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Timothy M. Boulanger 857 Lady Bug Drive Brooklyn, NY 11213
Not long ago, a physicist at Stanford posed a rhetorical question that took me by surprise.
“Why is there so much beauty?” he asked.
Beauty was not what I was thinking the world was full of when he brought it up. The physicist, Manu Prakash, was captivated by the patterns in seawater made as starfish larvae swam about. But he did put his finger on quite a puzzle: Why is there beauty? Why is there any beauty at all?
Richard O. Prum, a Yale ornithologist and evolutionary biologist, offers a partial answer in a new book, “The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World — and Us.” He writes about one kind of beauty — the oh-is-he/she-hot variety — and mostly as it concerns birds, not people. And his answer is, in short: That’s what female birds like.
This won’t help with understanding the appeal of fluid dynamics or the night sky, but Dr. Prum is attempting to revive and expand on a view that Charles Darwin held, one that sounds revolutionary even now.
The idea is that when they are choosing mates — and in birds it’s mostly the females who choose — animals make choices that can only be called aesthetic. They perceive a kind of beauty. Dr. Prum defines it as “co-evolved attraction.” They desire that beauty, often in the form of fancy feathers, and their desires change the course of evolution.
All biologists recognize that birds choose mates, but the mainstream view now is that the mate chosen is the fittest in terms of health and good genes. Any ornaments or patterns simply reflect signs of fitness. Such utility is objective. Dr. Prum’s — and Darwin’s — notion of beauty is something more subjective, with no other meaning than its aesthetic appeal.
Dr. Prum wants to push evolutionary biologists to re-examine their assumptions about utility and beauty, objectivity and subjectivity. But he also wants to reach the public with a message that is clear whether or not you dip into the technical aspects of evolution. The yearning to pick your own mate is not something that began with humans, he says. It can be found in ducks, pheasants and other creatures.
“Freedom of choice matters to animals,” he said recently on a birding trip to a beach near his office in New Haven. “We’ve been explaining away desire rather than actually trying to understand or explain it. That’s one of the biggest shifts that the book is about.”
The book ranges from hard science to speculation, and he does not expect his colleagues to agree with him on all of his ideas. In fact, he gets a twinkle in his eye when he anticipates intellectual conflict.
“I don’t know anybody who actually agrees with me,” he said with a frank smile.
“Even my own students aren’t there yet.”
To grasp his view, a little bit of history is in order. Darwin famously proposed the idea of evolution by natural selection, what is often called survival of the fittest. To put it simply, living things vary in their inherited traits, from speed to color to sense of smell. The traits of the individuals who survive longer and have the most offspring become more common. So, over time, the faster antelope have more young, the fastest of them have more offspring, and antelope end up very speedy.
But reproduction isn’t just about surviving and staying healthy long enough to mate. You have to find a mate. And in many species, your mate must choose you. This process is sexual selection. Female birds are often the ones choosing. And their choices can produce male birds that are incredibly colorful, and some that are elaborate dancers or designers of striking boudoirs — like the bower birds. If, for example, females like males with long tails, then long-tailed males have more offspring, and the longest-tailed of those offspring reproduce more. In the end, that species becomes known for its long tails.
Maydianee Andrade, an evolutionary biologist and vice dean at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, who studies sexual selection and teaches evolution, said that “the question is basically this. You can think of females when they are choosing a mate as foraging. So what are they looking for?”
“If you’re dragging a giant tail behind you, that might tell the female something,” she said. “A male that survives carrying a large heavy tail is more impressive than a male that survives with a short tail.”
But survival might not have anything to do with it. Some female finches use white feathers to line their nest, perhaps to camouflage white eggs. In one experiment, they also liked males with white feathers stuck on their heads better than other males. This seemed to be an aesthetic choice, and also proved that there is no accounting for taste.
