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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.
Richard Prum: A fundamental question in evolutionary biology is the evolution of ornament, especially sexual ornament.
And one way to look at that—how that evolves—is to ask, “Why are certain traits preferred?” The peacock’s tail, or the song of a wood thrush?
In The Origin of Species Charles Darwin proposed that organisms evolved by natural selection to become more and more adapted to their environment.
In proposing this mechanism Darwin articulated the concept of “fitness,” which was an aspect of the individual that allowed it to further its own survival or fecundity. It was like physical fitness: it was something the individual could do in order to further its survival.
However, later during the early 20th century with the development of modern population genetics, the idea of fitness, the concept of fitness was redefined in an abstract, mathematical way to mean “one’s relative contribution of one’s genes to subsequent populations.”
In this case fitness incorporated both survival and fecundity AND a differential reproductive success—or natural selection AND sexual selection.
This is okay, except that the new, revised concept of fitness kept its romantic association with the idea of adaptation by natural selection, even though it was being applied to both survival and mate choice, which Darwin saw as essentially an aesthetic process.
So what that means is in the early 20th century evolutionary biology and selection became synonymous with natural selection.
This had a number of problems, which, for example, it built right into the machinery of evolutionary biology the idea that mate choice is ALWAYS adaptive, or is (or should be) about adaptation.
100 percent of evolutionary biologists from about 1890 to 1938 were either ardent eugenicists or happy fellow travelers—Full stop.
And that unfortunate past is really part of our history as a discipline. And I think evolutionary biology has a special responsibility to scrutinize the intellectual developments during that period in the way in which those concepts influence the way we think about evolution today.
Animals have an opportunity for sensory perception, cognitive evaluation, and choice, and based on their choices certain kinds of ornament will evolve.
According to the beauty happens theory, beauty evolves merely because it’s preferred. And what that means is that in a population mate choice will create some norm, some standard that is preferred within the population. But also that standard is unstable over time; it can change.
Now, this theory “Beauty Happens” goes back to Charles Darwin, who proposed after The Origin of Species an alternative or new theory for the evolution of ornament through mate choice or sexual selection.
When Darwin proposed that mate choice was a force in evolution—back in the Victorian era—the idea was a big loser among his colleagues. They were very skeptical that animals could be even capable of choice, let alone the kind of aesthetic judgments that Darwin proposed.
Under the Wallacian view, all beauty is merely another kind of practical utility. That beauty, like the peacock’s tail, is preferred because it indicates something about that individual: either that he has good genes, or a good diet, or no sexually transmitted diseases—all sorts of things that mates need to know. The challenge, of course, is to try to figure out what’s actually happening in nature.
Modern evolutionary biologists are quite comfortable with the idea that animals are making choices, yet they are still by and large confident that the kinds of choices that animals make will ALWAYS be controlled by or determined by natural selection, that is, that mate choice will ultimately lead to the evolution of adaptive—or “honest”—ornaments.
This flattening or oversimplification of the Darwinian worldview directly contributed to the eugenic history of evolutionary biology. That is, during the late 19th and early 20th century, 100 percent of evolutionary biologists believed that human diversity had evolved as a result of adaptation to diversity of environments—and this meant that human populations, ethnic groups and races were actually adapted to different environments in a “hierarchy of quality”.
This of course was—this eugenic theory actually failed to be supported and has been scientifically rejected, and yet aspects of the “logic” of eugenics were built into the early or fundamental concepts of modern evolutionary biology through the concept of fitness.
So, how do we proceed forward? I think the best way is to define natural selection and sexual selection as distinct mechanisms, sometimes interacting.
This is a return to the Darwinian structure of evolutionary biology, and I think it’s one that actually will inoculate evolutionary biology from its eugenic roots by essentially uncoupling mate choice from the definition of adaptation.
I think of this like a spinning top, mate choice creates the forces that allows the top to spin and stand on its own in one place, but over time with small disruptions the top can skitter from one place or one direction or another.
So what that means is as species form they tend to evolve new and different varieties of beauty, each more complex than the last. Like a spinning top, if you spin it 10,000 times each time it will arrive at a different place. And that’s one way in which I think the beauty happens theory looks a lot like nature itself, where different species all have different ideas about what’s beautiful.
