Beliefs about the evolution of human nature have been shaped primarily by Charles Darwin’s theory that evolution results from an unending competitive struggle for survival in the face of scarce resources. Darwin based his theory on Thomas Malthus’ reasoning that this struggle is the result of endless cycles of over-population; in times of plenty, more offspring are produced, so the struggle for scarce resources remains in good times as well as bad.  This core Malthusian rationale has persisted through multiple updated revisions of Darwinian thinking. However, Darwin had another theory of evolution, which has been all but ignored for a century and a half.

Darwin, who famously suffered from psychosomatic symptoms, wrote to a colleague (1860) that “The sight of a feather of a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze on it, makes me sick.” Darwin finally decided there was no other explanation for the elaborate tail than that these female birds had developed a taste for its beauty. Peahens are motivated to mate peacocks with the most elaborate tails because of the pleasure engendered by the tail’s beauty without regard to fitness or survival value. Darwin considered this kind of mate selection so prevalent in human evolution that he titled his second treatise, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871). He draws on the comparative example in nature of birdsong to propose that the ancient beginnings of our elaborate vocal (as opposed to gestural) language was singing, selected for the pleasure of its beauty.

Yale’s Richard Prum is a prominent field naturalist (who studies birds) in the tradition of Charles Darwin (who studied everything), Edward Wilson (ants) and Thomas Seeley (bees). In his book published in 2017, The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us, Prum dusts off Darwin’s theory of mate selection and offers convincing evidence from a variety of bird species for the prevalence of female mate choice over forced mating by males. He hypothesizes that human females have similarly chosen males who allow them the autonomy to do so and, like Darwin, proposes that much of the outer appearance and inner dispositions of both human males and females are the evolved effects of mate choice.

Among the earliest human artifacts found in Africa and dated to about 100,000 years ago are pierced shells and beads, presumably used for jewelry, and red ochre dye that continues to be used for body decoration today. The human taste for beauty led to selection over time of mates who were increasingly motivated to wear, do, or make something beautiful. I have proposed that the effect of this attraction to beauty, linked to an evolving motivation to display it, gradually strengthened human social bonds drawing together progressively larger intercommunicating populations past a critical density at which knowhow (tools, shelter, etc.) could be preserved and improved across generations. It is not by chance that the earliest examples of sustained human culture are works of art, like the beautiful 35,000-year-old paintings in the Chauvet Pont d’Arc Cave in Ardèche, France.

Sitting at home witnessing this pandemic offers us an opportunity to assess human nature and the time to contemplate it. For sure, Malthusian competition for scarce resources is on the surface of our discourse (masks, ventilators, relief money, etc.), but I invite you to think also about Darwin’s conclusion that beauty permeates human relationships and about the idea that beauty is an evolutionary force that draws us together. When you are watching those involved in this catastrophe on TV, shift your focus from their external appearance to the motive inner grace with which they reach out to you, the expressions on their faces, the way they stand, their attitude and tone of voice. Sensitize yourself to the gracefulness in their manner that relentlessly draws all of us together to make us vulnerable to this pestilence.

Lost to COVID-19 in Snohomish County, WA

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5 Comments on “The gracefulness that makes us vulnerable to infectious disease”

  1. John, I think you are onto something with your focus on beauty. Why is beauty such an important factor in our lives? Why are we attracted to beautiful people, furniture, houses, gardens, pottery? Who knows? The other day I took my wife for a walk through rhododendron gardens in our city. Why did nature create flowers of such beauty? Did nature try out all variations of flowers, beautiful and ugly, and let us decide which ones we would allow to survive and which ones to die off? It’s a mystery to me.

    1. Much of beauty in nature results from sex. Sex might be a Law of Life. Nick Lane, in his masterful book “Life Ascending” (2009), waxes eloquent about the rise of sex in plants:
      “Rooted to the spot, plants are the most implausible of sexual organisms. Yet the overwhelming majority of them are exactly that; only dandelions, along with a handful of other species, cock a snook at sex. The rest found a way, the most spectacular being the exquisite beauty of flowering plants, which swept through the world some 80 million years ago, turning the dull green forest into the magical painted glades we know today. Although they first evolved in the late Jurassic, perhaps 160 million years ago, their global takeover was long delayed, and ultimately tied to the rise of insect pollinators like bees.”

      1. John,
        Your book was a hard read for me as I am more simple minded and certainly not educated at all in what you have spent your life considering. But this blog, which takes bites of your book, I can consume more readily, at least a bit at a time.
        As for rats and cats, my niece who trains horses proved to me how critical it is to be totally consistent with a horse. Change a mite what he understands a command to be and he will wince at least and almost as often toss you without a whinny. And that’s all I know about horses.

        As for your piece on the emergency of vanity, my immediate and unread reaction to what
        your blog was reporting, was my question to you:” How deadly has vanity become to us today given the magnetic emergence of Facebook and social media? How can we use the teamwork that you and Adam speak of when the Circus Maximus is now the world we live in and are trying ever more desperately to manage. Got me. What do you think?

        1. Steve, Thanks so very much for commenting. I really appreciate it! Don’t feel badly about finding my book difficult to read; it IS difficult, which is,of course my fault and not yours. With regard to the influence of vanity in our present circumstance, I think that this post, which was made before he became president, is the most relevant.
          Thanks again for visiting!
          John

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