Darwin contended that selection-based mate choice was different from natural selection because the females were often making decisions based on what looked good — on beauty, as they perceived it — and not on survival or some objective quality like speed or strength. Scientists of that era reacted negatively, partly because of the emphasis on females. “Such is the instability of vicious feminine caprice that no constancy of coloration could be produced by its selective action,” wrote St. George Jackson Mivart, an English biologist who was at first a great supporter and later a critic of natural selection.
Alfred Russel Wallace, who came up with the theory of evolution at the same time as Darwin, preferred the idea that the colors and patterns meant something — either they were signs that this was a male of the right species, or they indicated underlying fitness. Perhaps only a strong, healthy male could support such a big, beautiful tail.
At the very birth of evolutionary theory, scientists were arguing about how sexual selection worked. And they kept at it, through the discovery of genes and many other advances.
Fast forward to the 1980s, when Dr. Prum was in graduate school at the University of Michigan, sharing an office with Geoffrey Hill, now a professor at Auburn University.
At that time, mainstream evolutionary thought took a big swing toward the idea that ornaments and fancy feathers were indications of underlying fitness. “Animals with the best ornamentation were the best males,” Dr. Hill said. This was called “honest signaling” of underlying genetic fitness. The idea, he said, “almost completely ran over what was the old idea of beauty.”
Dr. Hill, for one, was completely convinced. “I was pretty sure I could explain all ornaments in all animals as honest signaling.” But, he added, he has since reconsidered. There are some extreme forms of ornamentation that he thinks don’t signal anything, but rather are a result of the kind of process Dr. Prum favors.
“You can’t explain a peacock’s tail with honest signaling,” Dr. Hill said.
But, he said, he thought Dr. Prum had taken an important idea and gotten “a little bit carried away with it.” The book, he said, “was a great read, and I could tell he put his heart and soul into it.” But, he said, he found it “scientifically disappointing.”
Darwin himself, Dr. Hill said, “was completely unsatisfied with his work on sexual selection.” And the mainstream of evolutionary biology is not hostile to a partial role for arbitrary female choice. Dr. Hill has recently argued for combining several different processes to explain sexual selection.
Dr. Prum is indeed given to enthusiasm, and to intellectual contention. He has been on the winning side of initially unpopular ideas before.
As a graduate student, he sided with researchers who wanted to change the way animals are classified, to emphasize their evolutionary descent. The new idea was called cladistics and it is now the established idea. He has done groundbreaking research on both the physical structure and the evolution of feathers, and he was an early supporter of the notion that birds descended from dinosaurs, another new idea that is now the mainstream view.
In neither case was he a lone voice. But he is nothing if not confident, and not only in his science. Take the question of pizza.
In New Haven, pizza is something akin to a religion, and there are different sects. When I asked Dr. Prum who makes the best pizza in town, thinking he would pick one of the rival pizzerias, he didn’t hesitate.
“I do,” he said. He uses an outdoor grill with a special attachment, and he described his pursuit of the perfect pizza in some detail. When I raised an eyebrow he offered me a reference, a friend and writer who had consumed the Prum pies.
He also acknowledged that he approaches many things with single-minded intensity.
“I’m given to obsessions,” he said. Bird watching was the first and most long-lastings. Evolutionary biology may be the deepest. Cooking, opera, gardening and politics (left-wing) are others.
He has disagreed with the dominant view of sexual selection since graduate school and sees his new book, which he hopes will reach beyond scientists, as a kind of manifesto. It has too many parts to summarize. He takes a chapter, for instance, to speculate that same-sex attraction in humans evolved in our ancestors through female choices that undermine male sexual coercion. For a full account, you need to read the book.
But one particular aspect of his argument is his distress at the idea that almost all evolutionary change is assumed to be adaptive, contributing to fitness. In other words, if a fish is blue, it must be blue for a reason. The color must help it escape predators or sneak up on prey, or be otherwise useful in some way. Beauty, therefore, must be adaptive, or a sign of underlying qualities that are adaptive. Pick a behavior or an ornament or a physical trait, and it is useful until proven otherwise.
