Episode 33: Richard Prum | The Evolution of Beauty | Click to Listen
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After On Podcast #32: Aesthetic Radiation
In April, Richard Prum’s extraordinary book, The Evolution of Beauty was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in the category of general nonfiction. It didn't win. But it was one of just two finalists, and the Pulitzer is pretty much the highest award in American literature. His book was also listed by the New York Times as one of the ten best books of 2017.
I believe these distinctions are richly deserved - and I say this as a heavy consumer of books on Darwinian forces. I've just always been intrigued by evolutionary biology, as well as the related field of evolutionary psychology, which examines how millennia of selection pressure hardwired our psyches with certain perspectives, dispositions, and behaviors. A particular fascination of the field is the Darwinian roots of all manner of sexual behavior and attraction.
Rick’s work challenges many of evolutionary psychology's core tenets, using a very different interpretive lens that he’s developed over decades of studying some of the world’s most aesthetically florid creatures. I’ll admit that I approached his book with some caution, because of course he's an ornithologist – and for whatever reason, I've just never been all that into birds (Rick, if you’re reading this, I hope you’ll applaud my courage in finally confessing this to you).
Rick’s writing and our conversations have completely changed that, which I’m grateful for. But the biggest reward from creating this episode has been onboarding Rick's amazing perspective on evolution. He boldly and brilliantly challenges many of the orthodoxies held dear by neo-Darwinists. And fascinatingly, the original source of much of Rick’s heretical thinking is Darwin himself. Darwin of course brought us the concept of natural selection by adaptation. But as you'll hear in our conversation, he also wrote extensively about a second evolutionary force that was highly controversial with his own followers and within Victorian society.
If you're not currently all that into birds, I believe you will be by the end of this interview. And even if you aren’t, anyone interested in the deep roots of human behavior and biology will find it intriguing.