Richard Prum: The Evolution of Beauty

Evolution of Beauty the book by Richard Prum

Monday, November 05, 2018

“Beauty happens.” So writes eminent ornithologist and MacArthur Fellow Richard O. Prum in his bestselling The Evolution of Beauty (2017), a New York Times Ten Best Books of the Year. Prum argues that the spectacular physical and behavioral variety of avian beauty represents not just genetic fitness but also the evolution of form through the purely aesthetic choices of female birds. He argues that Darwin’s forgotten theory of sexual selection is just as important as his theory of natural selection.

Rarely does a book on biology have such widespread influence: Prum’s work is taught in art history courses as well as in science departments, his investigations of the relationships of form and function are relevant to the practice of architecture, and his examinations of sexual preferences among birds has implications for human gender relations and queer theory.

Prum argues that sexual autonomy and agency matters to animals, from birds to human beings. "Freedom of choice is not merely a political concept, but is an evolved feature of the social and sexual lives of other species."

Prum has "taken the concept of beauty from the humanities and applied it to the sciences by defining beauty as the result of a coeveolutionary dance between desire and display." He goes on to explore the opposite–to take the coevolutionary view of beauty and see how it might apply to the humanities, specifically to the arts, and to the evolution of, for example, symphonies and painting: "Art is a form of communication that coevolves with its own evaluation." Reducing the distance between humans and other animals, Prum argues that bird songs and animal-pollinated flowers and fruit are art shaped and selected by aesthetic choices, too.

Enamored of birds since childhood, Prum is known for his work on the mating rituals of manakins and for discovering the means to determine the color of dinosaur feathers. He has conducted field work throughout the Neotropics and in Madagascar, and has studied fossil theropods in China.

Prum is William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology at Yale University. He is Curator of Ornithology and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History and previously served as Chair of the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

Prum has also served as the Director of Franke Program in Science and the Humanities, a Yale initiative that aims to foster communication, mutual understanding, collaborative research and teaching among diverse scientific and humanistic disciplines.

Prum is the recipient of a Macarthur Fellowship (2010-2014), a Guggenheim, and numerous other awards and Fellowships.