That’s backward, says Dr. Prum. Take beauty. Since animals have aesthetic preferences and make choices, beauty will inevitably appear. “Beauty happens,” as he puts it, and it should be taken as nonadaptive until proven otherwise.
In proposing this so-called “null hypothesis,” he draws on the work of Mark A. Kirkpatrick at the University of Texas, Austin, who studies population genetics, genomics and evolutionary theory and had read parts of “The Evolution of Beauty.”
“I’m very impressed that Rick is taking on this crusade,” Dr. Kirkpatrick said. He is not convinced that all aspects of sexual selection are based on arbitrary choices for perceived beauty, but, he said, if Dr. Prum can convince some other scientists to question their assumptions, “he will do a great service.”
For Dr. Prum, at least, there is a partial answer to the question posed by Dr. Prakash. Why are birds beautiful?
“Birds are beautiful because they’re beautiful to themselves.”
Danny J. Dodd 1267 Jody Road Philadelphia, PA 19108
THE Euro2016 is coming to its end. Fans are awaiting its climax with all eyes on Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo to create yet another orgasmic magic! Portugal will meet France in the finale.
J. Donald Walters, better known as Kriyananda, the founder of worldwide movement of spiritual international community once said: “Happiness is not a brilliant climax to years of grim struggle and anxiety. It is a long succession of little decisions simply to be happy in the moment.”
My question is: “When it comes to sex, will many successions of climax be damaging for the ultimate happiness?”
We address the concerns from one diabetic reader who is troubled by the parental warning of “too much sex is bad for you!” Is this a fact or fiction?
Dear Dr G,
My name is Kee. I am 26 years old and has been a diabetic since I was 15.
Since the diagnosis of my diabetes, I have been very cautious of my health.
I exercise regularly and have my diabetes under check on a regular basis.
I have a brilliant doctor who checks my diabetes.
She has also advised that I see the heart, eye, foot and diet doctors regularly.
The team of healthcare professionals has been keeping a close eye on me since my adolescent years.
I recently encounter a very strange problem.
Although I can maintain erection for sexual intercourse, I noticed the amount of semen ejaculated is diminishing in the last two years.
I went back to my endocrinologist and he told me it is associated with the diabetes and the condition may be irreversible.
I feel very sad as I worry I may not be able to father a child in the future.
Do you think my follow-up should include a urologist?
Can you tell me what is my problem? How do we confirm this?
I also cannot help in thinking this is related to my frequent “self-indulgence”.
Do you think I have simply run out of seeds?
Type I diabetes is essentially a medical condition characterised by the diminished production of insulin following the destruction of cells in the pancreas.
Compared to the type II diabetes, this condition is more acute in its onset and tends to have higher prevalence in younger age groups.
Although the exact mechanisms of both diabetes are believed to be different, the medical complications faced by sufferers are usually the same.
As type I diabetic patients tend to present as young adults, the possibilities of diabetic related problems are more likely to occur over a longer interval.
Because of lifetime risks of complications, the sufferers have been “coached” to take charge of the condition seriously from an early age.
The common destruction of organs in diabetic patients include neuropathy (destruction of nerves), retinopathy (destruction of retina), vasculopathy (destruction of vessels), cardiomyopathy (destruction of heart) and nephropathy (destruction of kidneys).
As the condition results in so many “opathies”, this warrants the involvements of a team of “ologists”.
A multi-disciplinary team comprising an endocrinologist, cardiologist, podiatrist and dietitian controls the stringent monitoring.
However, such facility is commonly lacking in many institutions, as such cautions are often not part of diabetic care among adults.
Although urologists are not part of the team of specialists participating in the care, the specialist involvement during the sexually active age is often encouraged.