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.
Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.
Vaccines find more success in development than any other kind of drug, but have been relatively neglected in recent decades.
Vaccines are more likely to get through clinical trials than any other type of drug — but have been given relatively little pharmaceutical industry support during the last two decades, according to a new study by MIT scholars.
An article in Journal of Bioethical Inquiry raises questions about the goal of these advocacy groups.
- Two-thirds of American consumer advocacy groups are funded by pharmaceutical companies.
- The authors of an article in Journal of Bioethical Inquiry say this compromises their advocacy.
- Groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness act more like lobbyists than patient advocates.
The Corruption That Brought Prozac to Market — Robert Whitaker, Journalist<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bea9cff2b25efc18b663a011a679ba16"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/UyaJExxFPAE?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Consumer-oriented groups gained steam over the ensuing decades. Their efforts helped inspire the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act after over 100 people (mostly children) died from a sanctioned drug, Sulfanilamide. If not for the hard work of these advocates, this case might have been overlooked.</p><p>Early efforts also focused on the food industry, which was increasingly using chemical preservatives. The origin of Consumer Reports can be found in the consumer advocacy movement. Both the food and drug industries were getting a free pass to experiment on citizens with few repercussions.</p><p>These movements provided a social foundation for important advocacy work in the second half of the century. Female-led groups evolved to focus on women's reproductive rights, AIDS, and mental health. As the authors write, these groups struck a balance between working <em>with</em> and <em>against</em> current trends. Sometimes you need to craft legislation with officials; at other times, you have to rage against the machine with everything you've got. </p><p>Advocacy marked an important turning point in public health (and culture in general). These groups were tired of placating to a medical model that treated the male body as the standard. This wasn't limited to anatomy. As I <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/pandemic-warnings-rp-eddy" target="_self">wrote about last week</a>, a high-profile 1970s-era conference about the role of women on Wall St featured no women on stage. You can imagine what reproductive health looked like during that time. </p><p>Advocacy groups made real impact in public health. Then the money began pouring in. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"These groups were funded largely by individual donations with some foundation support, but in the late 1980s, newer women's health groups moved to professionalize, effectively splitting the women's health movement."</p><p>A number of groups resist corporate ties to this day, such as the National Women's Heath Network and Breast Cancer Action. Too often, however, groups argue that their existence depends on corporate funding. This can lead to uncomfortable compromises. </p><p>An estimated two-thirds of patient advocacy groups in America accept funds from the pharmaceutical industry. Pharma companies gave <a href="https://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s11673-019-09956-8.pdf" target="_blank">at least $116 million</a> to such groups in 2015 alone.</p><p>For example, over a three-year period, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), which was founded by two mothers whose sons suffered from schizophrenia, received nearly $12 million from 18 pharmaceutical companies. The largest donor was Prozac manufacturer, Eli Lilly. By 2008, three-quarters of NAMI's budget was funded by the pharmaceutical industry. It gets worse:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"An Eli Lilly executive was even 'on loan' to NAMI, paid by Eli Lilly, while he worked out of the NAMI office on 'strategic planning.'"</p>
A customer waiting for his medication at the Headache Bar in a pharmacy in Sydney, Australia. Among the items on sale are 'Paigees with Chlorophyll' and Alka Seltzer on tap.
