased by a <a href="https://patient.info/doctor/patient-health-questionnaire-phq-9" target="_blank">PHQ-9 score</a> of 1.21, putting it at 8.31 on average. Anxiety went up by a <a href="https://www.mdcalc.com/gad-7-general-anxiety-disorder-7" target="_blank">GAD-7</a> score of 3.11 to an average of 8.89. Interestingly, the average PHQ-9 scores for those who screened positive for depression at the first 2019 survey decreased by 1.08. Those who screened negative for depression saw their PHQ-9 scores increase by 2.17 on average. As for anxiety, researchers detected no GAD-7 change among the study participants who screened positive for anxiety in the first survey, but did see an overall increase of 3.93 among those who had initially been evaluated as negative for the disorder. </p>
Risks among gender and sexual minorities<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="fc3fd1ae68b77bbbf58a6995638d6d65"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/EnUqDjCqg0A?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>The LGBTQ+ community is a vulnerable population to mental health concerns because of their fear of stigmatization and previous discriminatory experiences.</p> <p>Previous research by the Human Rights Campaign has found "that LGBTQ Americans are more likely than the <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/general+population/" target="_blank">general population</a> to live in poverty and lack access to adequate medical care, paid <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/medical+leave/" target="_blank">medical leave</a>, and basic necessities during the pandemic," said researcher Tari Hanneman, director of the health and aging program at the campaign.</p> <p>"Therefore, it is not surprising to see this increase in anxiety and depression among this population," Hanneman said in the release. "This study highlights the need for <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/health+care+professionals/" target="_blank">health care professionals</a> to support, affirm and provide <a href="https://medicalxpress.com/tags/critical+care/" target="_blank">critical care</a> for the LGBTQ community to manage and maintain their mental health, as well as their physical health, during this pandemic."</p>
What should health care providers do?<p>The authors of the study recommend that health care providers check in with LGBTQ+ patients about stress and screen for mood and anxiety disorders in members of that community—even among those with no prior history of anxiety or depression.</p><p>As cases of COVID-19 continue to mount, the sustained social distancing, potential isolation, economic precariousness, and personal illness, grief, and loss are bound to have increased and varied impacts on mental health. Effective treatments may include individual therapy and medications as well as more large-scale coronavirus support programs like peer-led groups and mindfulness practices. </p><p>"It will be important to find out what happens over time and to identify who is most at risk, so we can be sure to roll out public health interventions to support the mental health of our communities in the best and most effective ways," said Flentje.</p>
What we know about black holes is both fascinating and scary.
- When it comes to black holes, science simultaneously knows so much and so little, which is why they are so fascinating. Focusing on what we do know, this group of astronomers, educators, and physicists share some of the most incredible facts about the powerful and mysterious objects.
- A black hole is so massive that light (and anything else it swallows) can't escape, says Bill Nye. You can't see a black hole, theoretical physicists Michio Kaku and Christophe Galfard explain, because it is too dark. What you can see, however, is the distortion of light around it caused by its extreme gravity.
- Explaining one unsettling concept from astrophysics called spaghettification, astronomer Michelle Thaller says that "If you got close to a black hole there would be tides over your body that small that would rip you apart into basically a strand of spaghetti that would fall down the black hole."
The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.
- In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
- The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
- The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
A new study looks at what would happen to human language on a long journey to other star systems.
- A new study proposes that language could change dramatically on long space voyages.
- Spacefaring people might lose the ability to understand the people of Earth.
- This scenario is of particular concern for potential "generation ships".