The most common diabetes related problem is undoubtedly erectile dysfunction. Often times, the “heart” doctor also take on the roles as the “hard” doctor.
However, when patients encounter more complex problems such as recurrent urinary tract infections and infertility, early interventions from a urologist can ensure better outcome in patient care.
Type I diabetic patients may face the issues of retrograde ejaculation, or commonly known as dry orgasm, following the destruction of the parasympathetic nerve system that is responsible for the contraction of relevant muscles to ensure the propulsion of semen forward.
The sufferers will notice the diminishing amount and the “power” of ejaculation during climax. Some may even describe the lessening of the intensity of orgasm.
Although the intensity of climax is difficult to quantify, the diagnosis of retrograde ejaculation can easily be established with a bit of coordinated efforts, with the microscopic examination of the urine immediately after sexual climax.
Many sexual dysfunctions are often associated with guilt and sufferers tend to reflect on the “damage” caused by too much sex or masturbations.
There is no evidence to suggest too much ejaculation can result in semen “drying up”.
The bad news - there is no effective treatment available to reverse retrograde ejaculation. But the good news - the sperms swimming in the urine are often “alive and kicking” and mostly suitable for test-tube babies.
Although the diminishing climax may be a cause of misery for Kee, keeping healthy will hopefully continue to bring happiness for him in years to come.
Gary S. Robinson 3140 Jones Street Kennedale, TX 76135
Thailand’s most famous herb, Pueraria mirifica (Kwao Krua Kao) belongs to the same family as soy, and contains the same estrogen-like sterols genistein and daidzein, found in that popular bean. The herb is also known as Krao Krua, but this is somewhat confusing, as that name is also used for a different herb used by men.
Pueraria also contains stigmasterol, B-sitosterol, miroestrol and deoxymiroestrol, which possess even higher estrogenic activity. These natural agents function like estrogen in the body. Thus Pueraria can play a valuable youth-promoting role in the health of women approaching menopause, or during menopause. At this time of life, estrogen levels drop, and women experience reduced suppleness of skin, diminished sex drive and lubrication, and mood swings.
The use of Pueraria goes back many centuries, with the first evidence of its preparation described in a Burmese text from antiquity that survived the sacking of Burma by the invasion of Kublai Khan and the Mongol hordes in the late 13th century. The text, found in 1931, recommends pounding and mixing the herb into cow’s milk and consuming the mixture, to ensure long life and freedom from disease. The sensibility of this is that the various sterols previously described are better absorbed by the body when mixed with some dietary fat, as in cow’s milk.
In Thailand, Pueraria (Kwao Krua Kao) is known as an age retarding agent. Women who use Pueraria report improved breast firmness, increased suppleness of skin, more lustrous hair, increased lubrication, and elevated sex drive. These are basically the same effects a woman would derive from supplementary estrogen as used in hormone replacement therapy. Recently, a Japanese company launched “F-cup Cookies,” which contain the famous herb. Whether the cookies work as promised or not, they have created a stir in Japan’s fertile herbal products market.
Toxicity tests show that Pueraria is safe at recommended levels, and human clinical studies show that Pueraria does in fact improve physical and mood symptoms of menopause. The two most popular uses for Pueraria among Thai women are for improved breast firmness and enhanced sexual function. Accounts of improved breast firmness resulting from a daily dose of only 100 milligrams of the root are too numerous to ignore. For the claims of improved sexual function, there is some clinical evidence. For the inclusion of Pueraria in creams and lotions for direct application to breasts for improved firmness, I have found no supporting literature.
Thailand’s Ministry Of Public Health, unreservedly endorses Pueraria, and has devoted a great deal of science to this herb. With a long history of safe use and a low dose required, Pueraria mirifica seems well worth trying for women approaching menopause. The herb is found in some Asian grocery stores, online, and in some natural food stores. Still relatively unknown, Pueraria (Kwao Krua Kao) has yet to achieve widespreadwidespread recognition.
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