“Sexual Selection and Aesthetic Evolution” – IAS-Research Talk by Richard Prum

Richard Prum will give a talk entitled “Sexual Selection and Aesthetic Evolution“.

On Friday, the 22th of June 2012

Venue: B14 – Carlos Santamaria

Time: 11:00 – …

What follows are the abstracts of three of his recent papers, a combination of which Prof. Prum will present:


The Fisher-inspired, arbitrary intersexual selection models of Lande (1981) and Kirkpatrick (1982), including both stable and unstable equilibrium conditions, provide the appropriate null model for the evolution of traits and preferences by intersexual selection. Like the Hardy–Weinberg equilibrium, the Lande–Kirkpatrick (LK) mechanism arises as an intrinsic consequence of genetic variation in trait and preference in the absence of other evolutionary forces. The LK mechanism is equivalent to other intersexual selection mechanisms in the absence of additional selection on preference and with additional trait-viability and preference-viability correlations equal to zero. The LK null model predicts the evolution of arbitrary display traits that are neither honest nor dishonest, indicate nothing other than mating availability, and lack any meaning or design other than their potential to correspond to mating preferences. The current standard for demonstrating an arbitrary trait is impossible to meet because it requires proof of the null hypothesis. The LK null model makes distinct predictions about the evolvability of traits and preferences. Examples of recent intersexual selection research document the confirmationist pitfalls of lacking a null model. Incorporation of the LK null into intersexual selection will contribute to serious examination of the extent to which natural selection on preferences shapes signals.

2. Aesthetic Evolution by Mate Choice: Darwin’s Really Dangerous Idea

Darwin proposed an explicitly aesthetic theory of sexual selection in which he described mate preferences as a “taste for the beautiful,” an “aesthetic capacity,” etc. These statements were not merely colorful Victorian mannerisms, but explicit expressions of Darwin’s hypothesis that mate preferences can evolve for arbitrarily attractive traits that do not provide any additional benefits to mate choice. In his critique of Darwin, A. R. Wallace proposed an entirely modern mechanism of mate preference evolution through the correlation of display traits with male vigor or viability, but he called this mechanism natural selection. Wallace’s honest advertisement proposal was stridently anti-Darwinian and anti-aesthetic. Most modern sexual selection research relies on essentially Neo-Wallacean theory renamed as sexual selection. Here, aesthetic evolution is defined as coevolution between a signal and its evaluation. A contemporary, aesthetic, and genuinely Darwinian theory of sexual selection requires full incorporation of the Lande-Kirkpatrick null model– which assumes genetic variation in trait and preference without natural selection on preferences– but likewise 1 includes the possibility of good genes, and direct benefits mechanisms.

3. Coevolutionary Aesthetics in Human and Biotic Artworlds

In this essay, I present the core proposal of a coevolutionary theory of aesthetics. I propose that art consists of a form of communication that coevolves with its own evaluation. Anthropocentric perspectives have prevented the recognition of the ontological complexity of natural beauty. Many biotic advertisements, such as bird song and flowers, evolve through the independent aesthetic agency of non-human animals. Coevolutionary theory from evolutionary biology, particularly sexual selection by mate choice, provides insights into aesthetic change in the human arts. Art consists of a form of communication that coevolves with its own evaluation. Thus, art and art history are population phenomena. Danto referred to an aesthetic population as an Artworld. Current concepts of art cannot exclusively circumscribe the human arts from many forms of non-human biotic communication. Without assuming an arbitrarily anthropocentric perspective, any concept of the arts will need to engaged with biodiversity, and likely recognize many instances of non-human, biotic art. Coevolutionary aesthetic theory can provide a heuristic account of aesthetic change and art history in both human and biotic art, including the coevolutionary origin of aesthetic properties and aesthetic value within artworlds.