Why it matters who females choose to have sex with

Charles Darwin made Victorians splutter into their tea when he wrote The Descent of Man, subtitled “selection in relation to sex.” In it, he not only claimed that animals and birds select their mates according to what he called “the taste for the beautiful.” He also suggested that independent female sexual choice (and pleasure)—an idea that was anathema to Victorian society—was an important driver for evolution.

Richard O. Prum brings Darwin’s ideas into the 21st century in The Evolution of Beauty: How Darwin’s Forgotten Theory of Mate Choice Shapes the Animal World – and Us. Traveling the world, Prum, an ornithologist, encounters birds with dizzying plumage and song: from club-winged manakins making “elfin guitar” sounds with their wings to Great Argus pheasants wooing prospective mates with a cone of feathers covered in golden 3D spheres.

Speaking from his office at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, Prum explains why animal adaptations cannot be explained by the fight for survival alone, how female ducks have evolved strategies against rape, and why macho males don’t always get the mate.