I recently finished the audiobook of “Why Buddhism is True” by Robert Wright. I also recently started reading “The Evolution of Beauty” by Richard Prum, and I think there are ideas in the latter that could inform the former. Of course, when one, as Wright does, writes a book that includes arguments about natural selection, a fuller discourse on evolution helps.
In this case, I noticed that Wright discussed natural selection to the neglect of other evolutionary forces. In his book, Wright goes through the secular subset of Buddhist teachings and describes similar ideas that have emerged in human psychology, with anecdotes from his personal journey with meditation. I enjoyed listening to the book, and the connections he makes are both sensible and provocative. I also realize that he is not writing explicitly for evolutionary biologists, and in that sense his discussion of the potential origins of the phenomena he describes, including in many cases their mismatch with modern life (e.g. why are we so nervous about the impressions we make on people we will never see again?), is more or less fine. He says that humans are the product of natural selection, whose goal is “to get genes into the next generation,” and our psychologies are the product of that process.
I don’t argue against that, and I think it’s an important point to include in a book intended for general consumption. But I really felt at the end of the book that this was not written by an evolutionary biologist when Wright expressed as a conundrum the fact that as one becomes better able to see things in a true way through meditation, one’s ability to appreciate beauty increases. He mentioned evolutionary psychology several times, each time equating it with the application of natural selection alone.
This is where Prum’s book comes in. Granted, I have only read the first 30 pages or so, but I’ve already picked up his point that historically, evolutionary biology has expected natural selection to be the reason that life is the way it is, but that isn’t always so. In particular, he focuses on birds, on their songs, plumage, and other mate-attracting behaviors, and argues that sexual selection may be a much better explanation for these things than natural selection (which requires that these be proxies for more practical characteristics, like not having parasites and having been fed well as a baby). Prum says, and I find it compelling, that birds may have developed what we would call an aesthetic sense. They choose mates who please them, who they find beautiful; the choice isn’t based on practical information subtly gleaned from the depth of color of feathers or the architectural quality of a bower.
This would have been a cool idea to throw into the mix at the end of Wright’s book – that human appreciation of beauty could be a result of sexual selection, or even something altogether different, and not of natural selection. Thus we have an explanation that resolves the apparent conundrum. Why did natural selection create organisms who can become absorbed for hours in the aesthetic appeal of a leaf? It didn’t.