Michael J. Ryan


On his book A Taste for the Beautiful: The Evolution of Attraction

Cover Interview of January 08, 2018

In a nutshell

Stunning beauty abounds in nature. We see it everywhere we look. The brilliant colors and dances of butterflies and fishes, the songs of crickets, frogs, and birds, and even the odors of moths and mammals are all part of nature’s astounding collage of beauty. We humans are so attracted to animal beauty that we domesticate it for our own enjoyment. The multi-hued fishes in aquariums and melodious canaries in cages provide live art and music in our homes, much as we hang paintings on our walls and broadcast tunes from our stereos.

But animals did not evolve beauty to please us; their aim is to please their own. Indeed, the most stunning beauty in nature is tied up in sex, as animals evolve beautiful and often elaborate traits in order to make themselves more attractive as mates, thereby increasing their reproductive success—this is the theory of sexual selection, first articulated by Darwin.

Darwin puzzled over how animals judge and perceive beauty. Why do animals perceive certain traits as beautiful and others not? Do animals possess an inherent sexual aesthetic? Where is this aesthetic rooted? What might unlocking the mysteries of sexual aesthetics tell us about the evolution of beautiful traits and our own perception and appreciation of beauty?

In this book, I argue that beauty is determined by what is happening in the brain. In short, beauty is in the brain of the beholder! Drawing on recent studies in neuroscience and evolutionary biology, I argue that sexual aesthetics are rooted in the brain—specifically the female brain—and that many of the details of what we find beautiful actually derive from other things the brain evolved to do. I describe what it is about the senses, the brain, and its cognitive architecture that leads to an appreciation for beauty among animals, including humans.