Magazine article Psychology Today

The Croaks of Seduction

Magazine article Psychology Today

The Croaks of Seduction

Article excerpt

"TО UNDERSTAND WHAT beauty is, we need to understand the brain that perceives it," University of Texas biologist Michael Ryan writes in A Tastefor the Beautiful. "The details of an animal's brain give rise to its sexual aesthetics, which in turn drive the evolution of beauty in that species." This is the core of the theory of sensory exploitation, which Ryan has explored over 40 years of field work with the túngara frogs of Central America. He believes that they have a lot to teach us about why our own romantic strategies succeed or fail.

For you, the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is no cliché but a law of nature. I say that beauty is in the brain of the beholder. All of these animals have evolved very different sexual displays. Where do these differences come from? They come from the fact that you have different brains judging what's attractive.

How did you decide that túngara frogs were the creatures that would become your life's work? I started studying frogs as a graduate student in the mid1970s, and I thought that after my thesis I'd move on. All frogs make calls that identify them by species. We knew that the frog's auditory brain found calls of the same species more attractive, but when I started listening to these guys, I could tell a lot of the individual males apart just by hearing them. I wondered if the females could, too.

So you stuck with the frogs. I went to Panama to study red-eyed tree frogs to see whether differences in calls translated into differences in perceived attractiveness. Those frogs mostly breed up in the canopy, though, and it was hard to record them. But I had all of these noisy little túngara frogs at my feet that I kept kicking to shut them up. It became obvious that they were not only more accessible but also more interesting.

What have they taught you about attraction? That the females are in the driver's seat. They decide what's attractive. Darwin suggested that, like humans, female animals have aesthetic senses-а taste for the beautiful-and that's why males evolve all of these traits that don't enhance their survivorship at all. They do the opposite: These are traits that kill.

That's a real problem for the frogs: The calls that best attract females also attract predatory bats. When we play calls in the forest, the bats come out of the canopy, land on the speaker, and try to rip it up to get inside. Just like the female frogs, they're most attracted to a call that's a whine with multiple staccato sounds known as "chucks. …

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