Photo by Dennis Rowe/BIPs/Getty Images<p>This influx of cash skews public understanding of drugs. It also influences advocates to overlook real problems caused by pharmaceutical interventions, especially when it comes to mental health.<br></p><p>For a real-world example, consider how Xanax came to market. As journalist Robert Whitaker <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2e829xdb4AA" target="_blank">explains</a>, an <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1463502/?page=1" target="_blank">initial study</a> was conducted to determine efficacy in treating panic attacks. After four weeks, Xanax was outperforming placebo, which is common with benzodiazepines over short-term usage. But it wasn't a four-week study; it was a 14-week study.</p><p>At the end of eight weeks, there was no difference in efficacy between Xanax and placebo.</p><p>At the conclusion of the study after 14 weeks, the placebo outperformed Xanax. By a lot.</p><p>Why is Xanax still prescribed for panic attacks? Because the pharmaceutical company, Upjohn, only published the four-week data. The 14-week data was not in its favor. Nearly forty years later, over <a href="https://www.statista.com/statistics/781816/alprazolam-sodium-prescriptions-number-in-the-us/" target="_blank">25 million</a> Americans receive a prescription despite its <a href="https://drugabuse.com/xanax/effects-use/" target="_blank">long list</a> of side effects and addictive profile. </p><p>As the authors note, many consumers are not aware of how advocacy groups are funded.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"An international study of groups in the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, and South Africa found that the extent of relationships with industry was inadequately disclosed in websites that addressed ten health conditions: cancer, heart disease, diabetes, asthma, cystic fibrosis, epilepsy, depression, Parkinson's disease, osteoporosis, and rheumatoid arthritis."</p><p>That's a tangled web of relationships. Pharmaceutical industry funding negatively impacts the work advocacy groups should be focused on: protecting us. NAMI, for example, claims that as a "natural ally" to the pharmaceutical industry, it helps consumers access "all scientifically proven treatments." When the industry ignores evidence of long-term damage caused by its treatments, you have to wonder what's being advocated. </p><p>Although, as the authors conclude, that question is easy to answer. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Instead of drawing insights from patient experience to set organizational agendas and challenge industry agendas, today's groups are silent on high prices and drug harms, oppose efforts to regulate these basic rights, and demand access to drugs that challenge the safety and effectiveness."</p><p><span></span>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a>, <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank">Facebook</a> and <a href="https://derekberes.substack.com/" target="_blank">Substack</a>. His next book is</em> "<em>Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."</em></p>
Health officials in China reported that a man was infected with bubonic plague, the infectious disease that caused the Black Death.
- The case was reported in the city of Bayannur, which has issued a level-three plague prevention warning.
- Modern antibiotics can effectively treat bubonic plague, which spreads mainly by fleas.
- Chinese health officials are also monitoring a newly discovered type of swine flu that has the potential to develop into a pandemic virus.
Bacteria under microscope
needpix.com<p>Today, bubonic plague can be treated effectively with antibiotics.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Unlike in the 14th century, we now have an understanding of how this disease is transmitted," Dr. Shanthi Kappagoda, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, told <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">Healthline</a>. "We know how to prevent it — avoid handling sick or dead animals in areas where there is transmission. We are also able to treat patients who are infected with effective antibiotics, and can give antibiotics to people who may have been exposed to the bacteria [and] prevent them [from] getting sick."</p>
This plague patient is displaying a swollen, ruptured inguinal lymph node, or buboe.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p>Still, hundreds of people develop bubonic plague every year. In the U.S., a handful of cases occur annually, particularly in New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado, <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/plague/faq/index.html" target="_blank">where habitats allow the bacteria to spread more easily among wild rodent populations</a>. But these cases are very rare, mainly because you need to be in close contact with rodents in order to get infected. And though plague can spread from human to human, this <a href="https://www.healthline.com/health-news/seriously-dont-worry-about-the-plague#Heres-how-the-plague-spreads" target="_blank">only occurs with pneumonic plague</a>, and transmission is also rare.</p>
A new swine flu in China<p>Last week, researchers in China also reported another public health concern: a new virus that has "all the essential hallmarks" of a pandemic virus.<br></p><p>In a paper published in the <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/early/2020/06/23/1921186117" target="_blank">Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences</a>, researchers say the virus was discovered in pigs in China, and it descended from the H1N1 virus, commonly called "swine flu." That virus was able to transmit from human to human, and it killed an estimated 151,700 to 575,400 people worldwide from 2009 to 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.</p>There's no evidence showing that the new virus can spread from person to person. But the researchers did find that 10 percent of swine workers had been infected by the virus, called G4 reassortant EA H1N1. This level of infectivity raises concerns, because it "greatly enhances the opportunity for virus adaptation in humans and raises concerns for the possible generation of pandemic viruses," the researchers wrote.
Want help raising your kids? Spend more time at church, says new study.
- Religious people tend to have more children than secular people, but why remains unknown.
- A new study suggests that the social circles provided by regular church going make raising kids easier.
- Conversely, having a large secular social group made women less likely to have children.