Let’s take pleasure in pleasure. In case you’re feeling a bit hesitant about this, take a look at evolutionary theories to give you some extra ammo.
We’ve all learned the appeal and surprising evolutionary success of the peacock with it’s heavy but beautiful wings in middle school science class. According to evolutionary theory, the strongest survive which explains why certain traits have lasted the test of time. And this theory is also used to explain why the seemingly unfit species, like the peacock that can’t fly, still survives. The theory is that the female assumes the peacock must be super strong in order to carry around his massive, gorgeous wings, and, thus, a superior mate.
Well, the recent book by Richard Prum, The Evolution of Beauty, challenges the notion that beautiful features in us, animals, MUST surely be some health indicator. Instead he says that certain species thrived in spite of being less fit because they inspired pleasure in others. In an interview for the “Verge,” Prum refers to the Club-Winged Manakin that “actually evolved to become cooler but less fit.” In order to attract its mate, the bird’s wings adapted to become more beautiful for the purposes of dance but actually less efficient in terms of flying — it’s main role! In other words, the pleasurable beauty of the winged manakin attracted mates even if it meant the risk of less healthy offspring. Prum asks if sexual pleasure in certain species is only to ensure reproduction, why do animals endure elaborate dance or singing rituals to attract the other. Couldn’t one round of two-stepping or a few chords have done the trick? Nope. His explanation is that many species, including us, human beings, desire pleasure. And we desire this not just to ensure survival of the next generation but because it has value in and of itself.
So how come it took so long for someone recognize this? Plum’s explanation:
“I think evolutionary biology has a ‘pleasure problem’ going all the way back to the Victorians who were very unsettled to the idea that animals, including people, might be motivated by pleasure. It might be anxiety about the power of passion, and so we’ve been going on a long time ignoring subjective experience.”
Let’s face it, so many of us in our culture are downright uncomfortable with notions of pleasure. So we either explain it way as something that leads productive or reproductive ends, or we ignore it all together. I confess, I’m sometimes guilty of the former. I rationalize pampering my skin or wearing fashionable clothes as way for me look more professional or give me the confidence I need to take on a big career challenge. Why can’t I just enjoy the pleasure of beauty without tying it tie to something purposeful. I loved how Prum answered a recent question posed by Dr. Prakashin in the New York Times article by James Gorman, “Challenging Mainstream’s Though on Beauty’s Big Hand in Evolution:” “Why are birds beautiful?” “Birds are beautiful because they’re beautiful to themselves.” Full stop.
For those of us who eschew pleasure all together, we may be pushing against our nature. I’m not saying “natural” behaviors are good. Some are downright horrible, like murder or child pornography. And I’m not saying all pleasurable activities/things should be embraced, example opiates. But if we are built to seek pleasure — within reason — shouldn’t we be more comfortable with it? Even better, shouldn’t we embrace it? There are so many wonderful pursuits of pleasure. Enjoying art, wonderful food, beautiful scenery, gorgeous music, and the list goes on. If it makes us happier, isn’t that a good thing? Maybe if we just let ourselves appreciate pleasure more we wouldn’t be sublimating our natural desires, and potentially channeling them into not so great behaviors. As we all know, curbing natural desires has a way of leading us to harmful pursuits.
If we have the capacity to create pleasure for ourselves and others, I think we should see it not only as our privilege, but also as our responsibility to foster it, welcome it, and share it. Let’s seek out pleasure!